Taiwan nervous about Dalai visit

TAIPEI: Taiwanese officials said Sunday they hope the Dalai Lama will stay clear of politics to avoid angering China during his visit to comfort victims of the island's worst storm in 50 years.

Although the Tibetan spiritual leader has travelled to Taiwan before, many fear his arrival late Sunday could hurt the island's improving relations with rival China - the signature issue in the 15-month-old administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

"We believe the Dalai Lama will have the wisdom to distinguish between religious empathy and political maneuvering," Wu Poh-hsiung, the chairman of Ma's Nationalist Party, told reporters Sunday.

Ma has said he approved the Dalai Lama's visit but will not meet him.

Wu said he sought Beijing's understanding of the visit, but he did not give details or say whether China responded.

China has long vilified the Dalai Lama for what it says are his attempts to fight for independence in Tibet. Beijing has said it "resolutely opposes" the Taiwan visit "in whatever form and capacity." But it blamed Taiwan's opposition, not Ma, for the invitation, in what appeared to be an effort to keep the improving relations on track. China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and China's leaders want the self-governing island back.

Taiwan's opposition invited the Dalai Lama to comfort the victims of Typhoon Morakot, which hit the island in early August and left an estimated 670 dead. During his five-day visit, he is to visit a village hit hard by the storm, lead a mass prayer ritual and address the island's Buddhist followers.

The invitation put Ma in a bind - either risk angering China or give further ammunition to his detractors, who were already revelling over widespread perceptions that Ma's government had badly botched typhoon relief efforts.

Many members of Ma's party saw the invitation as an effort by the rival Democratic Progressive Party to embarrass the president.

Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng said he hoped the Dalai Lama would not make political statements that would "change the tune of what's supposed to be a religious trip." A spokesman for the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Taklha, has denied the visit has any political subtext.

"It is a spiritual visit. The purpose is to offer prayers for the victims and to offer comfort and succor to those who have survived," Takhla told The Associated Press on Saturday.