The Dalai Lama yesterday completed his mission to comfort typhoon victims in southern Taiwan and checked in at a Taipei hotel, where he was confronted by about 200 pro-unification protesters who questioned the nature of his visit.
'The Chinese come to help; the Dalai Lama comes to make trouble,' the protesters shouted as they scuffled with police denying them access to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
With the Dalai Lama leaving Taiwan tomorrow, the mainland-friendly Taiwanese government watched nervously to see whether he would make any political moves in Taipei that would provoke Beijing, which brands him a separatist.
The Kuomintang government had previously turned down the Dalai Lama's requests to visit Taiwan. But the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot, which left more than 600 people dead last month, left the government in a weak position as public anger grew over its slow response.
The pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party quickly issued an invitation to the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan to comfort victims. President Ma Ying-jeou's government quickly agreed, despite knowing that this would anger Beijing.
Ma is eager to put the visit and the typhoon behind him. He and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan have agreed on a moderate cabinet reshuffle next week to revive the administration's plunging popularity.
Liu said on Tuesday that the scale of the reshuffle, which would be announced on Monday, would be 'slightly bigger than a small-scale shake-up'. This meant that apart from those who have already offered their resignations to take the blame - including Foreign Affairs Vice-Minister Andrew Hsia Li-yan, Defence Minister Chen Chao-min and cabinet secretary general Hsueh Hsiang-chuan - the change would be limited.
The Dalai Lama's visit did have one unexpected positive effect - diverting public attention from the government's poor performance throughout the disaster.
However, this small benefit could hardly offset the damage the visit might cause to the cross-strait relationship.
Wu Poh-hsiung, chairman of the Kuomintang, said the last leg of the Dalai Lama's visit was crucial. He said he hoped there would be no political action that would antagonise Beijing and that everyone exercised selfrestraint so that the Dalai Lama's trip could focus purely on religious and humanitarian areas.
To play down the political aspect of the visit, top Taiwanese officials have insisted the trip was aimed at comforting typhoon survivors and appeasing the souls of the victims.
Chow Mei-li, president of Taiwan Friends of Tibet, said the Ma government had demanded the Dalai Lama cancel a news conference on Monday and a public speech yesterday for more than 15,000 people at a stadium outside Kaohsiung. But the Presidential Office denied doing so, saying it had nothing to do with the Dalai Lama's itinerary in Taiwan.
An official of the Tibetan Religious Foundation of the Dalai Lama in Taiwan confirmed yesterday that after holding a forum with Catholic Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi on religion and humanity - his last public appearance in Kaohsiung - the Dalai Lama would have no more public activities in Taiwan.
Asked if the Dalai Lama would meet his old friend, former president Lee Teng-hui, who had invited him to visit in 1997, the official said the Dalai Lama would meet only followers of Tibetan Buddhism at the Taipei hotel where he was staying.
Two opinion polls - one by cable news channel TVBS and the other by the DPP - showed, respectively, that 52 and 67 per cent of the public thought the Dalai Lama was in Taiwan to comfort the disaster victims.
But DPP politicians criticised Ma for shunning the spiritual leader. 'Ma Ying-jeou actually benefits from the Dalai Lama's visit, which not only helps distract public attention from his poor ability to run Taiwan, but also abets the cabinet to try to narrow the scale of a reshuffle,' party spokesman Cheng Wen-tsang said.