Why Tibetans will never trust China

Teresa Poole reports from Peking on a new twist in the tale of the two Panchen Lamas
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Two years ago this week the exiled Dalai Lama named a six-year-old boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most holy figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Since then, the whereabouts of the child and his parents have been unknown, but somewhere in China he is under the "protective" custody of the military or the security apparatus, probably the youngest political prisoner in the world.

A second little boy, Gyaincain Norbu, was anointed by Peking in November 1995 as its preferred Panchen Lama in a carefully orchestrated ceremony in Lhasa's Jhokang temple. Now seven years old, he is under closely supervised training for his future responsibilities - another effective kind of detention, but one which the Peking propaganda machine is anxious to portray as idyllic. The official China Daily in March reported how Gyaincain rose at 6.30am for morning exercises and "carefree play".

"His ringing laughter resounds throughout the monastery in the quiet morning,"added the paper. He has learned to love his vegetables and is "blessed with uncommon wisdom". Photographs showed him with his train set during a break from studying Tibetan scriptures.

The only problem is the overwhelming majority of Tibetan people still firmly believe that it is Gendun, not Gyaincain, who is the real Panchen Lama. And last week it emerged that the senior Tibetan monk who two years ago did his best to avoid just this kind of crisis has been jailed for six years. The Xinhua news agency announced that Chadrel Rinpoche, the former abbot of Tibet's Tashilhunpo monastery, was sentenced last month for "the crime of splitting the country" and revealing state secrets - in this case allegedly passing information to the Dalai Lama about Peking's search for the Panchen Lama's reincarnation. He had been in detention for two years before the closed-door trial.

The 58-year-old monk is the most senior Tibetan lama to be sentenced for at least 15 years. Chadrel Rinpoche was Peking's idea of a model patriotic abbot; in 1994 he received an award for turning Tashilhunpo monastery into a "Resplendent Model of Safeguarding the Unification of the Motherland by Displaying the Spirit of Patriotism". His "treachery" has demonstrated the religious loyalty still commanded by the Dalai Lama within Tibet, even among those working with the Chinese.

"The whole case gives enormous weight to the observation that almost all Tibetans, including very high-ranking Tibetans within the Chinese system, still feel a very strong connection with the Dalai Lama," says Robbie Barnett of the London-based Tibet Information Network. "The worst shock for Peking is to discover that the Tibetans working in the government and the upper reaches of the concessional establishment - the puppet system - still do not trust the Chinese."

Chadrel Rinpoche's involvement began as soon as the previous Panchen Lama died in early 1989. Within a couple of years, he had been appointed the head of Peking's official team to find the new one. At first the process appeared to go smoothly, albeit slowly, and in July 1993 the search team was allowed to send a long letter to the exiled Dalai Lama, requesting some form of traditional religious assistance or endorsement.

By the end of that year, however, a far more hardline policy on Tibet had been adopted, possibly coinciding with the return of the Prime Minister, Li Peng, who had been out of action with heart trouble. From that point, contact with the Dalai Lama was outlawed.

During 1994, it appears that Chadrel Rinpoche's team identified about 28 young boys as possible reincarnations of the Pan- chen Lama. Peking was pressing for the search to be completed, so it could stage a final drawing of lots from a golden urn. It seems likely that, despite the risks, there was further contact at this stage between Chadrel Rinpoche's group and the Dalai Lama.

As the number of likely candidates started to be narrowed down, Gendun slowly emerged as the strongest contender. In October 1994, Chadrel Rinpoche went back to the sacred lake, Lhama Lhatsoi, to perform further divination ceremonies. This visit was lambasted by the Chinese government, which bizarrely accused him of flouting Tibetan religious requirements. In reality, they probably feared that the trip was made at the behest of the Dalai Lama, in order to identify the strongest candidate for Panchen Lama.

In December 1994, according to the Chinese, Chadrel Rinpoche sent a letter to the Dalai Lama confirming the names of 25 boys and probably suggesting that Gendun was the most likely. Two other men jailed last week were accused of involvement in transmitting this letter.

Over in northern India, the Dalai Lama prepared for the final divination ceremonies, which eventually confirmed Gendun as the reincarnation. The Chinese government, for its part, was anxious to get the golden urn ceremony organised. The ambitious plan of Chadrel Rinpoche and his aides seemed to be to create a situation where the Chinese government sanctioned the choice of a Panchen Lama who had also been chosen by the Dalai Lama.

But someone appears to have tipped off the Chinese that something suspicious was going on. At a meeting of the search committee in Peking, Chadrel Rinpoche, after first stalling, began insisting that Gendun was the certain reincarnation. The Chinese concluded there was some conspiracy going on, kept Chadrel Rin- poche in Peking and pressed ahead with plans for their own urn ceremony. News reached the Dalai Lama that something had gone awry, and on 14 May 1995 he announced Gendun as the 11th Panchen Lama.

The Chinese swiftly whisked Gendun out of Tibet and three days later Chadrel Rinpoche was detained as he tried to return there. Until last week the Chinese government had refused to give any information about what had become of him. Despite their best efforts, it appears that in detention Chadrel Rinpoche resisted all Chinese attempts to make him reject Gendun as the true Panchen Lama.