Taiwan said today that it has agreed to let the Dalai Lama visit the island to comfort survivors of a devastating typhoon, a decision that could anger mainland China.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou made the surprise announcement when he visited a school in Nantou County that was destroyed by mudslides triggered by Typhoon Morakot on Aug. 8-9. The storm claimed 670 lives.
"The Dalai Lama could come to Taiwan to help rest the souls of the dead and also pray for the well-being of the survivors," Ma said.
Leaders of seven municipalities recently hit by Morakot issued a statement Wednesday inviting the Dalai Lama to visit from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4.
The invitation from the leaders, all with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, comes as Ma faces criticism that he botched the government's response to the island's deadliest storm in 50 years.
Tenzin Takhla, the spiritual leader's spokesman in Dharmsala, India, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, said Wednesday that the Dalai Lama had accepted the invitation "in principle." The Dalai Lama has visited the island three times in the last 12 years.
Ma nixed plans in December for a visit by the Dalai Lama in what was largely seen as a move to placate Beijing. Improving relations between the mainland and Taiwan has been the signature issue of Ma's presidency.
Beijing considers the Buddhist spiritual leader a "splittist" for promoting autonomy in the Chinese region of Tibet. Allowing him to visit Taiwan could undermine the rapidly improving relations between Beijing and Taipei.
China claims self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory, though they split amid civil war in 1949.