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Olympics Torch Relay: Intriguing Absence of Panchen Lama

AS REPORTED BY JAMES REYNOLDS OF THE BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION: ” The Olympic torch has been carried through the Tibetan provincial capital of Lhasa amid heavy security on Saturday (June 21,2008). The 11km (seven mile) parade passed off smoothly, with the flame carried past apparently hand-picked spectators. There is a staggering security presence in the city, three months after violent protests broke out. Reporters representing about 30 international news organisations have been allowed into the city in a closely monitored group to cover the torch relay – widely considered the most sensitive leg of the flame’s journey around the world and through China. Torch bearers in white-and-red track suits carried the Olympic flame through Lhasa’s streets, beginning at Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader now living in exile in India. We saw very clearly several dozen soldiers wearing riot gear – a reminder that Lhasa is not a normal city.”

FROM A BBC COMMENTARY: “Our correspondent says he passed through at least six checkpoints as he was driven in an official convoy to the start of the relay. Each member of the crowd has a badge, suggesting that spectators were specially chosen or vetted for the ceremony, he says. ”

AS REPORTED BY CHRIS BUCKLEY OF REUTERS FROM LHASA:”Chinese-appointed Tibetan leaders used the passing of the Olympic torch relay through the capital Lhasa on Saturday to defend Communist Party control of the remote Buddhist region and denounce the exiled Dalai Lama. The torch procession ended under tight security below the towering Potala Palace after having been run for just over two hours before a carefully-selected crowd, some three months after the region was convulsed by bloody anti-Chinese protests.”Tibet’s sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it,” Tibet’s hardline Communist Party boss Zhang Qingli said at a ceremony at the end of the relay.”We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique,” he added. Police and troops lined the streets, closely watching the groups of residents chosen to cheer on the torch. Groups of students from Lhasa University waved Olympic banners, the Chinese national flag, as well as the hammer and sickle banner of the ruling Communist Party.”

AS REPORTED BY THE AGENCE FRANCE PRESS (AFP):”The latest leg of the Olympic torch relay was held in the Tibetan capital Saturday, amid tight security after deadly riots against Chinese rule three months ago, as rights groups condemned the event. Hand-picked spectators cheered runners as they carried the torch through Lhasa for the relay, which ended in front of the Potala Palace, exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama’s former chief residence.Paramilitary police watched the event closely from the ground and surrounding buildings, an AFP photographer witnessed, while the area was closed off to all but those given special passes for the relay. Tibetan singer Caidan Zhuoma ran the flame to the palace before it was combined with the special flame that was carried up the Tibetan side of Mount Everest during an earlier leg of the relay. The carefully-staged event ended apparently without incident after less than two hours, instead of the scheduled three, with no immediate reason given for the shortened period. Many locals were told to stay at home, and shops along the relay route in the remote, Himalayan city were closed to the public. “We are not supposed to leave the hotel to watch the relay, so we are staying inside,” an employee at the Tibet International Hotel told AFP. Starting from Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, the torch was carried first by 75-year-old Tibetan mountaineering hero Gonpo. The Chinese Government shortened the original route in Tibet to just one day instead of three.It later cut the event from eight hours to three, citing last month’s massive earthquake.”

AS REPORTED BY THE US-FUNDED RADIO FREE ASIA: “Chinese authorities in Tibet and the northwestern region of Xinjiang, two of the most politically sensitive ethnic minority regions in the country, are tightly controlling who will be allowed to watch the Olympic flame pass on its way to start the Games in Beijing. The torch relay was originally scheduled to start from Lhoka (in Chinese, Shannan) prefecture on Friday and then enter Lhasa, which saw violent rioting and protests against Chinese rule in mid-March, but the initial leg of the torch’s progress through the Himalayan region was canceled in favor of a single day event Saturday in Lhasa, sources said.”All who are to participate in the relay of the Olympic torch will be placed in a hotel,” a Tibetan source in Lhasa said.”Most of the Tibetans selected hold some kind of leadership position. The authorities seem to be very worried about protests,” he said, adding that restrictions on Tibetans in Lhasa were very intense. Tibetans had been threatened with the loss of their jobs and even pensions if they performed the usual offerings during the torch relay, he added. Travel agencies in Lhasa said thousands of armed police were patrolling the streets of Lhasa ahead of the rally, and that arrangements had been made for people from all work units and schools to travel to show their support.Detailed routes haven’t been publicized in advance.”

AS REPORTED BY THE STATE-OWNED XINHUA NEWS AGENCY OF CHINA:”The relay in Lhasa began at 9 am on Saturday morning at the square in front of the city’s famous garden, the Norbu Lingka. A minute of silence was observed to remember the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake a month ago. Local authorities say the arrival of the flame is a great boost to the solidarity of the different ethnic groups in the autonomous region.Qin Yizhi, vice chairman of Tibet Autonomous Region, said, “The passage of the flame across Lhasa will further enhance the patriotism of all ethnic groups and stimulate their enthusiasm to make greater contribution to the social progress in Tibet. Let’s stick to the Olympic spirit of peace, friendship and progress and hold high the Olympic torch symbolizing harmony and glory. Wish all the best to our country, and a great success to the Beijing Olympic Games.”The first torch bearer was 72-year-old Gongbo, a noted Tibetan mountaineer. This run featured 156 torchbearers, 75 of them Tibetan. The route covered 9.3 kilometers and ended at Potala Square. During the two-hour relay, the flame kindled on the top of Mount Qomolangma (Everest) on May 8th reunited with the main torch.”

AS REPORTED BY “THE HINDU” OF CHENNAI: “The Olympic flame passed through Lhasa in a joyful and peaceful atmosphere on Saturday.” It then goes on to give details of the “joyful and peaceful atmosphere” as disseminated by Xinhua.


1. Even according to the official account as disseminated by Xinhua, there were156 torchbearers, of whom only 75 were Tibetans. The remaining 81 were not Tibetans. 2. It does not give the details of all the 75 Tibetans. 3.The Tibetan authorities had originally announced that the torch would be in Lhasa and the surrounding region of Tibet for three days. They cut it to one day lasting eight hours. Even these eight hours were cut short on June 21,2008, to less than three hours. The authorities seemed anxious to take the torch out of Lhasa as quickly as possible. 4. Originally, it had been indicated that the flame would be received at the Potala Palace by the communist party-appointed Panchen Lama. Instead, it was received by Zhang Qingli, the head of the Communist Party in Tibet. He was reported to have told protesting Tibetans in March last that the Communist Party was their Dalai Lama. No explanation has been forthcoming as to why the Panchan Lama was not present and why he was not given any role in the Lhasa functions for the torch relay.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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