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In search of the real Panchen Lama

July 5, 2010

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) Australia
July 3, 2010

Exercising the ultimate political control, the
Chinese Communist Party manufactured a 'holy'
ceremony to appoint its own living god, writes
John Garnaut from Shigatse in Tibet.

Monks from the Panchen Lama's Tashilumpo
monastery looked into the waters of Lhamo Latso
lake and saw the upper half of a horse, the lower
half of a goat and the Tibetan syllable ''grwa''.

Those and other signs led them to a nomadic area
called Lhari, and in it a young boy named Gedhun
Choekyi Nyima. He bore birthmarks on his back
similar to the symbols seen in the waters of the
lake. He was born in the year of the horse. And
he could instinctively point the way to Tashilumpo monastery.

Months of secret communications ensued between
the abbot of Tashilumpo monastery, Chadrel
Rinpoche - who was the government-endorsed leader
of the six-year search - and the Dalai Lama, who
lived in exile over the Himalayas in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama selected a ball of barley dough
from a bowl and it had the boy's name inside it.
On May 14, 1995, he told the world that Gedhun
Choekyi Nyima was indeed the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

In the 1980s a reformist Chinese leadership team
had returned to the relatively liberal and
culturally sensitive Tibet policies that had been
in place in the 1950s, including trying to win over the Dalai Lama.

But by the early 1990s China had lurched hard
again to the conservative political left. In 1992
a capable but hardline party chief called Chen
Kuiyuan was appointed to run Tibet. The Dalai
Lama turned from potential partner to implacable enemy.

The Communist Party resolved to do whatever it
took to ensure that it would appoint, train and
control the lamas who they saw as the key to
political control of Tibetans. It proclaimed that
the Dalai Lama-endorsed Panchen Lama was
"illegal" and Xinhua news agency denounced the
six-year-old boy for having "once drowned a dog".

For most Chinese citizens, the Communist Party
offers broad religious freedom, a process of law
and at least an effort to win their hearts and
minds. But it is different inside the frontier regions of western China.

Chadrel Rinpoche and about 30 of his colleagues
involved in the Panchen Lama search simply
disappeared. So, too, did the six-year-old boy,
together with his family, without any hint of legal process.

The monks were secretly sentenced to prison terms
that purportedly ended in 2002. But nothing has
been seen since of Chadrel Rinpoche, his
secretary, the Panchen Lama boy or any of his family.

"The young Tibetan person -- is studying and
living in quite good condition," said Hao Peng,
who is simultaneously deputy head of the
Communist Party and executive vice-chairman of
the Tibet Autonomous Region, in answer to a
question from the Herald on a
government-organised foreign media tour this week.

"He and his family members do not want to be
disturbed so we have to respect their wishes and we cannot arrange a visit."

Chadrel Rinpoche's condition was "very good" but
it was "not clear" whether we could confirm this
for ourselves. After 15 years of political and
religious battles inside Tibet's candle-lit
monasteries - and more recently on its open
streets - Beijing is demonstrating a new
confidence that is has the upper hand. The
incarceration of the indigenously selected
Panchen Lama gave it the time it needed to create a new one of its own.

''The basic theory is based on a much earlier
imperial tradition that you can't rule a place
where people are so different unless you have a
local proxy ruler who can say, 'I invited the
Chinese and we are all very happy,' " said Robbie
Barnett, of the University of Columbia, who spent
six years at Tibet University until 2006.

"The system works with an incredibly complicated
system of incentives and intimidation," he said. "They are just so good at it."

Usually the Communist Party's strategies of
incentive and intimidation can be seen only in
their effect. The backstage process of
manufacturing consent for a state-imposed 11th
Panchen Lama, however, is laid out in cold and
brutal detail in a series of internal reports.

Remarkably, given how China jealously guards its
state secrets, these reports were published in a
compilation by the Tibet party boss, Chen
Kuiyuan. Those documents have been recently
translated and examined by Barnett, but never previously reported.

They show that in 1994 Chen sought and apparently
received Beijing's permission to ignore the Dalai
Lama, sideline Chadrel Rinpoche - but not yet
destroy him - and impose his own interpretation
of a rarely used Qing Dynasty ritual to appoint a
centrally approved Panchen Lama.

"We stated explicitly again that the monastery
should report three candidates for the soul
children, and that it will then be decided by the
drawing of lots from a golden urn," Chen wrote in
an April 3, 1994, report on dealings with
Tashilumpo monastery leaders. "The decision is no
longer subject to discussion and will never be
changed," said the report, addressed to the
central United Front Department, a secretive
party institution with responsibility for
dividing and conquering potential rivals.

The public, however, was told that the Golden Urn
ritual was not decided for another 18 months - at
a November 1995 meeting of Tibetan dignitaries in Beijing.

The 1994 papers show Chen requesting that Chadrel
Rinpoche be "kept" in Beijing for up to 15 days
as Chen's team worked more pliable leaders of the monastery.

On April 11, Chen reported that it was still
premature to impose his Golden Urn solution - "at
present, we do not need to force all members of
the Tashilumpo monastery democratic management
committee to reach a consensus" - while his team
stepped up "ideological education".

Chadrel Rinpoche was to be given room but only
"up to so far as he does not bring ruin upon himself".

If Chadrel Rinpoche did not relent, "we should
mobilise the healthy forces within the monastery
to have a showdown in the committee and reach a consensus with pressure".

By the following year Chen Kuiyuan's preparation
of the "united front" was complete. He arrested
the spiritual recalcitrants, withstood a monks'
rebellion and carried out a massive and brutal purge of the monastery.

Before dawn on November 29 that year, as snipers
patrolled the roof of Lhasa's ancient and famous
Jokhang Temple, a senior and politically reliable
monk carefully plucked a tally stick protruding
out of a golden urn. Television observers noticed
that the winning stick was longer than the others
and a monk involved in the process later said that it was rigged.

Three senior Chinese politicians, including the
future national security chief Luo Gan, were
filmed witnessing the ritual with their shoes on
and with their backs to a statue of a Buddha -
indicating awkward unfamiliarity with the
ceremonial sensitivities of Tibetan Buddhism.

Chen Kuiyuan, the former Tibet Party boss, penned
a poem to mark his earthly creation of a living god.

The child reincarnation was decided and the
Buddha met the world. The lamp of the Great
Dharma was handed down to shine on this disastrous world.

The name written on the longest stick in the
Golden Urn - chosen in part for his "outstanding
-- image and intelligence", wrote Chen - was the
four-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu. This year, after 15
years of secret and intensive training, the young
man is being publicly given a trial as Tibet's
second most important religious leader.

In March the official 11th Panchen Lama was
appointed to be the youngest ever member of the
Chinese People's Political Consultative
Conference, the country's top political advisory
body. "I have learnt a lot from this experience,"
he told Xinhua."I have seen other members
expressing their opinions, discussing state
affairs together, and better serving the party and the state."

He has since featured on the cover of Global
Personality magazine, gave his first political
speech (although the contents remain secret),
toured quake-struck areas in Qinghai on the
Tibetan plateau and made his first visit to his
home monastery, Tashilumpo. The Communist Party's
success in creating an 11th Panchen Lama has
built confidence for even greater ambitions.

The ageing Dalai Lama has hinted that he may
choose his own reincarnation, perhaps among the
exile community in India. But this week the
Communist Party revealed exactly how it planned to ensure that never happens.

"The reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and Dalai
Lama have to follow strict rules, there has to be
a drawing of lots from the golden urn, and they
have to be approved by the central government,"
the deputy party boss of Tibet, Hao Peng, said.

He said this new quasi-historical,
pseudo-religious Communist Party ritual will be
enforced "not only today but in the future".

The 1994 internal reports of Chen Kuiyuan show
him offering to open the vaults of the state to
the Tashilumpo monks who would co-operate, as
well as promising to "ruin" those who did not.

Patriotic monks would be recognised "for their
contribution to religion and to the country'',
Chen said. "The monastery would gain more trust
and more assistance from the party and the country."

Tashilumpo monastery is in Shigatse, along a
river that rages east past Lhasa before tumbling
south off the Tibetan plateau to become the
Bramaputra. Its 300,000 square metres of ancient
buildings are impressively renovated. The face of
a 30-metre-high Buddha, the stupa of the entombed
10th Panchen Lama and ornate turrets on the roof
tops are all sparkling with fresh gold.

Doup Chung, a veteran of 20 years at the
monastery and one of three monks selected to meet
us, claimed no knowledge of and showed little
interest in the extra-legal incarceration of his
former spiritual and organisational leader,
Chadrel Rinpoche, or the other 11th Panchen Lama,
who is due to celebrate his 21st birthday under house arrest this year.

The new director of the Tashilumpo monastery
democratic management committee, Nian Zha,
enthusiastically denounced the Panchen Lama who
his monastery leaders had once endorsed. "It was
not approved by the central government; we do not
recognise him as the Panchen Lama," he said.

He endorsed the official 11th Panchen Lama and
revealed he was preparing to move into Tashilumpo
monastery and claim it at his winter home.

"The 11th Panchen Lama was -- approved by the
central government and it followed the rituals of
the lot drawing from the golden urn," he said.
"So all the believers here respect and worship him."

It is impossible to tell to what extent the monks
and broader Buddhist community of Shigatse have
accepted the imposed Panchen Lama, whose picture
is now hanging on the gold stupa of his predecessor.

Our movements at Tashilumpo were tightly
corralled. The atmosphere in Shigatse was far
more relaxed than in Lhasa - no visible armed
police, Tibetans not scared to engage in casual
conversation - but our path was closely followed by men in mirror sunglasses.

The temple director, Nian Zha, listed the
dividends that have flowed from earning the trust
of the party and the country - millions in
central government funding for restoration since
2008 - while others listed huge grants of money
and assorted treasures in earlier years.

"Although it is an atheist party -- you can see
they invested a lot of money to renovate the
monasteries and to improve the life of the monks
here," Nian Zha said. "So you can see in the
whole world there's no better policy than the
policy of the Communist Party of China in protecting our religion."
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