Seeking The Truth

Apr 23, 2000

Category: Urgyen Trinley Dorje

APR 23, 2000, Straits Times of Singapore

This is a story as yet untold and a story that the West doesn't want to hear. For the first time -- and in a Sunday Review exclusive -- we reveal the details -- such as apparent American involvement -- about the mysterious flight of the 'living Buddha' Karmapa Lama from Tibet to India in January. SUSANNA CHEUNG CHUI-YUNG spent two weeks retracing the boy lama's dramatic journey through the Himalayas

In the sweltering heat of Hyderabad, southern India, US President Bill Clinton's cavalcade sped past a crowd of Tibetans waving American flags. While his visit to South Asia last month focused on nuclear arms control and the clashes in Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the Tibetan greeting served as a reminder of a much wider conflict looming in the Himalayan region. The great escape to India of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the 17th Karmapa, two months earlier than the Clinton visit, has intensified the tension between India and China, whose borders meet at the Himalayas.

The reality behind the superficial reasons for the escape -- human rights and religious freedom -- is the background political struggle by Tibetan militants and between contending factions in Tibetan Buddhism.The involvement of Americans in the Tibetan struggle remains a mystery, but our investigative reporting throws light on it.Given the significance of the flight of the boy lama Ugyen Trinley Dorje, veteran Nepali environment reporter Prakash Khanal and I recently retraced the Karmapa's route over two weeks. It started from the Tibet/Nepal border and crossed Nepal all the way down to the Nepal/India border.

We tried to find out the different forces behind the escape and its implication to security in the region.

Our findings contradict mainstream Western reports.

We discovered the boy lama's flight had been meticulously planned to thro Nepali police and journalists off the track. It was aided by an American-owned helicopter operator and an extensive network of the Tibetan exile community closely linked with Dharamsala. Suspicions of an organised plot thickened when the Tibetan community in Pokhara, Nepal, disclosed the Karmapa's sister had appeared in Pokhara three weeks before him.The escape route he took is an indirect route to India, through forbidding Mustang, in remote north Nepal, the stronghold of Tibetan guerillas and a CIA base until the 1970s. Our team picked up the Karmapa's trail in Pokhara, a resort at the foot of the Annapurna range.There, a well-known Nepali businessman from Mustang helped us retrace the escape route, based on his in-depth debriefing of the pony drivers who assisted the Karmapa. As the Karmapa and three aides approached the border in two Landcruisers on New Year's Eve, they were chased by Chinese police cars. They abandoned the vehicles and escaped on foot into Nepal. As revellers around the world rang in a new millennium, the boy lama slipped out of Tibet. Right inside the Nepali border, along the bank of the Mustang Khola river, tall, bearded Westerner was waiting. He had hired local guides and eight ponies for the journey across the northern half of Mustang, where there are no roads for motor vehicles.

The pony caravan pushed ahead for two days non-stop in sub-zero temperatures through the lunar landscape of Mustang, once the Kingdom of Lo.By morning, the Tibetan party was on the trail to Jomsom, the Mustang state capital, connected by a paved road to Pokhara and then India. Instead of going to Jomsom, the pony caravan headed east onto a trailhead below Muhila Peak, north-west of the monastery in Muktinath. They made the gruelling climb to the 5,416-m-high summit of Thorang La pass. They took this dangerous route as the Nepali Government Headquarters for Mustang is in Jomsom, where Nepali police were waiting to deport them to Tibet. After crossing Thorang La, the Tibetan Karmapa's party descended towards villages near the foot of Annapurna, at 8,091 m the second-highest peak in the Himalayas. The entourage spent the night of Jan 2 in the village of Manang Pedi, altitude 3,535 m. At about 11 am the next day, the Tibetans and their guides spotted what looked like a snowflake fluttering against the rock face of Annapurna. An Ecuriel air-rescue helicopter, painted blue and alpine white, was approaching from the south-east in a wide arc around sacred Fishtail Peak. Our source in Mustang said tw Americans and two lamas clambered out to greet the Karmapa. With the human cargo safely aboard, the helicopter blades whirled like a prayer wheel, levitating the Tsurphu Karmapa into the clouds above the Annapurna range headed for Pokhara.

Missing flight records

At Pokhara Airport, control-tower officer showed u flight records for Jan 3. A hand-written report showed Fishtail Air was the only local service to dispatch a helicopter. The air-control officer explained: "There was no other helicopter flights recorded except for Fishtail company. On Jan 3, Fishtail sent two helicopter flights out. They claimed one flight was for sightseeing and the other for rescue purposes.'' The first flight departed at about 11 am and returned to Pokhara Airport at noon; the second at 12:45 pm and returned an hour later. At US$3,000 (S$5,100) for a round-trip, the Ecuriels are more expensive than by ordinary tourist-class Kawasaki helicopters. Fishtail Air is an American-Nepali joint venture and the only one in Nepal with foreign ownership. The plot thickened when we queried Fishtail Air head office in Kathmandu. The staff told us the flight record for Jan 3 was missing. They had records for every other day in the month. All Western news accounts have failed to mention the role of Fishtail Air in this escapade. Only a report in mentions that a Westerner was involved in the trek through Mustang. A source in the Nepali government, who asked for anonymity, said a US State Department official deeply involved in the Kosovo and East Timor interventions, okayed the plan in October. A Tibetan monk in Pokhara said the Karmapa spent a few hours in the compound of the Hotel Annapurna, built by the Tibetan guerilla with CIA funds in the early 1970s and now operated by the exile government. The Karmapa did not linger long. From Pokhara, the Karmapa was taken on a five-hour drive south to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. A professional people-smuggling group took the Karmapa to the Indian side, from where a car whisked him off to Gorakhpur, then Lucknow.The following night, another American -- a staff member of an NGO group controlled by a leading US Democratic Party donor -- led the teen to a waiting private car that whisked him off to Dharamsala.

Tinderbox for political unrest

The boy lama left a note in his monastery saying he was going to Rumtek monastery, the Kagyupa seat-in-exile in Sikkim, northern India. But his entourage turned up in Dharamsala, home of Tibet's exile government. Our source said the rumour about his escape was spread around in the Kagyupa (Karmapa sect) community in Taiwan. Chen Li On, the former head of the Control Yuan of Taiwan, told his followers in November the 17th Karmapa would be out of Tibet very soon. A few days before the public appearance of the boy lama, the news was leaked to one of the major dailies in Taiwan, China Times, but it just missed the chance of breaking the story. Chen's role in the Karmapa's flight is unknown.THE sealed vaul of Rumtek contains the Black Crown, the chief symbol of authority for the Kagyupa school. A fight over the seizure of the crown has split the Kagyupa sect into two bitterly opposing factions, one led by Tai Situ Rinpoche, the mentor of the Tibetan boy, and the other headed by the second-ranking monk, the Sharmapa. This sectarian feud makes Sikkim a tinderbox for Asia's nuclear powers. Sikkim was a Buddhist kingdom before India annexed it in 1975. Powerful Sikkimese clans, however, have never accepted Indian rule [Image]and tend to turn to China and [Image] Taiwan for support. Neither recognises Indian sovereignty over Sikkim. The appearance of the Tibetan Karmapa in Rumtek would have too much significant symbolic meaning, because 80 per cent of Sikkim's population follow the pro-Tai Situ Kagyupa sect. Taiwanese Buddhists provided huge donations to Tai Situ Rinpoche, say sources in the Kagyupa school. "Sikkim could quickly turn into another Kashmir," said the former abbot Khenpo, who was evicted from Rumtek in 1992 by armed supporters of Tai Situ Rinpoche. Ethnic violence in Sikkim, involving Tibetan refugees, would attract international calls for a Western-led humanitarian intervention. In Dharamsala, the rising of the militant movement starts to catch the attention of South Asia watchers. They say there is always a reason for hardliners in Dharamsala, who strongly favour Tibet's independence, to back Tai Situ Rinpoche's plans for Sikkim. With India and China drawing closer, the exile government's days in Dharamsala seem numbered. An independent Sikkim would give Tibetan militants a new base along the border. In my last interview with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in 1994, he revealed his worries about the growing radicalism among the young Tibetans in exile. The Sharmapa, who supports a different candidate for the title 17th Karmapa and is in constant conflict with Tai Situ in India, says the boy lama has ended up in captivity. The senior Kagyupa monk concluded: "The poor boy is a guitar, and whoever has him can play their own tune."

Battelfield of the 21st century

On the other hand, a secret Indian police report of 1997 says the Tai Situ camp tried to smuggle the Karmapa out of Tibet as early as 1997. The report said: "It is suspected that Ugyen Thinley (12), Tai Situ's candidate, who has been recognised by the Chinese authorities as well as the Dalai Lama, may be smuggled into the country. It is, therefore,requested that all ICPs under your jurisdiction may please be alerted accordingly. If traced, may please be informed by quickest possible means quoting memo no. 28/0/97 (35) dated 26.06.97 under the intimation to us." Furthermore, the confidential cabinet report of May 24, 1997 shows the Indian cabinet has also been on high alert about the Tai Situ camp as a consequence of their attempt to take control of Rumtek monastery in 1996 and their increasingly violent actions against the Sharmapa camp.The Indian government has deep concern over the split in Tibetan Buddhism in its territory, which may lead to more violence. The presence of the boy lama in India could well indicate the succession struggle. "After Tai Situ Rinpoche was banned by India and then kept out of Lhasa by China, his influence was greatly diminished," said Lama Kalsan of the Sangue Choling monastery. "The escape of the Karmapa to India may have been Situ Rinpoche's way of showing muscle to both countries.

If this was the motive behind the escape, then the collaboration between Situ Rinpoche and the Dharamsala militants has started a high-risk gamble for the Tibetan exile movement. India is now nervous about any such moves, however, because the Tibetan exiles represent an irritating source of tension with China, which has not taken sides on the Kashmir issue. Himachal Pradesh, the state where Dharamsala is located, is next door to Kashmir, where Indian security forces have been fighting Islamic insurgents backed by Pakistan, a traditional ally of China. What has complicated the situation is the involvement of the US in this ethnic and geopolitical tinderbox. The US Congress provides US$2 million a year to the Tibetan exile government and is stepping up its rhetoric on the Tibet issue. This year, the US military has extended its presence in Nepal through a United Nations training programme for South Asian peacekeepers.

As the meeting point of Asia's three nuclear powers, the Himalayan region could easily explode. With our long journey at its end in Buddha's birthplace, we marvelled at all the deceptions that litter the Tibetan teen's trail and the false reports by the Western media. The tolling of bronze Buddhist bells resonated across the dusty plains of Lumbini, reminding us of the Buddha's Eightfold Path, which instructs his followers never to deceive others in this world of appearances and to always speak the truth. * Susanna Cheung is a fellow with the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong and BBC World Service Chinese Section freelance correspondent in Asia. She has also reported on the Kosovo conflict and East Timor crisis. She contributed this article to Sunday Review. the Karmapa Lama THE 14-year-old Karmapa Lama is head of the Kagyu Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He is Tibet's third highest-ranking lama and the only top lama approved by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. Both the Dalai Lama and Beijing officially approved the boy as the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa Lama in 1992 and China has been grooming him as a "patriotic" lama ever since. Beijing and Dharamsala attempted similar cooperation over the search for the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-highest ranking lama. But joint efforts failed and each side chose a different boy in 1995. As the only Tibetan Buddhist leader recognised by both sides, the Karmapa Lama represented Beijing's best hope as a sympathetic substitute for the 64-year-old Dalai Lama after his death. He was enthroned on Sept 27, 1992, at Tsurphu monastery, north of the Tibetan capital Lhasa. His predecessor, the 16th Karmapa, defected in 1959 and settled in the Indian state of Sikkim. He died in 1981.

The writer speaks

"THE issue of Tibet has been the ideological as well as the diplomatic battlefield between China and the West, in particular the United States of America. The tension is manifest in the major mainstream media of both sides, and as a consequence, the truth sometimes becomes the victim. The massive Western media reports on the recent escape of the Tibetan Karmapa Lama further blurred the facts behind the story, while their counterpart, the mainland Chinese media, chose to remain low profile and banned all news relating to the Karmapa. The Dalai Lama was reportedly taken completely by surprise when his protege, the 14-year-old Tibetan boy lama, appeared at a hotel in Dharamala on Jan 5. The international news media, quoting sources in the Karmapa's entourage and in the Tibetan Exile Government, reported that the lama had escaped on foot to India all the way from the Tsurphu monastery Lhasa, a veritable Tibetan odyssey reenacting the Dalai Lama's three-week passage to exile in 1959.

The news agencies accepted without challenge the account of the boy lama, who claimed to have walked 1,440 km in eight days over the Himalayas. But a miracle it would have been for anyone to have walked an average of 180 km per day, not counting the twists and turns of the mountain roads. The correction was made later, but in spite of the inconsistency of the information provided by the pro-Dharamsala lamas, the Western media still relied on the single source from Dharamsala with the tendency of romanticising the whole event that took place over the snow-capped Himalayas. With their own bias, they believed that the reason for the flight of the Karmapa was solely a struggle for human rights and religious freedom. I determined to trek through the escape route of the Karmapa with a Nepali reporter to collect first-hand data on the ground. It as with the hope that, based on the fact-finding, a larger picture could be painted for the complicated Tibetan issue which had been misreported to a certan extent. All the newspapers I sent this article to have refused to publish it."



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