Dalai Lama points finger at Peking

Spiritual struggle: Tibet's exiled spiritual leader warns China against harming his choice for Panchen Lama
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Dharamsala, India

If the Dalai Lama ever had occasion to lose his temper, it is with the Chinese these days. Helpless in Indian exile, the Dalai Lama, considered by Tibetans to be a compassionate, living Buddha, has seen the Chinese arrest a six-year-old boy he had discovered through his mystical powers to be the reincarnation of another high Tibetan lama.

Instead, the Chinese Communists enthroned their own candidate as Panchen Lama on 8 December, in a violation of ancient ritual that might be compared to the Archbishop of Canterbury being chosen by Chelsea football fans.

So does the Dalai Lama get mad about this?

"Mad? No. Irritated, sometimes. But that passes. Sometimes I also feel like laughing. People see everything too seriously," said the Dalai Lama. His laughter is deep, resonant, like brassy notes from a long Tibetan trumpet which resound from one of the Buddhist monasteries near the Dalai Lama's exile abode in the pine forests of the Himalayan foothills.

He lives in a simple colonial bungalow above Dharamsala. Every day Western converts to Buddhism, their faces bright with the cold, join old Tibetan women, their hair plaited with turquoise nuggets, in circling the Dalai Lama's home. But not all such pilgrims are harmless.

Indian police, responsible for the Dalai Lama's security, arrested two Tibetan men and a woman on 21 November on charges of spying for China. "Obviously, the Chinese send a lot of people to collect information on us, but they usually break down and talk,'' said Tashi Wangdi, foreign minister in the government-in-exile. ``These two men were different. They were cold. They had no heart or feelings. All they were interested in was money."

They had received weapons training in the Chinese army. Detailed maps of Dharamsala and photographs of the Dalai Lama's senior advisers were also unearthed by security officials. "The two spies were to be told of their real mission later on, from someone coming from Tibet," said Mr Wangdi, who thinks the Dalai Lama might have been a possible target for assassination.

The Dalai Lama agreed. "I'm not much worried. But at the same time, my life is so linked with the Tibetan issue that there is some basis for these fears," he told the Independent, in his first interview with a British newspaper since Tibet's exiled god-king emerged from a three-week retreat of meditation that coincided with the Chinese enthronement of the rival Panchen Lama.

He is more worried about the fate of his reborn Panchen Lama, the six- year-old Gedhun Cheokyi Nyima. The nomad boy and his parents were seized by security Chinese last May in Naghchu district and have not been seen again. "We know he's not in his birthplace. Some say he's being held in Chengdu or Peking. From all we've heard, this young boy is very brilliant and sharp-minded." The Dalai Lama said he was afraid the child might be branded as troublesome and vanish into a psychiatric clinic where he would be dulled with drugs.

There is no laughter in the Dalai Lama's voice now. "If the boy is killed, we'd find out about it eventually," he said grimly. He appealed for international help in pressuring China to set free "the world's youngest political prisoner". Britain, as a member of the European Union, expressed its concern over the detention of the boy, but Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, is not expected to raise the issue during his visit to Peking next month.

For the first time, the Dalai Lama revealed his suspicions that the last Panchen Lama, who died in January 1989, may have been secretly killed by the Chinese. Many Tibetans dismissed the Panchen Lama as a Peking puppet, but in the last months of his life he became increasingly critical of China's occupation of Tibet. "Many of the Panchen Lama's close entourage believe he was murdered," the Dalai Lama said.

Shortly before the Panchen Lama left Peking for Tibet before his death, he is said to have engaged the highest-ranking Communist leaders in a heated argument. "Before his final departure to Lhasa, his personal bodyguard and physician were changed," Tibet's exiled leader said. Two days after a speech in which he openly castigated Chinese repression in Tibet, the Panchen Lama was stricken by chest pains.

"That night he called the doctor, but in the version we heard, it was a Chinese nurse who came. She gave him an injection and he fell into a coma. Tibetans said he was dead by sunrise.'' The Chinese say the Panchen Lama suffered a heart attack and died that afternoon.

"I feel a special, moral responsibility to make sure that this boy - my Panchen Lama - is all right," said the Dalai Lama. Despite the meddling by Chinese Communists in the mystical Buddhist rites of finding a high lama, the Dalai Lama is still willing to talk to Peking. "As soon as any positive signal comes from Peking, I'm ready to talk without any preconditions. There's been no change in my `middle road' approach. We don't necessarily want Tibet's complete separation with China." As for the Panchen Lama chosen by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama joked: "He's one Tibetan child who'll get the opportunity for a decent education - they'll probably spoil him terribly."