“Propaganda and the Panchen Lama: playing politics”

Chris Ratke at ICT writes an excellent post-mortem for the Panchen/Labrang affair over here, explaining why the government would go out on such a limb and why their abduction of the real Panchen Lama all those years ago seems to be backfiring:

The highly contentious visit, originally scheduled for the end of July, had to be postponed apparently due to resentment among local Tibetans. This follows a failed attempt by government authorities several years ago to bring Gyaltsen Norbu to Labrang Tashikhyil during which “local people refused to attend,” according to a local Tibetan woman interviewed by Radio Free Asia.

While the China Tibet Online article doesn’t mention the most recent visit, it seeks to portray the Panchen Lama lineage as one of historical religious figures whose humility and pious virtue repeatedly led them to turn down opportunities for greater political power, opportunities, the article not surprisingly argues, that the Dalai Lamas were all too eager to seize. The historical precedent to remain apolitical doesn’t always seem to apply to Gyaltsen Norbu, however, who the state-media routinely quotes as promoting patriotism and love for the country.

While the PRC’s official narrative of successive Chinese empires bestowing power upon the Dalai Lamas and the “local” Tibetan government persists in this article, it takes a novel and more sophisticated approach than the “wolf in monk’s robes” language typically used in state-run media attacks on the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s history as an independent nation. The historical relationship between the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas has long been a dynamic one, at times fraught by political infighting, but on the whole complementary (the Panchen Lama being known as the ‘moon’ and the Dalai Lama as the ‘sun’). On occasion, Panchen Lamas have played a role in the recognition and subsequent education of the Dalai Lamas, and vice versa, which is why control over the institution of the Panchen Lama is considered to be crucial to Beijing.

Possibly with an eye on what future role Gyaltsen Norbu can play in an attempt to legitimize Beijing’s expected attempt to appoint an “official” 15th Dalai Lama when the times comes, this latest article reinforces PRC messaging on Tibet and China’s historical relationship. According to the official PRC view of history, the Dalai Lama has always been more of a conspiring political figure than a “simple Buddhist monk,” as opposed to the Panchen Lama, who has never sought political power, repeatedly turning down opportunities to acquire political influence. Indeed it is the promotion of the Panchen Lama’s display of virtue that is the main goal of the article. Beijing knows it can manufacture a history that argues for the legitimacy of Gyaltsen Norbu but maybe now it is finally facing the reality that naming him as Panchen Lama does not simply make him so. The glaring absence of a heart connection felt by most Tibetans for Gyaltsen Norbu, grounded in Beijing’s hijacking of the recognition process which led to the disappearance of the Dalai Lama-recognized Gedun Choekyi Nyima, currently stands as an insurmountable barrier for not only Gyaltsen Norbu’s legitimacy as Panchen Lama, but any legitimacy Beijing may argue he has in the appointment of a 15th Dalai Lama. The reactions to Gyaltsen Norbu’s visits to Labrang Tashikhyil are representative of how he is viewed by most Tibetans.

While they may have deprived Tibetans of a real Panchen Lama, they certainly haven’t given themselves one. They’re stuck with a Panchen Paradox- if he does what they want, he won’t ever become what they want. To be recognized as worthy of the title, he’d have to break with them and actually stick up for his people, which is the opposite of what Beijing wants him to do.

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Filed under Dalai Lama, enforced disappearance, Tibet

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