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 on Monday 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, 44.
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 criticizing 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.
Beijing has said it "resolutely opposes" the Taiwan visit, and a Chinese official for Taiwan affairs on Sunday night warned it "is bound to have a negative influence on the relations between the mainland and Taiwan."
A Taiwanese official said 70 Chinese athletes have decided not to attend Saturday's opening ceremony of the international Deaf Olympics in Taipei, but would still take part in the games. Emile Sheng, an executive of the games' organizing committee, declined to comment on media reports that the group was boycotting because of the Dalai Lama's visit.
Not all in Taiwan have welcomed the Tibetan spiritual leader. Earlier Monday, some 20 demonstrators confronted him outside his hotel, saying the visit was short of bringing real disaster relief to Taiwan.
"I love it," the Dalai Lama told reporters in response. "It's an indication of freedom of expression. It's wonderful."