Young Tibetan Buddhist monks play after evening chanting at the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, in Tibet's central Tsang region. Built in 1447, Tashilhunpo has been the seat of the Panchen Lama since the Mongol sponsorship of the Gelugpa order, and presently the one chosen by Beijing's Communist government. However, the one picked by the exiled Dalai Lama for the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism, 16-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, is a virtual non-person in his Himalayan home.(AFP/Frederic J. Brown)
Shigatse, Tibet - A decade after he was picked by the exiled Dalai Lama for the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism, 16-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is a virtual non-person in his Himalayan homeland.
As the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun should have been residing at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, but in this city even his image is banned, and officials appointed by China deny he has any authority.
"We have never accepted the little boy recognized by the Dalai Lama," said Pingla, a senior cleric at the monastery, who like many Tibetans has only one name. "He was chosen in violation of religious policy and historical ritual."
Still only a teenager, Gedhun has been caught up in a struggle over the future of Tibet, waged between the Dalai Lama, who has lived abroad since 1959, and China, which has ruled the region unchallenged in the same period.
"For Tibetans themselves, maintaining loyalty to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is often a way to express their loyalty for the Dalai Lama," said Kate Saunders, the Washington-based spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet.
It is a clash of wills that began in May 1995, with an announcement by the Dalai Lama from his residence in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala that Gedhun was the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, who had died six years earlier.
China's government, apparently fearing loss of control over Tibet's religion and the hearts and minds of its people, immediately moved Gedhun to a secret location.
Ten years have passed, and Gedhun has still not reemerged because, according to the official Chinese version, he and his family "do not wish to be disturbed" by foreign media.
During Gedhun's decade in hiding, Beijing has been touting its own rival candidate for the 11th Panchen Lama, a boy called Gyaincain Norbu, in a campaign that seems to have left no part of Tibet unaffected.
In the chapels of Pelkor Chode Monastery, a two-hour drive from Shigatse, large photos of the Beijing-sanctioned Panchen Lama abound.
But when one of the monks was asked if the monastery also had images of the boy favored by the Dalai Lama, he made a telling gesture.
He pointed to a young man sitting a few meters away who appeared to be a plainclothes security officer, and brought his hands together by the wrists as if tied with handcuffs.
Despite the intimidation, many Tibetans refer to Gyaincain as Panchen Zuma or the "fake Panchen," and ordinary Shigatse residents display little emotion or enthusiasm for him even though he has been to visit several times.
"He is still just a kid," one of them said when asked what impression the boy had left during his earlier stays in Shigatse.
Others remarked on the stark contrast between the public feelings for Gyaincain and those for his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama.
"In the old days, when the 10th Panchen Lama reigned, ordinary people would pour into the Tashilhunpo Monastery to revere him," said an ethnic Tibetan shop owner in Shigatse.
"Now when the 11th Panchen Lama visits the Tashilhunpo, they have to be ordered to go, or they will be fined by the government."
Officials in the Chinese administration say there is no doubt their Panchen Lama is the real one.
"He is not a stooge," said Panba Tsering, an ethnic Tibetan and the vice director of the Shigatse People's Congress, or mini-legislature. "With the guidance of eminent monks, he has made great progress. He's a genius."
The Shigatse government is now getting ready to receive the boy genius at his Summer Palace, situated on the outskirts of the city, close to a People's Liberation Army barracks.
The 160-year-old palace -- an example of traditional Tibetan architecture with flat roofs, slightly inward-sloping walls, and stark yellow, green and red colors -- is covered in scaffolding, but not for much longer.
"We have to finish by the end of August," said one of the workers, his skin burnt a deep brown by the high-altitude Tibetan sun.
According to Panba Tsering of the Shigatse People's Congress, the Beijing-sanctioned Panchen Lama may visit again around September 1, which is the 40th anniversary of Tibet as a Chinese autonomous region.
The visit could be yet a sign that Beijing is intensifying its campaign to force Tibetan acceptance of its Panchen Lama.
In November, authorities arranged a gathering of senior Buddhist clerics in northwestern Qinghai province to urge them to step up their support for Gyaincain, and in February, President Hu Jintao met with the boy.
The stakes are getting higher, and some see the Panchen controversy as a dress rehearsal for what will happen once the 70-year-old Dalai Lama passes away, plunging his followers into a race with Beijing to pick a successor.
But for now, the message that permeates the official Chinese propaganda is simple and clear-cut.
"We can only have one Panchen Lama, not two," said Pingla, the cleric at the Tashilhunpo Monastery.
While few Tibetans are likely to disagree, the real issue is exactly which Panchen Lama they have in mind.