Prime minister agrees to meet Dalai Lama

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 with "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 arrives in Canada on April 19.

China, which has 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.

It said 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, 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.

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

"We would like the Canadian prime minister to act as an honest broker between the Dalai Lama and China on the issue of Tibet," said Tenzin Yangdon of the Canada Tibet Committee, which helped organize the Tibetan leader's visit.

He added 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 to distance himself from Jean Chretien.

Chretien led several trade missions to China to improve commercial links with the booming, massive market.

While he spoke out in China about human rights issues numerous times, Chretien did not ever agree to meet with the Tibetan leader, who has met with many other world dignitaries.