SHIAO LIN: The Dalai Lama said Taiwan should have “very close and unique links” with China but also enjoy democracy as he arrived at a devastated village today to pray for victims of Taiwan’s worst storm in 50 years.

Beijing has voiced its opposition to the Dalai Lama’s visit, saying it could harm relations between the mainland and Taiwan, which Beijing wants back after the two split

six decades ago.

Despite that continuing

demand, Taiwan and China have dramatically improved relations after decades of enmity, with President Ma Ying-jeou making closer business ties and cultural exchanges a signature issue of his 15-month-old administration.

The Tibetan spiritual leader insisted his visit was a humanitarian one and he had no

political agenda, but in his

remarks to reporters he

encouraged Taiwan to preserve its democracy.

Kneeling on the ground above what was once the farming village of Shiao Lin, the Tibetan spiritual leader offered his prayers for the estimated 500 villagers who died in mudslides triggered by Typhoon Morakot in early August. The village is now an empty stretch of mud and scattered boulders. Overall, some 670 were killed in the storm,.

At Shiao Lin, the Dalai Lama put his palms together in prayer while a monk next to him recited a Buddhist sutra. He then embraced two weeping relatives of Shiao Lin victims, holding their heads as he knelt on the ground and prayed. Some 50 former

Shiao Lin residents returned

to welcome him, many

wearing T-shirts with pictures of the village before the

deadly mudslides.

“We welcome him and

we’re very happy that he’s here,” said Liu Ming-chuan, a 44-year-old Taiwanese.

The Dalai Lama also made brief remarks about the tragedy and about the invitation for his trip. He has said he had a moral responsibility to visit the victims.

He said he was not

disappointed by President Ma’s refusal to meet him.

“This is a humanitarian

visit,” he told reporters. “On my side, there is no political agenda.” “In any case,

Taiwan should have very close and unique links

with mainland China, but at the same time Taiwan also should enjoy democracy and prosperity,” he added.

Communist Party-ruled China has long vilified the Dalai Lama for what it

claims is his attempt to fight for independence of Tibet, which has been under communist rule for decades.

But instead of criticising

Ma for his visit, the spokesman for China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office blasted Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party for its “ulterior motives to instigate the Dalai Lama, who has long been engaged in separatist activities, to visit Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s opposition invited the Dalai Lama to comfort the typhoon victims.