ALDERSHOT, England – Thousands of Buddhists from all over Britain packed into the Aldershot football stadium southwest of London on June 29, quietly waiting under a hot sun to see the Dalai Lama.
Just outside the turnstiles, another group of Buddhists awaited the Tibetan spiritual leader.
“False Dalai Lama, stop lying, false Dalai Lama, stop lying!” they chanted over and over through megaphones, drummers pounding out a rhythmic tempo. When he spoke, only snippets of his remarks could be heard above the cacophony.
“China must be thrilled at this,” said Gary Beesley, a British devotee of Tibetan Buddhism who had travelled from Manchester to hear the Dalai Lama. “They really must love it.”
The Aldershot demonstration was part of a pattern: Noisy protesters are following the globetrotting Dalai Lama almost everywhere he goes, denouncing him in terms that echo the invective heaped upon the Nobel Peace laureate by China’s ruling Communist Party.
On the surface, the commotion appears to stem from an arcane, centuries-old schism in Tibetan Buddhism. But a Reuters investigation has found that the religious sect behind the protests has the backing of the Communist Party. The group has emerged as an instrument in Beijing’s long campaign to undermine support for the Dalai Lama, a political exile who commands the loyalty of millions of Chinese citizens and whom Beijing accuses of plotting secession for Tibet.
The protesters are members of a sect that worships Dorje Shugden, a deity its devotees revere as a protector. The Dalai Lama discourages the practice, advising his followers that Dorje Shugden is a malevolent spirit. The Shugden worshippers accuse the Tibetan spiritual leader of persecuting them for their beliefs.
This quarrel was once confined to the temples and monasteries of the remote Tibetan plateau and exile communities in India. But it has now been exported to the streets and stadiums of North America, Europe and Australia.
Tibetan and foreign protesters say the demonstrations are organized by an umbrella group called the International Shugden Community, which in the United States is registered as a charity in California. Members of this group say they are fighting purely for religious freedom and deny China plays a role in the demonstrations.
“There is no connection at all between Dorje Shugden and the Communist Party,” said Nicholas Pitts, a Hong Kong-based spokesman for the International Shugden Community who frequently appears at its protests.
But a leaked internal Communist Party document shows that China is intervening in the dispute. The party document, issued to officials last year, said the Shugden issue is “an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique”.
A monk and prominent former member of the Shugden movement who was based in India and Nepal, Lama Tseta, told Reuters that China paid him and others to plan and coordinate the activities of the sect’s followers overseas. Tseta said officials from the Communist Party’s powerful political special-operations unit, the United Front Work Department, control the effort and allocate funding. These officials direct the protests through senior Shugden monks in China and the Tibetan exile community in India and the West, who are the spiritual leaders of the sect, he said.
“The Chinese are using them as a tool to make the Dalai Lama look fake, to achieve their own ends, to undermine Tibetan Buddhism and to fragment Tibetan society,” Tseta said in an interview.
SHUGDEN DEFECTOR: Lama Tseta, pictured here near his home in Connecticut, said China paid him and others to plan the sect’s activities abroad when he was a prominent member in the Shugden movement. REUTERS/Paul Mooney
These senior Shugden monks are treated as honored guests at official functions in China and publicly embraced as patriotic allies in Beijing’s campaign to crush support for the Dalai Lama, according to eyewitness accounts, reports in China’s state controlled media and postings on Dorje Shugden websites.
A core group of ethnic Tibetans living abroad who follow these senior monks spearhead the
demonstrations. They travel the world to harangue the Dalai Lama. Some attend government functions in China, and have contact with Chinese diplomats at Beijing’s embassies and consulates. But they deny that China plays any role in the protests. They say they are purely demonstrating for religious freedom and pay their own way.
“SERIOUS POTENTIAL THREAT”
The majority of protesters, though, are foreign recruits like Pitts, mostly Westerners. Lama Tseta said Chinese officials had instructed senior Shugden monks to enlist these foreigners in the demonstrations. Reuters has no independent evidence of direct Chinese financing of the protests. But a senior Indian Interior Ministry official said Indian authorities are aware that the Shugden sect receives funds from China.
“We also keep a close watch on them because they get funding from China via Nepal,” said the official, who supervises the activities of India’s internal security agency, the Intelligence Bureau, and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In response to questions from Reuters about the Communist Party’s support for the Shugden sect, the Chinese foreign ministry said the Dalai Lama was practicing “religious tyranny.”
“The 14th Dalai Lama has in recent years used all sorts of means, including violent
terror methods, to force certain people to abandon their religious belief,” the ministry said.
The office of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, said the Tibetan spiritual leader was occupied with teaching in Southern India and was unable to answer questions for this article.
How much the campaign will tarnish the Dalai Lama is unclear, but the Shugden protesters are having an impact. Coverage of the Dalai Lama’s visits in the United States, Europe and Australia now regularly includes accusations from Shugden spokespeople that he is a religious bigot with no right to speak for Tibet.
The protests have become so strident that the Tibetan spiritual leader has been alerted by U.S., Indian and other intelligence agencies that there is “now a serious potential threat to the Dalai Lama’s well-being,” according to a briefing document reviewed by Reuters.
That assessment is contained in the 18-page briefing prepared for the Dalai Lama’s official representative in the United Kingdom, the Office of Tibet, ahead of the Tibetan religious leader’s two trips to Britain this year. The document, which was provided to the British Foreign Office, also reported that the U.S., Dutch and Swiss governments had tightened security during the Dalai Lama’s recent visits. The memo makes no allegations of a Chinese government role in the security threat.
A former U.S. official said the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security was aware of the Dorje Shugden group and had to pay particular attention to it.
“There’s a lot of passion around this from Shugden practitioners, and the Chinese have fostered this Shugden worship as a way to split Tibetans,” said Kelley Currie, a senior State Department advisor on Asia and Tibet from 2007 to 2009. Currie previously worked for the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group promoting human rights for Tibetans.
A State Department spokesperson said the bureau provided protection for the Dalai Lama during his visits to the United States but declined to discuss operational details.
China’s effort to neutralize the Dalai Lama is part of a systematic and often secretive global campaign to silence criticism abroad and bring the world around to its views.
A Reuters investigation this year exposed how China has used front men to set up a covert international radio network that is broadcasting pro-Beijing news. A second article revealed how China is using government-backed groups masquerading as NGOs to intimidate its critics at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In the case of the Dalai Lama, Beijing hasn’t just co-opted a Buddhist group to challenge the Tibetan spiritual leader. It has also used the country’s economic and diplomatic clout with Western governments to marginalize its Tibetan foe.
The Dalai Lama’s ‘religious tyranny’
The Chinese government’s response to Reuters for this article:
“China’s constitution stipulates that citizens have freedom of belief. The central government and government of the Tibet Autonomous Region fully respect the rights of citizens to freedom of belief. In Tibet, all religions and sects receive equal respect and protection, and normal religious activities and religious belief is protected by the law.
“After democratic reform, Tibet abolished the theocratic system and did away with things tarnished by the feudal system, restoring the true features of religious freedom, achieving real religious freedom of belief and religious tolerance between different religions and sects.
“‘Dorje Shugden’ is a protecting deity who has been worshipped throughout history by several schools in Tibetan Buddhism, with special religious practices, forms of worship and séances passed on. Starting from the Fifth Dalai Lama, Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas throughout history have worshipped ‘Dorje Shugden’. Whether to believe or not in the protecting deity ‘Dorje Shugden’ is totally a free and private matter for religious followers.
“The 14th Dalai Lama has in recent years used all sorts of means, including violent terror methods, to force certain people to abandon their religious belief, which has caused strong dissatisfaction in the Tibetan Buddhist community and among certain religious groups internationally. This kind of behavior, which violates the beliefs of religious followers and persecutes them, once more exposes the 14th Dalai Lama’s hypocrisy and real face of the religious tyranny he practices.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry
By David Lague, Paul Mooney and Benjamin Kang Lim (Reuters)