A Tibetan spiritual leader installed by China's government against the Dalai Lama's wishes has finished a trip to a major Buddhist monastery with comments unlikely to endear him to an already sceptical Tibetan public.
The Panchen Lama is the Tibetans' second-ranked religious leader after the Dalai Lama, but most Tibetans do not accept him because he was appointed by Beijing. The original boy selected by the Dalai Lama in 1995 has not been heard from since, with suspicion falling on Beijing.
According to reports yesterday by the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency, the Panchen Lama said he was impressed by the amount of religious freedom enjoyed by Buddhists near the remote Labrang Monastery that has been the scene of numerous anti-Beijing protests. The comments are likely to re-inforce the belief among Tibetans that he is not the true Panchen Lama.
He was selected 15 years ago when he was six and is also known as Gyaltsen Norbu. He has taken on an increasingly political role in recent years and has made appearances with Communist Party leaders praising Chinese rule over Tibet and has been appointed to the main government advisory body.
The monastery is one of the most important outside of Tibet and was the site of numerous protests by monks following deadly ethnic riots in Tibet in 2008 that were the most sustained Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in decades.
During a 13-day trip that ended on Sunday, the Panchen Lama also gave cash to poor local families, toured government-built houses for nomads and told locals to uphold national unity and obey the law, Xinhua said. The trip was the latest attempt by Beijing to burnish his religious credentials. It also stepped up security in the area prior to his arrival, with Chinese tourism officials saying at the start of the trip that foreigners had been barred from the county.
The Washington-based activist group International Campaign for Tibet said that monks in the area feared the visit could trigger more repression and patriotic education. The dispute over the Panchen Lama has also raised questions and concerns about what will happen when the Dalai Lama, 76, dies.