Peking's poison fails to touch Tibetan hearts

China's attempts to foist its Panchen Lama (far right) on the Buddhists have led monks to rally to the Dalai Lama's choice (right), writes Michael Dempsey
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The Independent Online
Shigatse, Tibet - In the markets of Tibet, it is possible to buy a gold tooth. Displayed in glass cases, the teeth are arranged together like a Buddha's enigmatic smile. Buying a gold tooth is not for vanity but for protection. If the gold turns black in your mouth it means your companions are trying to poison you.

Poisoning has traditionally been a way of settling scores in the high Himalayas, and those Tibetans who can afford it like to flash a little gold. Lately, it is not just the Tibetans who are worried about poisoning but the Chinese, too.

When the Chinese last November enthroned a six-year-old Tibetan boy as an alternative spiritual leader to the exiled Dalai Lama, they misread Tibetan outrage over this move. The boy, known as the Panchen Lama, is supposed to reside at the monastery of Tashilhunpo, in Shigatse, 120 miles west of Lhasa. But the Chinese are so worried about threats to the boy's life that in February he was moved secretly to a safe house in Peking, Tibetan activists said.

Somewhere else in Peking there is a second Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama, from his exile home in Dharamsala, India, undertook a mystical search to find the reincarnation of the last Panchen Lama. The Chinese Communists were also madly hunting for the same boy.

But when the Dalai Lama in March 1995 announced that he had found the Panchen Lama who, like the Dalai Lama is considered by Tibetans to be a living god, the Chinese changed strategy. First they arrested the Dalai Lama's boy, Chedun Choekyi Nyima, and his parents. Then the Communists held a lottery between several candidates in which their boy was chosen. Most Tibetans think this was a fraud and revere the Dalai Lama's choice.

Exiled Tibetan officials are worried that the Chinese may have locked up the boy considered by most Tibetans as the true Panchen Lama in a psychiatric hospital. Only a month ago the Chinese admitted in Geneva for the first time that the Dalai Lama's choice of Panchen Lama was being held with his parents in "protective custody". The Chinese said they feared the boy might be kidnapped by Tibetan "separatists".

In Tashilhunpo dissent still smoulders. Only two of the monastery's many shrines displayed portraits of the Chinese boy. One of these shrines had an 85ft gilded Buddha. Near its feet I saw a photograph of the new Panchen Lama. The monk dismissed my question withsmile. "Oh, that?" he replied. "That's the Peking Panchen Lama."

In trying to foist their Panchen Lama on the Tibetans, the Chinese have only succeeded in heightening resistance to their rule. One resident of Lhasa said: "Nobody believes in the Chinese Panchen Lama. The Chinese are afraid to bring the boy out in public, or even keep him here in Tibet. If they thought they could replace the Dalai Lama with him in Tibetans' hearts, it isn't working." Throughout Tibetan monasteries, thousands of Communist cadres have been at work over the past two months trying to coerce the monks and nuns to sign pledges rejecting the Dalai Lama and accepting the Chinese's Panchen Lama.

In Drepung monastery, outside Lhasa, where more than 180 Communist "re- educators" are encamped, they brought their own cooks. It is thought they were wary of the monks' cuisine. In protest against these daily harangues, most of the Tibetan clergy are refusing to sign the oaths. At least 10 monks have been arrested over the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, rumours continue to spread through Tibet'shamlets and high, cloud-swept plateaux. Even without poison, the health of the Chinese pretender is supposed to be failing. Some Tibetans also swear that the boy's parents, both Communist cadres, were struck by a crisis of conscience and have approached the Chinese leadership requesting that their son be allowed to step down. These may just be wild tales. But they illustrate how deep Tibetan resentment runs against the Chinese, who invaded this Himalayan kingdom in 1951.

Tibetan exiles suspect that the last Panchen Lama, who died suddenly in 1989 after spending a dozen years under house arrest, may have been poisoned by the Chinese. Shortly before his death, the Panchen Lama had sharply criticised the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Tibetans believe that a high lama, after death, takes on another rebirth to continue his Buddhist teachings in an unbroken line. The Panchen Lama had never bothered with a gold tooth.

For Tibetans, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are their twin spiritual poles. The door of almost every Tibetan farmhouse is painted with a sun and moon, symbolising the country's two spiritual leaders. The Chinese attempts to pull the Tibetans into their orbit by tampering with the Panchen Lama's reincarnation have only made them more enemies.