BEIJING (Reuters) - A Tibetan youth, anointed by China’s atheist Communists as the 11th Panchen Lama, is tipped to become the country’s youngest official holding a rank equivalent to a cabinet minister.
China and the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Communist rule, chose rival reincarnations of the 10th Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, in 1995.
The Dalai Lama’s choice, then six, disappeared from public view, leading human rights watchdogs to call him the world’s youngest political prisoner.
Beijing’s choice, Gyaltsen Norbu, turned 18 on Wednesday.
“He is now an adult. He can vote and be voted for,” a source familiar with government policy towards religion and ethnic minorities told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
A second source with knowledge of government policy on Tibet said: “He is likely to become a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress as early as next month.”
The National People’s Congress, or parliament, is due to convene its annual session on March 5. Members of its elite Standing Committee hold a rank equivalent to cabinet minister.
A parliamentary spokesman declined to comment.
If confirmed, Gyaltsen Norbu’s appointment is almost certain to draw Western condemnation.
“That won’t go down well,” said Robbie Barnett, a Tibetologist at Columbia University in New York.
“That will look like over-management unless they allow the child space to develop his own character and political style to indicate that he has the real interests of Tibetans at heart ... not the ones that China decides are Tibetan interests.”
In a sign China is grooming Gyaltsen Norbu for higher office, he met Wu Bangguo, chairman of the parliament, last month.
Wu told Gyaltsen Norbu to “uphold patriotic Tibetan Buddhism ... and safeguard the unity of the motherland and national unity” — euphemisms for toeing the Communist Party line.
“The 11th will eventually become a vice-chairman,” a third source with ties to the leadership said.
A vice-chairman of parliament holds a rank equivalent to a vice-premier, an appointment that if confirmed would make Gyaltsen Norbu a national leader.
Saturday marked the 70th birth anniversary of the 10th Panchen Lama who became a vice-chairman of parliament in 1959 aged 21.
Braving sub-zero temperatures, thousands of villagers lined streets and greeted the 10th Panchen Lama’s daughter, Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, as “princess”. More than 500 motorcycles escorted her to her father’s birthplace in Wendu village in the northwestern province of Qinghai.
Beijing denies accusations it has placed the boy appointed by the Dalai Lama under house arrest and says he and his family merely do not want to be disturbed by Western media.
Tibetans regard Beijing’s choice, who made his debut on the world stage at a Buddhist conference in 2006, as a sham. One rumour circulating in Lhasa last year was that he had committed suicide. Another had it that he had fled abroad.