A timely question Rudd should raise
The Sydney Morning Herald[Wednesday, April 02, 2008 20:35]
Joyce Morgan

He was called the world's youngest political prisoner when, as a six-year-old, he was taken into Chinese custody in 1995. He has not been seen or heard of since.

Indeed, the only image the world has of the Tibetan-anointed Panchen Lama, who turns 19 this month, is of a ruddy-cheeked infant staring apprehensively ahead. And apprehensive he may well have been.

For whatever his fate since then, it most certainly has not involved sitting on a gilded throne in Tibet's ancient Tashilumpo monastery, his traditional home amid the snow-capped Himalayan mountains of Xigaze, surrounded by chanting red-robed monks.

We know this because no sooner had the Dalai Lama announced that six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was the newly reincarnated 11th Panchen Lama - the most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama - than the boy was whisked away along with his parents and the Chinese installed their own choice, Gyaincain Norbu the son of Communist Party members.

It sounds like a farce: an atheist Communist regime that has no truck with reincarnation determining who is a reborn lama, an arcane religious practice surrounded by much myth, magic and consulting of oracles.

And events have taken an even more bizarre turn since. As of last year all would-be reincarnate lamas - influential figures revered by Tibetans as living Buddhas - have to apply for Chinese Government approval. Imagine the Pythonesque party debates: "He's not a living Buddha, he's just a naughty boy".

But the implications of that 1995 swap are far-reaching and far from farcical. This is becoming increasingly apparent as Tibet enters its most critical era since the Chinese invasion that prompted the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in 1959. Questions about the shape and future of the political and spiritual leadership are becoming increasingly pressing as the generation passes that saw - or fled - the events of half a century ago.

Yet, in all the coverage of recent Tibetan unrest, the fate of the Panchen Lama has been largely overlooked. China has said he is living quietly, but Tibetans fear he is detained and denied his spiritual education. There is no independent confirmation of his whereabouts. Has he had access in all these years to his family, education - spiritual or otherwise - and medical treatment? Is he under house arrest? And if so why?

The importance of the Panchen Lama lies in the key role he plays in determining who is the Dalai Lama, and vice versa. That leapfrogging has occurred for hundreds of years.

Control the Panchen Lama and you potentially control the selection of Tibetan Buddhism's main man - and the political direction of the restive region. A puppet Panchen Lama could eventually anoint a puppet Dalai Lama.

At least theoretically. Efforts to control the senior lamas have backfired. The 10th Panchen Lama, who many regarded as pro-Chinese, denounced Chinese rule days before he died suddenly in 1989 while the Karmapa Lama, the third-highest ranking, fled to India in 1999.

The current 14th Dalai Lama is arguably the world's longest-serving leader who, as the writer Pico Iyer has pointed out, he has led his people longer than Queen Elizabeth II, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand or Fidel Castro. And although he appears to be in robust good health - and active enough to plan a return trip to Australia later this year - at 72, he cannot live forever. Inevitably, what happens after his death must be occupying not only his thoughts and those of his government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, but those of the Chinese leadership.

Little wonder then that the Dalai Lama has flagged recently that the role, which dates back to the 14th century, may change. There has been speculation in Tibetan circles for some time that he may be the last Dalai Lama. He has long said only that if the institution is no longer useful it will cease to exist. More recently he has said the role could be democratically elected.

This comes amid reports that China may be considering a political position within the Communist Party hierarchy for its Panchen Lama. The youth has appeared in public occasionally over the years, most recently to condemn last month's violence in Tibet and support the Government's actions. Violence ran contrary to Buddhism and was an attempt to split the country and undermine ethnic unity, he has been quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, the missing boy is now a man. He turns 19 on April 25. When Kevin Rudd visits China later this month, he may care to ask whether Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is still alive. And if he is, exactly where and how he will spend his 19th birthday.