By Ralph Jennings
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is greeted by Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (R) as he arrives at the Taoyuan International Airport August 30, 2009. (REUTERS/Nicky Loh)
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan (Reuters) - The Dalai Lama, on a controversial humanitarian visit to flood-ravaged Taiwan denounced by China, steered clear of talking about Tibet on Monday but said he was dedicated to the promotion of democracy.
China has lambasted the visit by a man it brands a separatist, but it is considered unlikely to jeopardize growing economic ties between the long-time political rivals, and even on Monday the two sides launched their first regular direct flights in decades.
The Tibetan spiritual leader arrived late on Sunday in self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by China since 1949, to comfort victims of the island's worst typhoon in 50 years which struck this month, triggering floods that killed about 570 people.
"I'm very, very strict, (the trip is of a) non-political nature," the Dalai Lama told reporters, appearing to try to reassure Beijing.
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, prays for the victims of Typhoon Morakot who died during a landslide in Hsiaolin village, Pingtung County, southern Taiwan August 31, 2009. (Reuters)
The 1989 Nobel peace prize winner, after leading prayers at a site of a giant mudslide at the village of Hsiao Lin, did not mention Tibet but told reporters he was in favor of democracy, a comment apparently aimed at Communist-ruled China.
"We are not seeking separation for Taiwan, but the fate of Taiwan depends on the more than 20 million people. You are enjoying democracy and that you must preserve," he said. "I myself am totally dedicated to the promotion of democracy."
As with its denunciation when the visit was announced last week, China focused its criticism on the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, not the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) of China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou.
"The Democratic Progressive Party has ulterior motives to instigate the Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan, who has long been engaged in separatist activities," a spokesman for China's State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.
"We resolutely oppose this and our position is firm and clear," the spokesman said. "The Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan is bound to have a negative influence on the relations between the mainland and Taiwan."
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, blesses survivors of Shiao Lin, the village hardest-hit by massive mudslides triggered by Typhoon Morakot early this month, Monday, Aug. 31, 2009, in Kaohsiung County, southern Taiwan. (AP)
By not blaming Ma or the KMT, Beijing may have indicated that it does not wish to escalate the dispute in which China's two most sensitive territorial issues, Tibet and Taiwan, coincide.
A KMT member said the party had sent an official to China to speak to the Taiwan Affairs Office, but he declined to elaborate on the reason.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Some Taiwan residents also protested against the Dalai Lama's arrival, some taking China's side on his purported political agenda.
A few pro-China protesters greeted him at the airport on Sunday, jostling with police and shouting for him to "go home," and about 20 people gathered outside his hotel wearing shirts with a picture of the monk with a cross through it.
"We don't want the Dalai Lama's politics," read one banner. "We want his food and shelter."
Beijing calls the Dalai Lama a "splittist" who seeks to separate nearly a quarter of the land mass of the People's Republic of China. The Dalai Lama denies the charge and says he seeks greater rights, including religious freedom and autonomy, for Tibetans.(Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Alex Richardson)