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Wed, Apr 05, 2000 - Page 9 News List

The flight of the Karmapa and the security of South Asia

Having spent two weeks retracing the boy lama's flight from China, a pair of journalists discovered not only a network of alleged conspirators ranging from the US democratic party to Taiwan's own Chen Li-an, but a trail of lies and deception cutting a swath across Buddhism's Eightfold Path

By Susanna Chui-Yung Cheung

The recent trip by US President Clinton to South Asia has renewed international attention of the security problems in the region, in particular the ethnic, religious and geopolitical conflicts between the two newest nuclear powers -- India and Pakistan. However, China, another big nuclear power whose border sprawls along the Himalayan range in South Asia, is a factor that should not be overlooked.

The great escape of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the 17th Karmapa Lama, to India two months before Clinton's visit has increased the tensions not only between India and China, but also between the contending factions among Tibetan Buddhists in the Himalayan region. The issue of the Tibetan exiles represents an another unpredictable variable affecting stability in South Asia.

Given the significance of the flight of the boy lama, named Ugyen Trinley Dorje, our two-person news team -- myself, a Hong Kong-based journalist and Prakash Khanal, a veteran Nepali environmental reporter -- recently retraced the Karmapa's route starting from the Tibet-Nepal border crossing Nepal all the way down to the Nepal and Indian border during a two-week investigation. An effort has been made to find out the different forces behind the boy lama's escape and its implications to the security in the region.

Our findings on the ground contradict the majority of Western reports, which have tended to be ideological rather than factual. What we discovered is that the lama's flight had been meticulously planned to throw the Nepali police and journalists off the track. It was speeded by a helicopter operator -- with an American owner -- and made possible by an extensive network among the Tibetan exile community closely linked with the government-in-exile in Dharamsala. Suspicions of an organized plot thickened when the Tibetan community in Pokhara, Nepal, disclosed that the Karmapa's sister did not arrive together with him, but had appeared in Pokhara three weeks earlier.

On Jan. 3, according to extensive interviews with the locals, Nepali journalists and police officers were alerted that the Karmapa was in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Though their search was in vain, the alarm provided the first indication that the boy lama had escaped Tibet via Nepal.

The escape route

The Karmapa settled on an indirect route to India, through the forbidding landscape of Mustang, the northern remote region of Nepal that was the stronghold of Tibetan guerrillas, as well as the CIA's base in the area, until the 1970s. Our team picked up the Karmapa's trail in Pokhara, a resort at the foot of the Annapurna range. There, a Nepali businessman traced the escape route, based on his in-depth debriefing of the pony drivers who had assisted the Karmapa.

As the Karmapa and his three aides approached the border in two Landcruisers on New Year's Eve, they were being chased by Chinese police cars. They abandoned the vehicles and escaped by foot into Nepal. As revelers around the world rang in a new millennium, the Karmapa fled Tibet.

Just inside the Nepali boundary, along the bank of the Mustang Khola river, a tall, bearded Westerner was waiting for the Karmapa. This Westerner had hired local guides who had brought eight ponies for the journey across the northern half of Mustang, where there are no roads for motor vehicles.

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