The Dalai Lama exhorted Taiwan on Monday to safeguard its democracy, interspersing prayers for the victims of Typhoon Morakot with a challenge to Communist China.
The call from the Tibetan spiritual leader appeared to contradict assurances that his five-day visit to comfort the victims of the worst storm to hit the island in 50 years would steer clear of the political - a concern for President Ma Ying-jeou's administration, which is seeking closer ties with the mainland.
Kneeling on the ground to pray for the hundreds killed in this remote mountain village when torrential rains triggered two catastrophic mudslides earlier this month, the Dalai Lama acknowledged that Taiwan and China should maintain "their very close and unique links."
However, he said, Taiwan should never lose sight of the importance of its democratic political system, which stands in marked contrast to China's one-party dictatorship.
"You (now) enjoy democracy," he said, addressing a crowd of several hundred amid a landscape of jagged boulders and twisted, upended tree trunks. "That must be preserved. No matter what political party, think common interest and work united."
The trip has infuriated Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and resents any outside effort to influence its future. It is likely to be particularly irked by such comments from the Dalai Lama, whom it denounces as a "splittist" - alleging he seeks independence for his native Tibet.
Beijing also regularly uses that sobriquet for advocates of formal independence for Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949 - ten years before Chinese troops invaded Tibet and sent the Dalai Lama into exile in northern India.
The Buddhist spiritual leader, however, told the crowd, which included friends and relatives of those killed in Morakot, that he had a moral responsibility to visit the island - a seeming rebuke to his detractors, both in China, and here in Taiwan, where some 60 pro-China demonstrators hurled insults at him as he boarded a special train for the southern city of Kaohsiung on Sunday night.
But in Shiao Lin itself, some 50 former residents returned to greet him, many wearing T-shirts with pictures of the village before the mudslides buried the community under tons of rocks and rubble.
"We welcome him, and we're very happy that he's here," said Liu Ming-chuan, 44, as he stood amid friends and family, his back toward the ruins of his former home.
The Dalai Lama's comments were followed by a simple prayer service, in which he held his palms together as a monk next to him recited a Buddhist sutra. When the prayers were finished he rose slowly and embraced two weeping relatives of Shiao Lin victims, holding their heads in his hands as they knelt on the ground beside him.
His arrival on the island created a dilemma for President Ma, who in his 15 months in office has turned the corner on his predecessor's pro-independence policies, reducing tensions across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait to their lowest point in six decades.
Ma was backed into a corner when seven mayors and county magistrates affiliated with the opposition Democratic Progressive
Party invited the Tibetan spiritual leader to visit their area, amid mounting charges the president and his government had botched Morakot relief efforts.
While Beijing has said it "resolutely opposes" the Dalai Lama's visit, it has been careful not to blame Ma personally, putting the onus instead on the opposition mayors and magistrates - an apparent effort to keep cross-strait relations going on their current positive track, though even before the Dalai Lama's more political comments, it had also said the trip could harm ties.
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