Kyodo News Report


Tibet group pans Taipei for curtailing Dalai Lama's visit

Monday, August 31st, 2009
By Max Hirsch

Kaohsiung County, TAIWAN -- A group linked to the Tibetan government-in-exile slammed Taiwan's government on Monday for curtailing a visit by the Dalai Lama after holding a secret meeting with China, even as the Buddhist leader toured the island's south on a humanitarian trip.

The Friends of Tibet, an India-based advocacy group with an office in Taipei, accused Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of bowing to the wishes of Beijing and paring down the Dalai Lama's itinerary during his Sunday-Friday visit to the island. "First it was the press conference that was canceled, then the public speech was downsized," the group's director Chow Meili said in a phone interview, referring to the Dalai Lama's engagements on Monday and Tuesday.

"It could not be clearer that the Ma administration is taking orders from the Chinese Communists," added Chow, whose husband, Khedroob Thondup, serves as a parliamentarian of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama, Khedroob's uncle.

Last week, opposition leaders in the south invited the Dalai Lama to console the victims of Typhoon Morakot, which lashed the island's south with heavy rains from Aug. 7-9. Floods and mudslides killed more than 600 people, with damage to property and crops estimated at roughly US$1.5 billion.

Risking the ire of China, Ma, of the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), approved the invitation, and the Dalai Lama arrived in Taiwan on Sunday night. The Ma administration sent KMT spokesman Lee Chien-jung to Beijing last week to soothe frayed nerves in a secret meeting with Chinese officials, Chow said.

Lee, she said, agreed to three conditions raised by the Chinese government in "a horse trade" conducted on behalf of Ma -- namely, that no KMT political heavyweights meet the Dalai Lama, and that the spiritual leader be barred from holding press conferences and from giving public speeches. In return, Beijing would refrain from mentioning Ma, his administration and the KMT in criticizing the visit, she added.

Indeed, Beijing has avoided mention of Ma and the KMT in its official denunciations of the visit, while an originally scheduled press conference for local and foreign media was scuttled and a large-scale speech by the Dalai Lama in the southern city of Kaohsiung was drastically scaled down to curtail public participation.

China considers the Dalai Lama a "splittist" intent on seeking independence for Tibet, which has been controlled by Beijing since the 1950s. The 74-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate insists he seeks merely "genuine autonomy" for Tibet, not full-fledged independence.

The Dalai Lama's invitation by mayors and magistrates from seven municipalities controlled by the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has put "China-friendly" Ma in a bind. Politically weakened by his administration's allegedly slow response to the storm, Ma was ill-positioned to reject the visit.

However, allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan jeopardizes Ma's hard-won rapprochement with historic rival China, the centerpiece of his young presidency. Since taking office last year, Ma has forged direct air, postal and sea links across the Taiwan Strait, and has sought closer economic cooperation with China, which claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory awaiting unification.

For China, the Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan throws into stark relief Beijing's most pressing territorial problems -- Tibet, with its Dalai Lama-led government-in-exile and uprisings against Beijing rule, and Taiwan, whose longtime de facto sovereignty pokes holes in the mainland's claims over the island.

The Dalai Lama mostly avoided hot-button political issues while speaking to the press in the southern village of Shiaolin, which was wiped out by a massive typhoon-triggered mudslide on Aug. 8. Surrounded by security personnel, monks and survivors, the Dalai Lama prayed for the hundreds who died when they were buried or swept away by the rolling mud.

Asked for comment, he praised warming cross-strait relations but called on the Taiwanese to preserve their democracy. "Taiwan should have a very close, unique link with mainland China....The link is better -- that's good," he said, adding, "But at the same time, Taiwan...[has] achieved democracy, you are enjoying democracy, and that you must preserve. No matter what political party holds power, think of that interest and [stand] united." The Dalai Lama said his visit was "nonpolitical in nature" and that he didn't wish to "create inconvenience" for the government. He did not elaborate and mostly declined to answer questions on political topics.

Speaking by phone, presidential office spokesman Tony Wang said all cancellations of public speaking events by the Dalai Lama were his choice, and the presidential office respected the decisions. The KMT declined to comment on whether it had dispatched an envoy to China to negotiate the terms of the Dalai Lama's visit.