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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China casts late Tibetan monk as ally in a sensitive year

January 29, 2009

Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:25am IST

By Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is marking the death anniversary of the
second-most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism by lauding him as an enemy
of separatism in the restive region as it enters a year laden with
sensitive anniversaries.

The death of the 10th Panchen Lama, revered by Tibetans for championing
their rights, on Jan. 28, 1989, deprived the Chinese authorities of a
buffer against tensions in the mountain region and helped stir
demonstrations and riots in the regional capital Lhasa weeks later.

But Chinese officials now champion the late Panchen Lama as a model
patriot, set against the exiled Dalai Lama, who they condemn as a
separatist traitor.

In the official People's Daily on Tuesday, a senior Communist Party
official again lauded him as an example for restive Tibet, which erupted
in riots and protest in March last year.

"We must learn from and continue his patriotic spirit," wrote Du
Qinglin, chief of the Party's United Front Department, which deals with
religious and ethnic groups.

"He was always at the forefront of the struggle against separatism and
resolutely protected ethnic unity."

But the 10th Panchen Lama's political legacy is much more disputed than
such propaganda presents. And a leading expert on Tibet said Beijing has
trapped itself by failing to accept a successor Panchen Lama who is
trusted by most Tibetans.

China lost a chance to win greater acceptance from Tibetans when it put
under secretive house arrest the five-year-old boy chosen by the Dalai
Lama as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1995. Beijing has
installed its own choice, who is spurned by most Tibetans.

"China's leaders are locking themselves into a very tight corner -- it
can't rule Tibetans without the mediation of a leader whom Tibetans
trust and respect, but it denounces the Dalai Lama as a monster," said
Robbie Barnett, a Tibetologist at Columbia University in New York.

"The Panchen Lama has become increasingly important as a symbolic figure
[for Tibetans] since his death because Beijing's policies increasingly
seem focused on undoing everything he struggled for," Barnett said.

China is seeking to prevent fresh unrest in Tibet as it marks the 50th
anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in March. Most
Tibetans still honour him as their supreme religious leader, and also
reject Beijing's preferred successor to the late Panchen Lama as an
illegitimate choice.

A security lockdown has been imposed in most Tibetan areas to head off
unrest with armed paramilitary police patrolling Lhasa's streets.

Tibet was relatively stable for the decade until the 10th Panchen Lama's
death, as the Communist Party eased the harsh attacks on Tibetan
Buddhism of Mao's time and experimented with removing Han Chinese
officials from many posts in the region.

China has since poured billions of dollars to modernise Tibet but the
dispute over a key religious position has left a void that could presage
the kind of conflict that could erupt after the death of the current
Dalai Lama, now 73 years old.

After the Dalai Lama fled, the 10th Panchen Lama stayed on and was
initially seen as a collaborator, but it emerged in 1997 that he spent
over a decade either in prison or under house arrest for criticising
Beijing in a 1962 petition over jailings, starvation and efforts to wipe
out Buddhism in his homeland.

He was freed in 1977, a year after Mao's death, and politically
rehabilitated the following year.

Asked to comment on the 10th Panchen Lama's legacy, his only child,
Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, now studying in Beijing, told Reuters: "My
father never wavered in his convictions to do everything possible to
broadly support Tibetan culture and Tibetans everywhere."
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