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    Greater China
     Mar 17, 2010
China's Panchen Lama enters political arena
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - China's handpicked 11th Panchen Lama, born Gyaltsen Norbu in northern Tibet, made his political debut this month at the annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, appearing as a national committee member of the top political advisory body.

Observers expect the 20-year-old Panchen Lama will be named a vice chairman of the CPPCC within the next couple of years, though he was not, as expected, given the post this year. While the title is largely honorary, it is an important national leadership post similar to one his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama, held when he died in 1989.

Beijing hopes that with an elevated political status the 11th

  

Panchen Lama will more effectively keep the the influence of the exiled Dalai Lama in check among Tibetans. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama is respected as the second-highest ranking leader in Tibetan Buddhism, second only to the Dalai Lama.

In Dharamsala, the Tibetan government in exile and exiled Tibetans insist that Gyaltsen Norbu is not the legitimate 11th Panchen Lama, since he was appointed by the Chinese government and is not acknowledged by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.

However, they are concerned that Beijing's elevation of his political profile could affects the choice of successor to the Dalai Lama, who is 74. In Tibetan Buddhism, the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama normally needs to be acknowledged by the Dalai Lama, and vice versa.

In 1995, the six-year-old boy Gendun Choekyi Nyima was named as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama, but he and his family disappeared soon after and have not been heard from since. The Tibetan community living in exile in north India say Chinese authorities are keeping him in detention.

Beijing's Panchen Lama was named a new member of the CPPCC's National Committee in late February. At the same time he was also elected the vice president of China's state-run Buddhist Association.

"I have shouldered the mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic solidarity since I was enthroned," Gyaltsen Norbu told the official Xinhua news agency on March 4. "Now, such a sense of responsibility is becoming even stronger."

A slight man who wears thick glasses and traditional crimson robes, Gyaltsen Norbu was the youngest delegate at the CPPCC, which is made up of 2,200 business leaders, religious figures, academics and celebrities and advises the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

At the meeting, Norbu advised China's other religious figures to listen more closely to their communities. "People place great expectations on us. We will continue to do our best not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify our minds, and to help people from the roots up. We must do good rather than evil, on however humble a scale."

Norbu, whose parents are both members of the CCP, has been promoted by Beijing as the official face of Tibetan Buddhism in China. China has been raising the profile of its young Lama while stepping up its efforts to reduce the influence of the current Dalai Lama in Tibet, where he served as the God-King.

While the Dalai Lama has criticized the CCP's ethnic policies in Tibet, blaming the ruling party for the erosion of Tibetan culture and for curtailing religious freedoms, the Panchen Lama has been a strong supporter of party policy. He has begun to make more public appearances in Tibet alongside communist officials.

Norbu's appointment to the CPPCC does not change his role or give him any decision-making powers, but it does underscore the CCP's efforts to legitimize his position, say analysts.

"This is a pro-forma elevation for him to a titular role that does not amount to much in terms of actual decision-making or policy," Srikanth Kondapalli, chairman of the Center for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the Hindu. "This could also be a move to placate the views of Tibetans, both in China and outside."

Hao Peng, vice chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and therefore the official voice of the government, told AsiaNews that "the Panchen Lama's participation in social activities in China demonstrates the important role of the living Buddha in our world. Norbu is very popular in Tibet, and we all are very happy for his appointment. I hope he can continue in this vein, showing love for the motherland."

However, Norbu rarely visits the Tashilunpo monastery in Tibet to which the Panchen Lama traditionally belongs. The young man spends most of his time in Beijing, studying and surrounded by the care and control of the CCP.

Despite this, Gyaltsen Norbu was not "elected" this year as a vice chairman of the CPPCC, as was widely predicted.

Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet issues from Indiana University's Central Eurasia Studies Center, told the South China Morning Post that the delay in the Panchen Lama's elevation hoped to avoid his rise seeming too precipitous.

The Panchen Lama has helped the CCP build influence among Tibetan Buddhists across the world by playing a key role in state-sponsored conferences like the World Buddhist Congress and making statements praising the government.

While has not joined the government's campaign to vilify the Dalai Lama, observers say his new position as a member of the CPPCC means that he soon could. They speculate that he will start participating in press conferences on Tibet-related issues and travel around the world to canvass support for the government's point of view.

It will be interesting to see what message Norbu has for Tibetans in exile; the news of his political elevation was greeted with mistrust by the Tibetan communities living in north India. Some said it was a "gift" by Beijing to the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile to mark the 51st anniversary on March 10 of Uprising Day, a failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule in 1959.

During his annual address to mark the uprising, the Dalai Lama said the Chinese government was keeping "the monks and nuns [of Tibet] in prison-like conditions", and deliberately "annihilating Buddhism".

On the same day, young Tibetans protested at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi. "There are no human rights in Tibet; it shows that Tibet is not part of China; we are a free country," said one of the demonstrators, who were carrying placards calling for the release of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama-endorsed Panchen Lama. "The 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet is the world's youngest political prisoner," said the banners. Nyima, aged six at the time he disappeared, would now be 14.

"The Chinese do not appear too intelligent; they hope that their appointed Panchen Lama will listen to them," Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, told AsiaNews. "However, their puppet is a Tibetan and sooner or later his roots and heart will be manifest and all the indoctrination and grooming by the Chinese will be to no avail."

Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, told Asia Times Online that the political elevation of Beijing's Panchen Lama was of no significance to the Tibetan people. "In the eyes of Tibetans he [Norbu] has no legitimacy. It's just an image-building exercise by Beijing. He is used as a tool by no fault of his own.

"The real reincarnation is inside China, but he has been captured. If the genuine Lama receives his rightful status then it is good. But China's appointed Lama will get no respect, maybe he is a fortunate boy but we cannot recognize him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. His rise will not affect so much; he is not able to live in his own monastery. This act is just for namesake and there would be no influencing. There is no respect from the monks - this gives a clear indication" said Thupten.

But Tibetans acknowledge that the rise of Panchen Lama could influence the selection of the next Dalai Lama. "Seeing the new post and rise of Beijing's Panchen Lama will alter the Tibetan people's view," said Thupten, adding that Panchen Lama carries extra spiritual weight. He said that while the selection of next Dalai Lama is the one of the main responsibilities of the Tibetan government in exile, the approval of high-ranking lamas in exile will also count.

"I wish the genuine Panchen Lama flees to India like the Dalai Lama and Karmapa Lama. Tibetan unity will be strong and above all Tibetan Buddhism will be saved" said Jamphel Sichoe, a young Tibetan.

China has shed some light on the life of the other Panchen Lama, denying he is in detention. The newly appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, told media on the sidelines of the CPPCC that the young man is living in Tibet, where "his brothers and sisters are attending university or doing regular work".

He gave no hint as to the family's whereabouts but repeated the Communist Party's mantra: "As far as I know, his family and he are now living a very good life in Tibet. He and his family are reluctant to be disturbed. They want to live an ordinary life."

Padma Choling said that the candidate for Panchen Lama picked by the Dalai Lama was illegitimate and invalid, Xinhua reported. Beijing says it has the historical right to appoint leading Tibetan lamas.

How the issue of the Dalai Lama's succession will be resolved is likely to depend on relations between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. In this context, it will be interesting to see how Beijing's Panchen Lama shapes his own political future; and if he will exploit the international spotlight.

If an agreement can be reached before the current Dalai Lama dies, then the Tibetan government in exile could avoid a repeat of the the confusion and international opprobrium that has surrounded the Panchen Lama succession.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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