China's own Lama still on charm offensive

Jan. 18, 2013 at 6:15 AM
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BEIJING, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The 11th Panchen Lama, Beijing's chosen spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists, paid his respects to Chinese revolutionaries during a trip to northeast Heilongjiang Province.

Panchen Lama Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, who is also vice president of the Buddhist Association of China, paid homage to "revolutionary martyrs" at a monument, a report by a report by the state-run news agency Xinhua said.

The controversial leader left a note in Tibetan that read, "heroes' flesh and blood constitute today's happy life," Xinhua said.

Erdini's trip to Heilongjiang is the latest charm offensive excursion to show solidarity between Buddhists, mainly from Tibet and surrounding regions, and other religious and ethnic groups, since he was given official political status nearly three years ago.

He also praised an exhibition "showcasing evidence of Japanese troops' criminal behavior" during Japan's brutal occupation of the Heilongjiang region, called Manchuria in 1931 when Japanese troops marched in.

The Panchen Lama, 23, "promised to carry on the patriotic and religious traditions handed down from his predecessors to make contributions to ethnic unity and the country's prosperity," Xinhua said.

His work includes numerous visits to restive Tibet where in the past several years a series of self-immolations to protest against Chinese rule has caused concern for the central government in Beijing.

In March 2010 the Panchen Lama -- formerly the Tibetan monk Gyaincain Norbu -- was appointed by Beijing to China's top advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

He was one of 13 new members of the national committee of the CPPCC whose more than 2,000 members are private entrepreneurs, academics, celebrities and other public figures including religious and cultural. The CPPCC doesn't make laws or appoint officials but its members have acknowledged influence with senior government officials and lawmakers.

It's open to question to what extent the Panchen Lama's authority is recognized by ordinary Tibetans, many of whom revere the Dalai Lama, the self-exiled and media friendly top Buddhist spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama's followers believe Beijing's Panchen Lama is a pretender, approved by the government as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama in November 1995.

Lorang was picked "after a lot-drawing ceremony among three candidates in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa," Chinese media reported at the time.

However, the Panchen Lama -- loosely translated as "great scholar" -- traditionally is chosen by the Dalai Lama, whose own chosen one in 1995 was a 6-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

But Nyima along with his immediate family disappeared shortly after the Dalai Lama proclaimed him the 11th Panchen Lama.

Some reports suggest he is under protective custody or house detention in Beijing. Few facts exist concerning his whereabouts.

Beijing considers the Dalai Lama a terrorist who foments separatist sentiments in the Autonomous Region of Tibet, as Tibet is known within China since the Chinese army marched into the country in the 1950s.

The Chinese government reserves some of its highest vitriol for political leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama who hold meetings with the globe-trotting Dalai Lama.

In particular, Beijing claims the Dalai Lama is urging Tibetans to self-immolate as a protest against occupation by the Chinese.

In December a report in China Daily said police in China's southwest Sichuan province, adjacent to Tibet, claimed a monk and his nephew incited a series of self-immolations on orders of the Dalai Lama.

Since 2009 Lorang Konchok, a 40-year-old monk at the Kirti Monastery in Aba county, is alleged to have encouraged eight people to set themselves on fire, three of whom died.

Lorang and his 31-year-old nephew acted on the instructions of the Dalai Lama and his followers, according to his own confession and a police investigation, China Daily reported. He also allegedly sent pictures of the burning people to foreign Tibet independence groups.

The Dalai Lama continues to deny he incites self-immolation and questions its usefulness as a protest tool.

The Panchen Lama, too, has called for calm and for religious people to promote harmony in Tibet.

In July, after a series of fatal self-immolations, Lorang called for religious people should abide by the laws and religious codes of conduct, Xinhua reported at the time.

"If a person doesn't protect social stability, he isn't fit to be called a man of religion," he reportedly told leaders of Tibet at a meeting in his residence in the capital city Lhasa.

But self-immolations continue. Tibetan exile group Free Tibet estimates that since March 2011 at least 90 people have set themselves on fire, of which 77 have died.

The first death this year was Tsering Tashi, 22, who died at the scene in Achok Township, eastern Tibet, Free Tibet said.

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