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Thursday, January 28, 1999 Published at 18:40 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Battle over Tibet's boy leader

China and Beijing are battling for the soul of Buddhism

By James Miles in Tibet

A long-running battle between Beijing and Tibet over one of Buddhism's spiritual leaders is as bitter as ever.

Ten years ago on Thursday, the 10th Panchen Lama of Tibet died of a heart attack aged 53 during a visit to his Himalayan homeland.

The Panchen Lama was the most senior religious figure in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy to stay behind after the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and thousands of his followers fled to India in 1959 to escape a Chinese crackdown.

Four years ago, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government each named their own successors to the Panchen Lama.

The rival claimants are now about ten years old and living in China - but the Chinese authorities have kept the boy chosen by Dalai Lama hidden from public view.

International human rights groups now fear the boy is being held under house arrest.

Divide and rule

The issue of the Panchen Lama's succession continues to have a major impact in Tibet.

In November 1995, Tibetan monks watched over by Chinese officials, installed a six-year-old boy as the eleventh Panchen Lama, an event which was proudly broadcast by Chinese television.

The ceremony brought into the open a major new conflict over the control of Tibetan Buddhism between the exiled Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

[ image: The Dalai Lama:  Made conflict inevitable]
The Dalai Lama: Made conflict inevitable
It was a struggle that had been looming since the death of the 10th Panchen Lama. By unilaterally making his own choice of successor to the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama made conflict inevitable.

Enforced exile

Since the naming of the rival Panchen Lamas, the Chinese authorities have been engaged in what they call a Patriotic Education Campaign aimed at purging monasteries of Dalai Lama supporters and forcing monks and nuns to accept Beijing's choice of Panchen Lama.

Kate Saunders of the London-based Tibet believes it represents a major threat to traditional Tibetan culture and religion.

She said: "We're seeing more and more monks escaping from Tibet into exile as huge numbers of monks and nuns are arriving from Tibet into Nepal and India.

"And either they've escaped following arrests and imprisonment due to resistance to the Patriotic Education Campaign, or as a protest.

"Sometimes they've walked out of their monasteries or nunneries, effectively closing them down. We're seeing that happening all over Tibet now."

In the monasteries, the mood is likely to be considerably more despondent now than it was in the early 1980s when the late Panchen Lama was alive.

Then China tried to win over Tibetan hearts and minds after the vicious campaigns against Tibetan culture of the 1960s and 70s.

Panchen's legacy

Robbie Barnett is an expert on modern Tibet who believes the region is still suffering as a result of the Panchen Lama's death.

He said: "I don't think anybody could have predicted at the time of his death quite the extent of the consequences.

[ image: Beijing is aware that it is in for a bigger battle]
Beijing is aware that it is in for a bigger battle
"But basically what has happened is that everything the Panchen Lama achieved in his life, which was certainly the most important developments in Tibet in the last twenty years - all of those achievements have been eroded.

"These achievements were things like persuading the Tibetan state to allow Tibetans to use their own language in universities, in schools, in government, to have a whole notion of development and an economy in Tibet that would be run by Tibetans.

"All of that has basically been dismantled since he died. I think he was a unique person who talked the Chinese into trusting Tibetans and without him they just won't trust anybody.

Foretaste of a bigger struggle

The struggle over the appointment of a successor to the Panchen Lama has claimed many victims, from the dozens of monks imprisoned for supporting the Dalai Lama's choice to the 9-year-old boy himself, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima who is now in what Beijing calls "protective custody."

As the Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya explains, this could be a foretaste of an even bigger struggle to come over the succession to the Dalai Lama, a struggle in which Beijing's Panchen Lama is likely to play a major role.

For Tsering Shakya, the Dalai Lama was "quite aware that at the time when the Panchen Lama reached maturity, that he (Dalai Lama) would be in the last stages of his life on this earth.

"So, the Dalai Lama sees that the authority of the religious leadership and the political leadership will be taken on by the Panchen Lama.

"And Beijing is also clearly aware of that. Beijing sees the present Dalai Lama as one of the main obstacles in the Tibetan issue, with the success of the Tibetan case internationally and within Tibet really resting on the personality of the Dalai Lama himself as the leader of the Tibetan people."

A decade after the 10th Panchen Lama's death, Tibetan Buddhism is still in turmoil. With many opposed to Beijing's handling of the succession, it appears likely that the second most important position in Tibetan Buddhism will remain in dispute for a long time to come.

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