November 8, 2009 3:45 pm

Dalai Lama defends his border visit

The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, denied any political motive in visiting a sacred town on India’s border with Tibet, as he began a five-day pilgrimage that has generated intense friction between Beijing and New Delhi.

Greeted in icy temperatures by thousands of followers at the centuries-old monastery in the Himalayan village of Tawang, the Dalai Lama rebuffed Chinese accusations that he was trying to stir up tensions between two Asian powers by travelling to the town, located in India’s isolated north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

“My visit here is non-political,” he said.

His visit comes amid rising tensions between India and China over sovereignty of Arunachal Pradesh, which India controls, but which Beijing refers to as “southern Tibet” and has been increasingly vocal in claiming as its own.

Beijing revived the seemingly dormant border dispute last year when it tried to block an Asian Development Bank country strategy for India, citing the plans for loans to develop water infrastructure in the remote state.

While India had been reluctant in recent years to allow the Dalai Lama to travel to Tawang – the second-holiest city in Tibetan Buddhism after Lhasa, analysts said its decision to allow the trip was an assertion of India’s sovereignty over the area.

Beijing initially reacted angrily to the trip, with Ma Zhaoxu, a foreign ministry spokesman, saying it exposed the “anti-China and separatist nature of the Dalai clique”.

The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist party mouthpiece, also attacked India in unusually aggressive terms, accusing it of becoming “narrow-minded and intolerant of outside criticism”.

“A previous victim of colonialism and hegemony started to dream about developing its own hegemony,” the editorial said.

However, Chinese officials have played down reports of tensions between the two countries, with some saying the mood of ill-feeling was created by Indian media.

This week, New Delhi barred foreign journalists from travelling to Arunachal Pradesh to cover the visit, which analysts have seen as a concession to Chinese sensibilities.

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