Dalai Lama Meets Protests, Tears in Taiwan

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Chiang Ying-ying / AP

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama blesses typhoon Morakot survivor Wang Min-liang, left, on Aug. 31, 2009 in southern Taiwan

Under a vast plain of dried mud, set between southern Taiwan's lush mountains, 400 bodies still lie that were buried alive three weeks ago in typhoon Morakot, the island's most recent and deadly natural disaster. The now infamous village of Siaolin — the worst hit by Morakot — was the first stop for the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader-in-exile, on his visit to Taiwan this week. Wrapped in his saffron and maroon robes, he sat in the traditional leg-cross on a blue and gold straw mat, overlooking the tragic plain, and recited Tibetan prayers. He then stood up to speak to the dead.

"As a Buddhist, the only thing we can do is pray for them," the Dalai Lama said to a group of reporters following him to Siaolin. This week, the Tibetan spiritual leader has come to Taiwan to pray and console. Unlike his first two visits in 1997 and 2001, when he met with incumbent presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, both advocates of independence for the island, he won't be meeting or even crossing paths with President Ma Ying-jeou, who has been drawing Taiwan closer to China.

The Dalai Lama was invited by local opposition leaders in southern Taiwan to come and visit the victims. Morakot hit Taiwan on August 8th and left at least 568 dead or missing and over 7000 homeless. The island has been angry at the government's slow relief efforts and is in pain from the loss of their loved ones and homes. For Ma, whose approval ratings have hit an all time low in Morakot's aftermath, rejecting the Tibetan leader's visit — as he did last December — would have been political suicide. A recent poll shows that sixty percent of Taiwan's public though the visit of Tibet's spiritual leader was a good idea. "If Ma refused the Dalai Lama, the trouble would be bigger," says political commentator Antonio Chiang.

But even as the Dalai Lama reiterated that he had come on purely humanitarian grounds, politics was very much on the minds of the people following him around Siaolin. Nearly a hundred reporters shadowed him on the long drive to the remote village in the mountains. After his prayers, they asked him about Tibet's own relations with China. "We Tibetans are not seeking separation," he replied. The Dalai Lama has been pursuing "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet and the preservation of his people's culture and religion, but China sees him as a separatist, and is wary of his interaction on the global front, especially in Taiwan, which China also sees as part of its territory. A day after Taipei announced his visit, China denounced the decision and lashed out at the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, who invited him, for their "attempt to sabotage the hard-earned good situation in cross-strait relations." On Monday, Beijing upped the ante, saying the visit could have a negative impact on cross-strait relations.

Since he came into office last year, Ma has sought closer ties with China and has succeeded — now Taiwan and China have direct transportation, financial and cultural exchanges. The Dalai Lama praised the warming of ties between Taiwan and China. "Things are moving better, that's good," he said on Monday. "The Taiwanese should have a very close and unique link to China, but at the same time, Taiwan enjoys democracy - that you must preserve."

The Tibetan leader got a taste of the island's raucous democracy immediately after he arrived. Holding up banners and the Chinese flag, dozens of pro-unification protestors shouted lines like "Roll back home!" and tried to prevent him from boarding the high-speed railway to the south. The next morning, across from his hotel, aborigine protestors held banners saying he was just doing "lip service," unlike other religious volunteers who were helping them rebuild their homes. When reporters asked him what he thought of the protests, the Dalai Lama cheerfully responded, "Wonderful. These people enjoy freedom of expression and thought. I love that."

After answering reporters' queries in Siaolin, a man named Wang Min-liang and his female friend kneeled before him offering a khata — a long white silk scarf usually given to bless a highly respected person in Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama touched their cheeks with his hands and hugged them, and Wang, who lost fourteen family members including his parents and siblings to Siaolin's mudslides, began to cry. "I came to share their traumatic experience," the Dalai Lama said that day. "I don't want to cause any inconvenience to anybody." That anybody — President Ma — is probably glad to hear it.