The Beijing-backed Eleventh Panchen Lama has appeared to hit out at Tibetan monks who have set themselves on fire in recent months by describing protesting monks as not being “men of religion” in rare comments on the self-immolations.

The Panchen Lama, who is seen as the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama, has remained silent even as at least 44 Tibetans set themselves on fire over the past year. Last week, an 18-year-old monk in Aba, in southwestern Sichuan province, died after setting himself on fire near the Gyalrong Tsodun Kirti monastery.

The Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, is seen by many Tibetans as a controversial figure. He was appointed with Beijing’s approval in 1995 in place of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was chosen by the Dalai Lama as the eleventh reincarnation and was later disappeared. In 2010, Norbu was appointed by Beijing to its top legislative body, and has increasingly been promoted as the leading figure of Tibetan Buddhism in China.

The Dalai Lama suggested, in an interview with The Hindu earlier this month, that the Panchen Lama’s silence over the self-immolations reflected the challenge he has faced in gaining the legitimacy of many Tibetans, even as Chinese authorities have called on him to play a greater role to ensure stability in Tibet.

“If the Dalai Lama becomes 100 per cent pro-Chinese, then Tibetans will not respect the Dalai Lama. Like what happened with the Panchen Lama,” said the Dalai Lama in the interview on July 6, his 77th birthday. “I think the Panchen Lama himself now knows that. Recently during these crises, he has remained very silent. He is quite wise. It looks like the Chinese Panchen Lama is more wise than the Chinese leaders.”

Two weeks after the Dalai Lama’s comments, the Panchen Lama broke his silence on the protests following a visit to Lhasa’s famous Jokhang Temple on Tuesday. “If a person does not protect social stability, he is not fit to be called a man of religion,” he was quoted as saying by the State-run Xinhua news agency.

He said it was the “basic” responsibility for a religious person to “help people do good deeds, and promote harmony and social development by religious preaching.”

“And religious people should abide by the laws and religious code of conduct themselves,” Xinhua quoted him as saying, adding that his words came “after several of China’s Tibetan areas reported self-immolation cases in recent months.”

The Panchen Lama “urged monks to appreciate what they have now and do more to safeguard social stability” and said “Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism are in their prime time of development”.

“I feel I am given an important task and bear great responsibilities, but I will take this pressure as motivation,” he said. “I am confident to let Tibetan Buddhism play a more active role in promoting social harmony and China’s development,” he added. “For that, the leadership and all people in Tibet can be at ease.”

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