Peking steps up pressure in hunt for lama

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The Chinese authorities have appointed hardline monks to run one of Tibet's most important monasteries and have formally purged the abbot who is in charge of Peking's search for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

The appointments could be a prelude to the Chinese government staging a religious lottery ritual to endorse its own new Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. And that could bring Peking into confrontation with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, who in May named a six-year-old boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, as the reincarnated lama.

For five months the authorities have vilified the Dalai Lama, with scathing attacks in the media accusing him of flouting the traditional Tibetan procedures for discovering the reincarnation and of using the Panchen Lama search as part of a plot to "split China".

China so far has not rejected the little boy or come up with other candidates. Since May the boy and his parents have been detained, probably in Peking.

The acting abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery, Chadrel Rimpoche, who had been leading the official Chinese search for the new Panchen Lama, has also been detained since May, although Peking maintains he is "receiving medical care".

Peking reportedly believes abbot Rimpoche informed the Dalai Lama that China was about to announce Gendun as the reincarnation, enabling the exiled leader to trump Peking.

According to the London-based Tibet Information Network (TIN), on 14 July abbotRimpoche was removed as head of the Tashilhunpo Management Committee, the official search committee and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Peking's biggest problem is that if the government is to hold its own divination ceremony, it needs senior lamas to sanction the religious procedures. But there has been a virtual revolt by senior Tibetan monks, who have refused to reject the Dalai Lama's announcement of the little boy. There have been 48 reported arrests by the Chinese since the dispute erupted.

Peking has now installed pro-Chinese Tibetans to run Tashilhunpo, the seat of the Panchen Lama, in Xigaze town.

According to TIN, the new acting head of the monastery is Sengchen Lobsang Gyaltsen, a bitter opponent of the previous Panchen Lama. Sengchen has publicly supported the Chinese government over the succession to the Panchen Lama and has also attacked the Dalai Lama. Another monk appointed to the Tashilhunpo Management Committee is a hard-liner who is opposed to any co-operation with the Dalai Lama.

China says it has final say over senior lamas under a 1792 Qing Dynasty agreement, under which Dalai and Panchen lamas were approved by Peking. It says an 18th-century golden urn must be used for the "shaking of the Golden Vase", during which the names of candidates are hidden in balls. Rumours in Peking are that China plans to hold such a ceremony, and that Gendun's name will not be on the list of candidates.