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China Says Dalai Lama Rival Visits Tibetans and Urges Obedience

Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu
Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu. Photographer: Guang Niu/Getty Images

China’s official Tibetan spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama, in a visit to the country’s northwest has told Tibetan Buddhists to obey the law in what analysts say is a government effort to undermine anti-Chinese protest and the exiled Dalai Lama.

The government-appointed lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, 21, made a 13-day visit from his home in Beijing to an ethnic Tibetan region and performed rituals at one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most prominent monasteries, Xinhua reported. The visit was part of China’s attempt to boost Norbu’s religious credentials for an eventual role in choosing a successor to Tibet’s main spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said D.S. Rajan, director of the independent Chennai Centre for China Studies in India.

With the Dalai Lama, 76, continuing his 50-year-old campaign for Tibetan autonomy from Chinese rule, “China’s government says it will choose his successor and the Panchen Lama traditionally has a voice” in that process, Rajan said in a phone interview yesterday. “They want to create a cooperative Tibetan religious leadership” to undermine anti-Chinese protests that have erupted each year since 2008 riots that were the deadliest in Tibet for two decades, Rajan said.

Since March, two Tibetan monks in Sichuan province have immolated themselves while others have demonstrated in favor of the Dalai Lama’s return to China, leading to police curfews and detentions of hundreds of monks, Tibetan exile groups say. Those protests are several hundred kilometers south of the area visited by Norbu.

‘Puppet Figure’

“This Tibetan boy has no credibility or legitimacy in the eyes of the Tibetan people,” said Lobsang Sangay, the new prime minister of the Dalai Lama’s exile government. “He has become a puppet figure who parrots those things that Beijing dictates for him to do,” Sangay said in an interview last week in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

The Dalai Lama says Chinese rule is destroying Tibet’s distinct culture and environment. While China calls him a “splittist” who secretly seeks independence for the region, President Barack Obama met him last month and renewed the U.S. call for Chinese leaders to negotiate with him.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama traditionally ranks second only to the Dalai Lama. In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a six-year-old, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, and authorities took custody of the boy and his family a few days later.

Soon after, the Chinese government recognized Norbu as the Panchen Lama, and he was moved to the Chinese capital. He made his first visit to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital in 1999, Xinhua reported at the time, and he has visited Tibet every year or two since, according to Sangay and Chinese state media accounts.

Foreigners Barred

Last year, China named Norbu to the government’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Xinhua reported.

On Aug. 21 Norbu ended a trip to Gansu, a province on the northern edge of China’s Tibetan-inhabited area. He visited the Labrang Monastery, where monks joined Tibet-wide protests in 2008 against Chinese rule. Chinese troops reinforced the area and foreigners were barred from visiting in the days leading to Norbu’s arrival, said the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, which backs the Dalai Lama.

Xinhua said Norbu gave lessons and blessings to 50,000 Tibetan Buddhists in which he “reminded local Buddhists to abide by the law” and “said he was impressed with religious freedom enjoyed by local people.” He visited new government housing built for nomads and “made cash donations to several families living in poverty,” Xinhua said.

While little is known of Nyima’s fate, Tibet’s Chinese-appointed governor said last year he is living in Tibet. Sangay said the Dalai Lama’s government believes that is unlikely.

“We know that his parents are kept in China, not in a Tibetan area, and the family is kept separated,” with Nyima, his siblings and his parents in different locations, Sangay said, citing informants in China. “They are all watched and monitored on a daily basis,” he said.

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