Tibetan child forces China's heavy hand

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ASK the Religious Affairs Bureau in Peking about the whereabouts of a six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and the spokesperson will tell you: "I'm not too clear about this. I can give no comment." Inquire about where the abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery, Chadrel Rimpoche, might be at the moment and the official will claim to be none the wiser: "I don't know about this at all," she said on Friday.

The only thing which is clear is that, more than two months since the Dalai Lama named the boy as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, Peking is still failing in its strategy to outmanoeuvre the exiled Tibetan leader. Recent events in Tashilhunpo in Shigatse, Tibet's second city and the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, suggest that monks there may be resisting Peking's demands to disown the Dalai Lama's 14 May announcement of the reincarnation.

According to reports which surfaced last week, on 12 July about 30 foreign tourists were bundled out of the Tashilhunpo compound just before a big religious ceremony was due to start. They and the other foreigners in Shigatse were subsequently persuaded to leave the town. There are now rumours that up to 40 monks at Tashilhunpo may have been arrested at about this time, possibly because the authorities feared they planned a public protest.

One American tourist said police had come to his Shigatse hotel room that night, checked passports and visas, and then asked the tourists "when they were leaving". Since then, Shigatse has been out of bounds; one official visitor from Peking was told the "road was down", while backpackers in Lhasa have been refused visitors' permits.

What all this means is difficult to say, because the picture is incomplete. Reports reaching the West say that the six-year-old boy, and his parents, were moved to Peking by the Chinese authorities soon after he was named as the 11th Panchen Lama. They are probably still being held there.

The other key figure in the drama is Chadrel Rimpoche, who as abbot of Tashilhunpo was in charge of the rival Peking-sponsored "official" search for a new Panchen Lama. It is widely believed that he is being held, possibly in Peking or Chengdu, Sichuan province. The main problem for China's religious authorities is that Chadrel Rimpoche has so far refused to reject the 14 May proclamation that the boy is the true reincarnation. Nothing has been heard from him since mid-May.

All of which brings one back to the question of what exactly happened in Shigatse. It seems that on 11 July a number of government officials travelled from Lhasa to Shigatse for a meeting with senior lamas and abbots from neighbouring monasteries who had been asked to subscribe to a document rejecting the Dalai Lama and/or the little boy.

This may have prompted a gathering of the Tashilhunpo monks, at which they considered protest action, and maybe a demand that the Panchen Lama be allowed to come to live and study at his rightful monastery home. Whatever the reason, the authorities appear to have become very worried.

According to the London-based Tibet Information Network, the 30 tourists waiting inside the monastery compound on 12 July were moved out about 9.30am, some 15 minutes before the monks were due to unravel a giant tanka painting to celebrate a full moon festival. Three trucks with about 90 policemen arrived at the monastery and the Tibetans were prevented from performing the korwa walk around the monastery. Still unconfirmed is whether monks were arrested at this point, and how many.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Peking, a six-year-old boy must be very puzzled about what the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government between them have planned for him.