Beijing seeks dominance over Mongolian Buddhist sphere

The issue of declaration of the 10th Jetsundamba (JD) is gaining traction in Mongolia. The 10th JD, the religious head and highest reincarnate lama of Mongolia is considered third in the Buddhist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. The 10th JD is believed to be a child presently living in Mongolia but holding US citizenship. During a meeting of the Buddhist monks community held on December 17, 2021 in Ulaanbaatar, it was decided that the declaration about the 10th JD be made without any further delay.

However, China seems intent on stalling the declaration, because the JD, other than the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, would be an influential voice in the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Beijing has indicated that it would recognize the child as the 10th JD only if he was not recognized by the Dalai Lama and the Mongolian government sent him to study in China.

Khamba Nomun Han (KNH), the head of the selection committee for the 10th JD, was supposed to visit India during March 06-23, 2022 to discuss the matter with the Dalai Lama but the visit was cancelled at the last moment. The office of KNH informed that the visit has only been postponed and not cancelled. Although ‘weather’ was quoted as the reason for the postponement of the visit, the real reason seems non-approval from higher authorities and rising opposition against KNH within Gandan Monastery.

Recently, around 30 monks of Gandan Monastery joined a faction against KNH and questioned the legitimacy of KNH’s prolonged stay (since 1992) as the top abbot of the monastery. The most active of them, including Lama Luvsanjamts, the head of social media wing of the monastery, are known to be well connected to Khamba Lamas of pro-China monasteries.

The Chinese Embassy in Mongolia is also proactively working towards increasing its clout in the Mongolian Buddhist circles and inciting trouble for KNH, who is also the head of the High Council of Lamas of Mongolia. In early February, 2022 Khamba Lama of pro-China Ikhkhuree Monastery, Z. Sanjiddorj, organized a meeting of around 40 Khamba Lamas from various small monasteries to celebrate the TsagaanSar (Mongolian New Year). It was attended by a Chinese Embassy official too, who appeared for signing a petition urging Mongolian Government to remove KNH and Gandan Monastery from being the head and centre of Mongolian Buddhism respectively. The Chinese Embassy also distributed MNT 350 million (US$ 123,000) among the poor and small monasteries as a gift for TsagaanSar.  

Mongolia fears that if it antagonized China, the 10th JD may face the same fate as the 11th Panchen Lama. KNH views that the impending declaration of the 10th JD should be expedited, claiming it to be a ‘now or never’ situation, and seeks the acquiescence of the Mongolian government for the same. However, his concern is that, of the three heads of the Mongolian government, while the Speaker G. Zandanshatar is in full support and President U. Khurelsukh is neutral, Prime Minister L. Oyun-Erdene does not appear to be enthusiastic about the idea. It is believed that Chinese coercion is the reason behind the PM’s unsupportive stance. Days after PM Oyun-Erdene’s visit to China during February 2-8, 2022 to attend the Winter Olympics, a prominent social activist Ch. Munkhbayar, who used to lead all anti-China demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar, was detained (Feb 17) by Mongolia’s General Intelligence Agency (GIA).   

China seems to be trying to influence not just the Mongolian Buddhist circles, but also the political leadership and government using different tactics, including exerting economic pressure through border closure, to gain control over Mongolia’s Buddhist affairs. Beijing has long relied on economic coercion to deter Mongolia from supporting Tibetans and the Dalai Lama. This was best witnessed when it imposed heavy sanctions on Mongolia following the Dalai Lama’s visit in November 2016 to Ulaanbaatar, when he announced that the 10th JD had been identified.

Mongolia has long relied on Russia in balancing its ties with China but due to the Ukraine crisis and consequent sanctions on Russia, Moscow may not be able to fully support Ulaanbaatar in confronting Beijing on the 10th JD issue. China is likely to take full advantage of the situation and aggressively try to entrench itself into Mongolia’s Buddhist circle in order to influence the naming of the 10th JD, which would have implications on the Dalai Lama succession issue, and in turn, decide the future course of Tibetan Buddhism.






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