Martin to meet with Dalai Lama despite protests from trade partner

OTTAWA (CP) – Paul Martin will become the first Canadian prime minister to meet with the Dalai Lama despite protests from trade dynamo China.

Martin has decided to meet the Nobel prize winner next week when the Tibetan spiritual leader visits Canada. The visit is sure to annoy Beijing.

The prime minister’s office underscored the meeting will deal “spiritual” rather than political issues.

“He’ll be meeting (with the Dalai Lama) in his capacity as a spiritual leader so we’re trying to arrange something that will fit within that frame,” said Mario Lague, director of communications for the prime minister.

The Dalai Lama, who is revered as a living god by his followers, arrives in Canada on April 19 and has scheduled visits to Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto before he leaves again May 5.

China – which has grown to become Canada’s fourth largest export market – has urged Martin not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Beijing sees the spiritual leader as a dangerous “splittist” in the region.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa issued a statement last week saying no Canadian government officials should meet with the Dalai Lama “in any capacity and in any form so as not to upset or damage the bilateral relations” between the two countries.

And it warned that the Dalai Lama’s trip to Canada is part of his “activities aimed at splitting China and undermining national unity.”

Lague said Canada values its trade relationship with China – worth about $20 billion annually – but Martin still wants to meet with the spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama, who has led the campaign for Tibetan independence from China since fleeing into exile in 1959, now lives in northern India.

For the Tibetan faithful, he represents hope for the restoration of nationhood crushed by Chinese troops who invaded and annexed Tibet in 1951.

Since then, China has outlawed the Buddhist religion and imprisoned hundreds of monks.

The Dalai Lama’s Canadian supporters have collected signatures from 161 members of Parliament, including Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, calling on the prime minister to play an active role in getting China and the Dalai Lama to negotiate the future of Tibet.

Those supporters were thrilled Monday to hear of Martin’s plan and urged the prime minister to use the opportunity to press for more talks between the Dalai Lama and China on the future of Tibet.

“We’re very happy and elated,” said Tenzin Yangdon of the Canada Tibet Committee, which has helped organize the Tibetan leader’s visit.

“We would like the Canadian prime minister to act as an honest broker between the Dalai Lama and China on the issue of Tibet,” he said, adding that’s the group’s political agenda rather than something requested by the Tibetan leader.

“His holiness has clearly told us. . .this visit should not cause embarrassment to heads of state.”

The meeting would also represent a further step by Martin, who become prime minister last December, to distance himself from his predecessor, Jean Chretien.

Chretien led several trade missions to China that included hundreds of business leaders and provincial premiers as a means to improve commercial links with a booming, massive market.

Among other things, Canada is thought to be keen to sell a new batch of CANDU nuclear reactors to power-thirsty China.

But while he spoke out in China about human rights issues numerous times, Chretien did not ever agree to meet with the Tibetan leader.

The Dalai Lama has met with dozen of other world dignitaries, including U.S. President George W. Bush and former president Bill Clinton.

He has been snubbed by Moscow but met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999. This year, however, Blair has said he hasn’t time for another meeting when the Tibetan leader travels to the United Kingdom next month.

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