China keeps boy Lama on tight leash

For centuries, Tibetan Buddhism's No 2 leader lived in the majestic Tashilunpo Monastery, praying and lecturing monks in its quiet temples' halls. But the current Panchen Lama lives 2700km away in Beijing.

    Tibetan monks mounted an unsuccessful uprising in 1959

    Nowhere is China's uneasy rule over Tibet more evident

    than in its handling of the Panchen Lama, a 15-year-old boy

    who was picked by Beijing over the objections of the exiled

    Dalai Lama, who wanted someone else.

    Gyaltsen Norbu assumed the title of Panchen Lama in 1995,

    and has received a government education. Beijing says he is

    making progress in religious studies and surfs the internet

    in his free time.

    Beijing's control of the Panchen Lama is important to its

    strategy of controlling Tibet, since he would play a role

    in choosing the next Dalai Lama, the region's dominant


    Beijing's Panchen Lama rarely visits Tibet, and when he

    does is under heavy police escort - a sign of official

    nervousness about whether he has won public acceptance in

    the independence-minded region.

    The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 during a failed

    uprising against Chinese rule, selected another boy as the

    11th Panchen Lama, who by tradition is the reincarnation of

    his predecessor.


    That boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, disappeared into

    government custody with his family and has not been heard

    from in more than a decade.

    Beijing denies he is

    being detained.

    "We do not accept the 11th Panchen Lama who was

    recognised by the Dalai Lama. We do not display his

    pictures at home or at the monastery," said Pingla, a monk

    and director of the Tashilunpo's government-appointed

    management committee.

    "[Beijing's Panchen Lama's] speeches are according to the wishes of the 10th Panchen Lama, to teach the people how to love their country, how to love their religion, how to make peace"

    Tashilunpo's government-appointed management committee

    Instead, pictures of Beijing's Panchen Lama adorn the many altars at Tashilunpo, built in 1447 and home to 800 monks - the number limited by the Chinese government.

    Activists say Beijing's distrust of Tibetan Buddhism has gutted the practice of the religion.

    Tibet's monasteries have become "like museums", said

    Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the activist group

    Students for a Free Tibet in New York.

    "They've taken the heart and soul out of these

    institutions," she said.

    Devotees at Tashilunpo light candles and bow before

    pictures of the Beijing-picked Panchen Lama - a teenage boy

    with a friendly smile and kind eyes beneath his peaked

    yellow hat.

    Subtle defiance

    Outside the monastery gates, his picture is more scarce.

    Instead, at the tidy row of shops just outside, merchants

    still display portraits of the previous Panchen Lama - the

    10th - who died in 1989.

    It is a subtle act of defiance, one that Beijing cannot


    "The 10th is good," say two merchants in unison outside

    their shop selling incense and religious art.

    China says it 'peacefully  
    liberated' Tibet in 1950

    What about the 11th, the current one?

    "The 10th is good," they say again.

    So you don't like the 11th?

    "The 10th is good."

    The merchants would not give their names, knowing well that

    anyone expressing dissent against Chinese rule could wind

    up with a long jail term.

    But signs of defiance are easily

    visible, whether it is a Chinese flag flying upside-down

    from a telephone pole as a signal of distress or an empty

    picture frame for the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned in


    Just say the words "Dalai Lama" to a group of Tibetans,

    and they smile and give a thumbs-up.

    The still-popular 10th Panchen Lama remained in Tibet

    after the Dalai Lama fled and openly challenged Chinese


    He was imprisoned from 1968 to 1977, and later kept

    under house arrest in Beijing before being allowed to

    return to Tibet, where he died unexpectedly in 1989.

    Beijing says it has proof that its Panchen Lama is the

    reincarnation of the 10th, but it cannot sway those who

    do not believe.

    Government backing

    Merchants: "The 10th [Panchen Lama] is good"

    Journalist: "What about the 11th, the current one?"

    Merchants: "The 10th is good"

    Journalist: "So you don't like the 11th?"

    Merchants: "The 10th is good"

    Conversation between two merchants and a journalist

    "The 11th Panchen Lama was selected according to historic

    rituals and religious rituals as recognised by the central

    government," T

    ashilunpo's government-appointed

    management committee director,

      Pingla, said.

    "His speeches are according to the wishes of the 10th

    Panchen Lama, to teach the people how to love their

    country, how to love their religion, how to make peace."

    China's Panchen Lama "is studying in Beijing", he said.

    "He has already come back many times and will come again

    in the future because the Tashilunpo Monastery is his


    At the monastery, smoke from countless candles has

    darkened the walls. Students place pens on the altars in the

    hope of doing well on their exams.

    Monks spend hours

    studying communist theory in addition to religious

    scripture. Those loyal to Beijing wait patiently for 11th

    Panchen Lama's next visit.

    "The 10th is good," a merchant said again as a reporter

    got up to leave. "Write it in your notebook."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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