SCMP Feb 9, 2010

Many accusations but few facts as Karmapa accused of spying


On January 27, Indian police swooped down on the Gyotu Monastery in Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas. They confiscated local and foreign banknotes from 25 countries said to total more than US$1.6 million from the headquarters of the Karmapa, the third most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. 

Within 48 hours, however, what began as a story about alleged financial misdoings had spiralled into a flurry of allegations that Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, who fled Tibet for India in 2000, was a Chinese spy. Experts reject that claim. They explain the furore by pointing an accusing finger at Indian intelligence agencies and local officials (both long suspicions of the Chinese and Tibetans), as well as an unscrupulous Indian media and the intrigues of rival claimants to the Karmapa's title.

Indian media first reported that the police moved on the monastery after detaining two men in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh carrying 10 million rupees (HK$1.69 million), which had apparently come from the Karmapa's headquarters to buy land for a new monastery in Dharamsala. Foreigners are not allowed to purchase land in Himachal Pradesh, but often do so through frontmen. 

The evidence against the Karmapa? The large amounts of Chinese bills found in his monastery, as well as Indian intelligence's suspicions that the Karmapa could not have escaped China without Beijing's consent. There were also murky allegations of incriminating documents. 

The incident came at a critical time. The young Karmapa, 25, is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and a hero to many young Tibetans around the world after his daring escape out of China-controlled Tibet at the age of just 15. And his importance has been growing in recent years as the Dalai Lama, in his 70s, is experiencing poor health. The highly charismatic and popular Karmapa is expected to play a key role as the symbolic head of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama dies until a reincarnate is discovered and comes of age.

The Kagyu office said the money was from devotees and called the allegations 'grossly speculative and without foundation in the truth'. The Karmapa wanted to build a permanent monastery and had done no wrong, it said. 'The potential site was evaluated and cleared by the appropriate governmental offices. The negotiations to purchase the land are still in progress, have been reported to the Indian authorities, and are completely above board. 

'We categorically deny having any link whatsoever with any arm of the Chinese government.'

Some in Indian intelligence and local government circles have long suspected the Karmapa of being a Chinese spy. But although intelligence agencies have been monitoring the Karmapa closely, they have offered no evidence of espionage. 

Still, the Indian media leapt on the story with relish, using innuendo and unsourced information to carry out a wide-ranging attack against the monk. He is recognised by both the Dalai Lama and Beijing as a result of negotiations in the 1990s. 

A report by the NewsX television channel, which was seen on YouTube, flashed a banner proclaiming 'Karmapa Lama Cash Scam'. One of its reporters quoted unnamed 'agencies' as saying the Karmapa 'could well be a spy'.

The newspaper DNA India reported that officials had said the 17th Karmapa was in 'constant touch with Chinese authorities', and that his prolonged stay in Himachal Pradesh 'could be a security threat'.' 'Almost all monasteries run by the Karmapa are located in strategically sensitive areas where there are key army and air force installations,' it said.

The Telegraph of Calcutta wrote that the Karmapa had spent huge sums of money since heavy rains last year to 'generate goodwill', adding that 'Delhi sees this as part of a plan to spread Chinese influence in the Indian Himalayan region'. 

Sonam Lhundup Lama, convenor of the group Tibetan Cause for the Northeast Region of India, says the raids were part of a Chinese strategy to attack the popularity of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders in India.

The prominent Tibetan poet and commentator Tsering Woeser alleges that Beijing could be behind the rumours. 'The Chinese want to drive the Karmapa out of India,' she says. 'The biggest beneficiary is China.'

Many Tibet experts say the accusations that the Karmapa is in the pay of Beijing are groundless. 'The idea that the Karmapa has any political agenda or any political purpose connected to China is completely fanciful and no evidence has ever been produced to support it,' said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Programme at Columbia University.

'The escape of the Karmapa was the single most humiliating incident in several decades for China in terms of its Tibet policy, apart from mass protests. His was the most important defection of a Tibetan leader since the Dalai Lama left 50 years ago. It did major damage to the credibility of the Chinese authorities and it is not plausible that the escape could have been staged by the Chinese for some nefarious reason.'

Warren Smith, who works for the Tibetan Service of Radio Free Asia in Washington, asks: 'Why would the Chinese want to endure this embarrassment for the sake of having a spy in India? What is the Karmapa supposed to be spying on? If anything, he would be a useful spy only about Tibetan affairs, not Indian.'

Experts also reject the argument that the Karmapa could not have escaped without Beijing's help. 'They say that it would be difficult to escape across the border, but thousands of Tibetans have disappeared across this border,' Barnett said. 

Smith says this argument is based on the assumption 'that the Chinese are all-knowing and super-competent while the Tibetans weren't smart enough to even find their way from Lhasa to India undetected,' calling this a 'typical overestimation of Chinese capabilities and underestimation of Tibetans'. 

Smith says that the entire route to Mustang in Nepal passes through one of the most remote areas of Tibet, and that one of the Karmapa's aides surveyed the route in advance to determine where Chinese military posts and road checks were located.

Beijing-based Woeser, who was in close contact with the Karmapa until his departure, said it was impossible that the escape was sanctioned by the Chinese. She said 300 lamas at the Karmapa's monastery in Tibet - including some personal friends - were detained after his escape, with some kept in prison for as many as three years. Further, Chinese authorities have kept a watchful eye on his parents, nomadic sheepherders in northeastern Tibet, she said.

One former diplomat who visited the Karmapa on several occasions played down the possibility that the Karmapa could have any contacts that intelligence officials were unaware of.

'There are multiple layers of Indian security, police, army, intelligence, all over the monastery, concentrated around the Karmapa,' she said. 'They are all over everyone who meets with him: passport checks, multiple rounds of bag searches and aggressive pat-downs.' 

She said that she herself had been 'aggressively interrogated' before meeting the Karmapa, and that an intelligence officer sat in on every meeting she had with him. 

Tibetans and scholars also see nothing strange in the large amounts of cash that were found in the monastery, pointing out that the lineage of the Karmapa has had many wealthy backers, dating back to ancient times, and that the present Karmapa receives generous donations from devotees.

'There's been a massive growth in Buddhism in the past 10 years, particularly among the upper middle class in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia,' Barnett said. 'The Chinese have a custom of giving huge donations - and they give them in cash.'

Another Tibet watcher said that with people going to prison for being seen as supportive of the Dalai Lama, it was unlikely than any Chinese devotees would leave a paper trail by donating money with a cheque.

'I don't think the Tibetans there even remotely imagine there's anything wrong with this,' said Jamyang Norbu, a US-based commentator on Tibetan issues and a former resident of Dharamsala. 'All these monasteries have money.  And the people who throw money at them are the Chinese. 

'They want favours. There's this superstition that the Tibetan lamas have power and magic. That element is very strong. And if they like a lama it's nothing to them to give 40, 50, 100,000 US dollars right there. The People's Republic of China and Taiwan are keeping these lamas going.'

Furthermore, tight Indian regulations make it difficult or impossible for the Tibetan refugees in India to deal with finances and land purchases, leaving them in a sort of financial catch-22.

At most, say Tibet scholars, the Karmapa's organisation is guilty of being sloppy. 'There is no reason to doubt, as has been said in justification, that the money was from offerings,' said a Western expert on Tibet. 'But to have cash amounting to 75 million Indian rupees does raise the question of why.'

Jamyang Norbu, a Tibetan political activist and writer living in the United States, said: 'The real problem is that he doesn't have staff that are savvy about the outside world, adding that the Karmapa needed 'a good manager'.

'They just put donations into a tin box which gets pushed under the bed,' he said. 'To some extent the Tibetan government [in exile] should have supervised this a bit better.'

Smith argues that the incident is 'almost entirely about Tibetan reincarnation politics', which has resulted in court battles in India over the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, the seat of the 16th Karmapa, said to possess huge amounts of property and wealth.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje was recognised by the Dalai Lama and Beijing as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa in 1992 at age eight, and the Chinese attempted to groom him as a counter to the Dalai Lama. 

That plan collapsed in 1999, when the then 15-year-old religious leader made his escape to Nepal and then India, where he joined the Dalai Lama in exile. He later said the escape was made after Chinese officials reneged on a promise to allow him to travel to India to continue his theological studies.

Dibyesh Anand, an associate professor of international relations at London's Westminster University, wrote in the Hindustan Times that the rival candidate to the Karmapa title, Trinley Thaye Dorje, had the backing of Shamar Rinpoche, a senior Kagyu official who, he said, was reputed to have close ties to the Indian security establishment and government officials. Shamar is said to be behind a series of court cases in recent years regarding the Karmapa's estate in Sikkim.

The 17th Karmapa lives in the Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Dharamsala, which is also the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. The Indian government has limited the movement of the Karmapa, barring him or other claimants to the title from living in Sikkim, for fear that it could lead to disputes between their various supporters. The Karmapa has only been allowed to make one overseas trip - a visit to the US in 2008.

Barnett said: 'The central government in India seems to have remained agnostic on this issue, allowing the intelligence services to harass the Karmapa and his teachers and restrict their movements, while never openly defying the clear support of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community for the Karmapa.'

Tibet experts, who were surprised by the Indian media's coverage of the event, cannot account for the media attack on the Tibetan leader, but agreed that Indian intelligence services may have been behind some of the rumours.

'I think it comes down to a culture of endemic distrust within Indian political circles, combined with people who don't like the Karmapa, China or Tibetans,' Barnett said.

'What we don't understand is anti-China people being anti-Dalai Lama and anti-Karmapa. It's a very complicated story.'

The damage may be hard to reverse among Indians who are suspicious of the Karmapa.

'It's unlikely that the security establishment here will abandon the view that his escape was stage-managed,' said Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at Manipal University in Manipal, in India's Karnataka state. 'Discovering millions in cash with his aide won't help.'

However, some say the accusations may have actually given the young Buddhist leader a boost among his followers.

There has been a groundswell of support for the Karmapa following the news of the raid on his monastery. Thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns and devotees marched last week in Dharamsala to show their support for him. And supporters on Facebook from around the world have swapped their own Facebook photos for that of the Karmapa as a sign of solidarity. 

'This incident has given younger Tibetans the opportunity to rally around the Karmapa, which might be something positive coming out of this mess,' Jamyang Norbu said.