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JANUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 2

Secret Flight from Lhasa
A boy lama's apparent escape complicates Beijing's plans for Tibet

The boy's arrival caught everybody by surprise. The Tibetan government-in-exile claimed it knew nothing until the young lama literally showed up at its doorstep in Dharamsala. The Indians themselves were blindsided. And it is probably safe to say that the 14-year-old's Chinese minders have a lot to answer for. The apparent defection of the Karmapa Lama, Tibet's third-ranking cleric, is a severe blow to Beijing's effort to tame the Tibetan church since the Dalai Lama himself covered the same ground 40 years ago.

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For the moment, Beijing has tried to portray the young lama's journey as a routine pilgrimage to buy sacred musical instruments. Chinese officials say he will soon return. Xinhua claims he has left behind a letter saying he has no intention of "betraying the nation, his monastery or the leadership." Says Lou Yulie, one of China's foremost authorities on Tibetan Buddhism:"It appears that he didn't 'escape' in the full sense of the word. The West and the Dalai Lama shouldn't make too much of this."

Maybe not, but the young boy's dramatic flight brought back memories of the Dalai Lama's own escape in 1959. And the Karmapa Lama headed not for Sikkim, the northeastern Indian state that is the center of the Kagyu sect which he nominally heads, but for the capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Says one Indian official:"He would not have traveled 1,400 km, braving icy blizzards and difficult terrain just to buy musical instruments."

Beijing was grooming the Karmapa Lama as a "patriotic lama" - part of its long-term plan to co-opt and eventually control the leadership of Tibetan Buddhism. In the Tibetan religion, "living Buddhas" are said to be the reincarnation of their predecessors. In 1992 both the Dalai Lama and Beijing recognized young Ugyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa Lama. His predecessor had died in exile in 1981. He is the only senior lama recognized by both sides.

Beijing and Dharamsala differ on the second-most important lama, the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama's choice, now a 10-year-old, has not been seen in public since his name was announced five years ago. Beijing's candidate has been installed in the traditional Panchen Lama seat, the Tashilhunpho monastery in Shigatse, Tibet's second city. The Dalai Lama himself is now 64 years old. When he dies, the Panchen Lama, presumably well-indoctrinated, and the "patriotic" Karmapa Lama would have collaborated to choose a successor, presumably one more acceptable to Chinese authorities. Now the tables have turned. The Karmapa Lama could succeed the Dalai Lama as the focal point of Tibetan independence.

The Karmapa's apparent defection hands the Indian government a problem it could well do without. New Delhi has been trying to improve relations with Beijing ever since Defense Minister George Fernandes publicly labeled China enemy number one and the primary reason for building its nuclear weapons. So far, India has denied that the Dalai Lama had requested political asylum for the young monk. New Delhi may try to finesse the problem by neither granting asylum nor making the teenager go back home.

If the lama is allowed to travel to the Kagyu sect's headquarters in Rumtek, 25 km from Sikkim's capital Gangtok, it may also rub Beijing the wrong way. China has never recognized the small state's annexation by India (it was once independent, like neighboring Bhutan). The Chinese authorities may see the installation of an important Buddhist sect leader in a "disputed" state as provocative.

Adding to the confusion, the regent in Rumtek, Shamarpa Rimpoche, disputes the boy's claim, favoring a 17-year-old personally selected by him. He has loudly proclaimed the Karmapa's flight as a "political ploy" of the Chinese government acting in collusion with the Dalai Lama - perhaps the only person who would make such a claim. In addition to the political stakes, the sect's wealth is at issue. The Kagyu order's assets are estimated to exceed $1 billion. The conflict over assets could sharpen if the young lama in the end decides to stay in India.

Coming close on the heels of the crackdown on the Falungong sect in China and the public ordination of loyal bishops, some worry that the lama's flight may lead to a tightening of restrictions on Tibetan monasteries and monks, which are already kept under firm control. If nothing else, the Lama's flight will put Beijing on the defensive and Tibet back in international headlines.

- With reporting by David Hsieh / Beijing, Sanjay Kapoor / New Delhi and Julian Gearing

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