China names Tibetan leader, clashing with region's choice Two 6-year-old boys are at center of challenge to authority of Dalai Lama

November 30, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- One of the most serious crises in China's harsh, 45-year rule over Tibet came to a head yesterday, with Communist authorities drawing on a hodgepodge of arcane mystical practices to select a key Tibetan leader -- the supposed reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

The selection means that Tibet now has two 6-year-old Panchen Lamas: Gyaincain Norbu, anointed yesterday by the central government, and Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, chosen earlier this year by Tibetan monks with the blessing of Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.

A key figure in Tibetan religious and political life, the Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama in importance. Since the Dalai Lama fled into exile after a failed independence uprising against China in 1959, the Panchen Lama has been the top leader living in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama is a figure reviled by the Communist Chinese government. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his tireless campaign against Chinese subjugation of his land and the religious repression and other human rights abuses the Chinese are accused of inflicting upon Tibetans.

Tom Grunfeld, author of a book on modern Tibetan history, said yesterday the Chinese government's choice of its own Panchen Lama "has nothing to do with religion. It's about politics and control of Tibet."

Unclear was the fate of the Dalai Lama's choice for Panchen Lama, who is reportedly being detained in Beijing after attempts to smuggle him to India failed.

"We now have a 6-year-old boy and his family under arrest," said Ronald D. Schwartz, a Tibetan specialist at Memorial University in Newfoundland. "It's a situation like Mary Queen of Scots, a ruler bound to spend life in prison."

In a statement from his headquarters in the Indian city of Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama appealed to governments to ensure the safety of the boy he chose.

"My recognition of the Panchen Lama's reincarnation cannot be changed," the Dalai Lama said. "It is unfortunate that the Chinese government has chosen to politicize this issue and appoint a rival Panchen Lama."

"Once again the religious sentiments of my people have been deeply hurt and offended."

The choices for the Panchen Lama are so young because they are believed to be reincarnations of the former Panchen Lama, who died in 1989.

The Panchen Lama is the manifestation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Light. Tibetans believe that when the lama dies, his spirit goes to a baby born that same year.

The child is immediately revered and his political and religious training is placed in the hands of monks.

Monks from the deceased lama's monastery use mystical rituals to find the true reincarnation, usually after a search of a few years. Earlier this year, they settled on the boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

What happened next, however, is unclear.

The abbot in charge of the selection committee apparently went to the central government in Beijing and asked for the chosen boy to be approved. Authorities, however, insisted on carrying out a lottery drawing in which the final few candidates have their names etched on jade sticks that are drawn from a golden urn.

Other accounts have the abbot first conferring with the Dalai Lama about the selection, which would be treason in the eyes of Beijing.

When the abbot later went to Beijing to ask for approval, authorities smelled a plot to diminish their influence in Tibet and rejected the choice.

Whatever the chain of events, the abbot feared that the boy wouldn't be chosen and asked the Dalai Lama to pre-empt the Chinese government by announcing his selection.

The Dalai Lama made the announcement on May 14. China immediately denounced the Dalai Lama, saying he was trying to cause a crisis.

The abbot was quickly detained -- the first time that a senior Tibetan religious figure has been detained since China tried to relax its iron-fisted grip over Tibet in the 1980s -- as were 48 monks. Over the summer, hard-liners from the 1960s and '70s were reinstalled in the Panchen Lama's monastery.

Yesterday, China said the abbot had conferred secretly with the Dalai Lama and had not followed proper religious procedures. Beijing also claimed that the parents of the Dalai Lama's boy were thieves and swindlers.

The choice of the Dalai Lama's boy, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, "would have constituted a blasphemy against the founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni."

In contrast, Beijing's rulers portrayed themselves as the true guardians of Tibetan religious traditions, emphasizing that the choice had to involve drawing lots from a golden urn.

People's Daily, in an editorial to be published today and carried late yesterday by the official Xinhua News Agency, warned Tibetans to repudiate the Dalai Lama. The newspaper is the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Leading Tibetan scholars say that the elaborate ceremony, which Beijing claimed was essential to the legitimacy of the new Panchen Lama, was actually devised only 200 years ago by a Chinese emperor who found it a convenient way to control the selection of Tibetan leaders.

"The problem is that rarely have these things been done twice in the same way," said Mr. Schwartz. "How it was done was dependent entirely on the current political situation, so it's easy for anyone to come in and say this is how it's done so my guy is the one."

Whether Tibetans accept the Chinese Panchen Lama is already in doubt.

Reports from Tibet tell of pictures of the imprisoned boy being circulated in Lhasa. Politically, that could leave Beijing's victory a hollow one, while religiously, as Dr. Schwartz noted, "they may have destroyed an institution."

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