`Buddha' defects to America

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A HIGH-RANKING Tibetan religious official is in the United States and may be seeking asylum, in what would be a highly embarrassing defection for the Chinese government.

Agya Rinpoche, a "Living Buddha" and abbot of the important monastery at Kumbum, in Qinghai province, is believed to have left China about four months ago. Since arriving in America he has kept a low profile, presumably because of fears for relatives and colleagues still in China.

If the abbot has decided to seek refuge abroad, he will be one of the most senior Tibetan religious figures to flee since the departure of the Dalai Lama in 1959.

The abbot, 48, has held several top positions in the Chinese hierarchy; he is a vice-president of the state-run China Buddhist Association, vice- president of the All China Youth Federation, and a committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. His assistant and perhaps one or two other followers are believed to have gone with him to the US. It is unclear if the abbot has applied for asylum.

The abbot's departure, now that it has become public, may upset attempts by the Dalai Lama to persuade Peking to re-open negotiations on Tibet.

It was not clear yesterday whether Agya Rinpoche had met the Dalai Lama during the exiled spiritual leader's recent visit to the US.

Tibet-watchers yesterday interpreted the Agya Rinpoche's departure as a result of Peking's increasingly tight restrictions on monasteries. A spokesman for the London-based Tibet Information Network said: "Agya Rinpoche was clearly under great pressure, due to the conflict between his personal loyalty to the Dalai Lama and the official role required of him by the Communist Party.

"He was required by the Chinese authorities to defend their claims of freedom of religion at a time when monks and nuns throughout Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Regions are being forced to denounce the Dalai Lama as part of the ongoing `Patriotic Education Campaign'."

At Youning monastery in Qinghai, for instance, the authorities have forced 49 monks over the age of 60 into retirement.

Kumbum is just outside Xining, capital of Qinghai province. It is one of the four most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The part of Qinghai province in which the monastery lies was historically part of Tibet, but it was not included within the Peking-drawn boundaries of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region.

The Dalai Lama, who met US President Bill Clinton in Washington on Tuesday, is hoping that the statement he is preparing could pave the way to a resumption of dialogue with Peking. He said this week that he was trying to build "mutual trust". The Chinese government immediately accused him of "playing tricks" and "insincerity".

The Dalai Lama's planned statement will be a response to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's pronouncement in June that the door to negotiation was open if the Dalai Lama renounced Tibetan independence and also accepted that Taiwan was a province of China.

In Washington, the Dalai Lama said he was "not ready" yet to make his response and that the timing would depend on "consultations" with China. But he reiterated: "I am not seeking independence for Tibet, nor do my actions seek its separation from the People's Republic of China. I am for autonomy, genuine autonomy, for the Tibetan people, to preserve their distinct identity and way of life."