Gedhun Choekyi Nyima: the XIth Panchen Lama of Tibet

Briefing Paper on Tibet’s XIth Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima

Ordained Name: Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Trinley Phuntsok Pal Sangpo[Gedhun Choekyi Nyima]
Birthday: 25 April 1989
Birthplace: Lhari County, Nagchu Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
Date of formal announcement as the reincarnation of the Xth Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama: 14 May 1995
Date of Abduction: 17 May 1995
Current Age: 16 year-old
The 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet


Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was born to Konchok Phuntsok and Dechen Chodon on 25 April, 1989, the nineteenth day of the third Tibetan month of the lunar calendar in the Tibetan Earth-Snake year at Lhari county of Nagchu Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). On 14 May 1995, the Dalai Lama announced the then six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the Xth Panchen Lama. Three days after the announcement, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family disappeared from their home. Their whereabouts and well-beings still remain unknown. In November 1995, government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) appointed another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the XIth Panchen Lama. He was enthroned in December of 1995.
Following Buddhist tradition that involved an elaborate search and confirmation process, the Dalai Lama recognized and announced Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the XIth reincarnation of the Panchen Lama on 14 May 1995. Beijing authorities were quick to refute the proclamation, and on 24 May 1995, an emergency three-day session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference issued a statement describing the Dalai Lama’s proclamation as ìillegal and invalid.î Chinaís response to the Dalai Lama’s selection of the Panchen Lama has been to denounce the legitimacy of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and proclaim another child to be the real incarnation ñ an unprecedented and bizarre act of the officially atheist state.
Despite innumerable requests made by the world bodies, concerned governments, and NGOs, The PRC government has refused to provide any verifiable information on Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, nor have they allowed independent observers to visit the boy and his parents in order to confirm their health and well being.
A Decade of Incommunicado : Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
After the death of the Xth Panchen Lama in 1989 under mysterious circumstances, the PRC government appointed a search party to look for his reincarnation. Beijing laid down regulations, which stated that the search party could follow traditional methods to discover the child, as long as he was found inside “China’s territory” and the PRC Government was allowed final approval.
Chadrel Rinpoche, the former abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, headed the Search Party Committee for the incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Chadrel Rinpoche was well aware that Tibetans would not accept a child as Panchen Lama who had not been recognised by the Dalai Lama. His aim, therefore, appears to have been to get both China and the Dalai Lama to agree on the same child as the reincarnation in order to avoid future disputes. His decision to cooperate with the Dalai Lama was originally endorsed by the Chinese authorities, who in July 1993 allowed him to publicly hand over a letter to envoys of the Dalai Lama asking for his assistance in the search for the reincarnation. Chinese authorities later changed their policy on religious contact with the Dalai Lama and in July 1994 ruled “we must reveal the true political face of the Dalai hidden behind the religious mask.”
The search for the late Panchen Lama’s reincarnation, or any reincarnation for that matter, is purely a religious matter. In the case of the Panchen Lama, the religious procedures traditionally involve a final selection process by the Dalai Lamas. This has been the tradition since the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), appointed his teacher Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, as the Panchen (Great Scholar) Lama of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. With this appointment, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen’s three previous incarnations were posthumously recognised as Panchen Lama. The Seventh Dalai Lama recognized the Sixth Panchen Lama, who in turn recognized the Eighth Dalai Lama. Similarly, the Eighth Dalai Lama recognised the Seventh Panchen Lama. It is regrettable that in total defiance of His Holiness’ supreme authority in the spiritual affairs of Tibet, the atheist China state volunteered to choose its own Panchen Lama.
On 14 May 1995, the Dalai Lama made the following announcement: ìI have recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, born on April 25, 1989, whose father is Konchok Phuntsok, and mother Dechen Chodon, of Lhari district in Nagchu, Tibet, as the true reincarnation of Panchen Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama informed that he had carried out all the necessary religious procedures for the recognition. He clarified that the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation was a religious rather than political matter, and that he hoped that the Chinese government would cooperate with the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in enabling the child to receive proper religious training and to take up his spiritual responsibilities.
The PRC government reacted quickly and negatively to the Dalai Lama’s announcement, declaring his actions “totally illegal and invalid”. By 17 May 1995, Chadrel Rinpoche was detained for questioning. Subsequently Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was closed for outside visitors, with Chinese ‘work team’ and Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials frequenting monastery to conduct “patriotic re-education” sessions in which monks were required to criticize the Dalai Lama. The situation inside Tashi Lhunpo Monastery remained tense with monks resisting and threatening to stage protest demonstration, riot police were called and tourists were expelled from Shigatse town itself.
China announces its own Panchen Lama:
In November 1995 the PRC government rounded up a group of senior Tibetan lamas and sent them to Beijing to perform a ritual to select a Chinese Panchen Lama. On 29 November 1995, seven months after the announcement by Dalai Lama, China announced Gyaltsen Norbu, the son of Tibetan Communist Party functionaries as the XIthPanchen Lama. The Dalai Lama lamented the Chinese action as ìunfortunateî and said that his own decision could not be changed, since he had already followed all the necessary procedures. Within hours, the official Chinese mouthpiece issued a denunciation of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, saying that the boy had “once drowned a dog and described his parents as “notorious for speculation, deceit and scrambling fame and profit.” The statement declared that the family’s attempt to “cheat the Buddha would not be allowed by all ordinary pious Tibetans.”
In late November 1995, Chinaís Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, said ìwe have no idea about the whereabouts of the so-called soul boy determined by the Dalai Lama. He denied that Gendhun Choekyi Nyima and his family had spent the last few months in detention in Beijing and added that “he is not missing, nor is he incarcerated,” but that “he should be wherever he was born.”
Despite its rejection of the Dalai Lamaís authority in recognising the Panchen Lama, and its refusal to acknowledge Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the true Panchen Lama, the Chinese authorities admitted the detention of the child. It is difficult to comprehend why the Chinese authorities would go to such lengths to provide “security” for a child who they consider to be just an ordinary boy.
A year later, on 28 May 1996, the PRC finally publicly admitted to holding the XIth Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and his family at a secret location. This announcement came after a request by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child as asking for the disclosure of the Panchen Lamaís whereabouts. As Wu Jianmin (Ambassador of China to the UN) put it: “(Gedhun Choekyi Nyima) has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents.” Wu did not say where the child was being held. At that time, Xinhua reported that, “the boy was at the risk of being kidnapped by separatists and his security had been threatened.” The Tibetan Government-In-Exile called the abduction of the Panchen Lama a “blatant attempt by China to interfere in the religious affairs of Tibet” and the spokesman said, “Not only Tibetans but the entire world would not allow China to interfere in the religious matters of the Tibetans.”
The interference in the selection process of the XIth Panchen Lama is yet another example of the many forms of religious repression in Tibet. The “patriotic re-education” campaign in Tibet’s monasteries and nunneries that began in April 1996, sought to indoctrinate certain beliefs into the psyche of the monks and nuns in Tibet, such as the recognition of the unity of the Tibet and China, the denial that Tibet should be independent, the denunciation of Dalai Lama, putting ceiling on the number of monks and nuns allowed in monasteries and nunneries, and the recognition of the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama. If monks and nuns refuse to agree to these points they may suffer harassment, expulsion or even arrest. Under this campaign 11, 383 monks and nuns have been expelled from monasteries and nunneries in the past eight years.
Conflicting Information:
In 1997, two Western delegations to Tibet were given conflicting information about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s whereabouts. The Vice-Governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Yang Chuantang, told an Austrian delegation that the boy was living in the village of Lhari, which is his birthplace. However, a delegation of American were told that he was in Beijing, as previous unconfirmed reports had indicated.
Many high-level delegations and offices have expressed concern over the Panchen Lama’s continued detention, including the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Mary Robinson during her visit to China in September 1998. However, the PRC continue to deny any outside access to the child and his parents. In October 2000, during a round of human rights dialogue with China in London, British officials raised the issue of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. In an effort to continue deceiving the International community that the Panchen Lama is healthy and happy and being kept incommunicado at his family’s own request, the British delegation was told by Chinese authorities that the boy was well attending school. They said that his parents did not want international figures and the media intruding into his life. Two photographs claimed to be of the Panchen Lama were shown to the British delegation showing a child of approximately of the right age. However, it was impossible to determine the boyís identity or location, and the British officials were not given the photos to take with them and it also turned down a request by British officials to allow an independent international figure acceptable both to Beijing and the Dalai Lama to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
In August 2001, a Polish Parliamentary delegation visiting Lhasa was told in response to repeated questions that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family were being held in “protective custody” and were healthy; the delegation was promised photos of the boy within six weeks but never received them. Later the Polish government received a letter from the Chinese embassy in Warsaw stating that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his parents did not want their peaceful life to be disturbed by strangers, and that the Chinese government “respects freedom of choice for its citizens and hopes that the Polish people would understand that too.”
In October 2001, an Australian delegation was told that the parents of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima were insisting that no foreign delegations be allowed to meet him. According to Chinese authorities, the parents have said that “they want their privacy respected, that they particularly don’t want people to have access to the child and they want him to live a normal life and they don’t want to be bothered by people.”
In March 2002, a government delegation from the TAR met with a European Parliament delegation and once again said that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima did not wish to be disturbed. The TAR delegation refused to answer questions about photographs promised to the Polish delegation. On a number of occasions in 2004, the PRC claimed that he was still under their protection and attending school in a small village. To date no one has seen the Panchen Lama.
Arrest over reincarnation:
Chadrel Rinpoche, the former abbot of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and Chinese appointed Head of the Search Committee to identify the XIth Panchen Lama, was arrested on 17 May 1995, the same day as the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. He was later sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on charges of “leaking state secrets,” and “colluding with separatist forces abroad” during his search for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. He was also charged with revealing state secrets, a reference to a letter he apparently sent to the Dalai Lama in December 1994 listing the names of 25 boys who were being considered as possible reincarnations. The Chinese authorities did not divulge until 1997, two years after the arrest, that Chadrel Rinpoche had been sentenced and imprisoned.
On 21 August 1995, a Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that Chadrel Rinpoche was in detention but said that he was ill and in hospital. Unofficial reports in 1997 indicated that he was being held at Chuandong No. 3 Prison in east Sichuan Province, 300 km east of Chengdu. To voice their disapproval of Chinese government’s selection of its own Panchen Lama and the arrest of Chadrel Rinpoche, the monks of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery publicly supported the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the XIth Panchen Lama. As a result, Chinese soldiers entered Tashi Lhunpo Monastery on 11 July 1995, and arrested and subsequently imprisoned 60 monks and lay people who were suspected of being involved in or supporting the selection of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
Along with Chadrel Rinpoche, Champa Chung (a.ka. Chung la, Ch: Qamba Qung), 58-year-old former Secretary of the Search Committee for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, and Deputy Director of the Administration of Dechen Kelsang Podrang (Ch: Deqen Gaisang Phozhang), Panchen Lama’s residence in Shigatse in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Samdrup, a businessman from Panam County in Shigatse worked in the trading corporation associated with the monastery were also sentenced and imprisoned.
On 21 April 1997, the Intermediate Court of Shigatse (Ch: Xigaze) Prefecture in the TAR convicted Chadrel Rinpoche, Champa Chung and Samdrup. Chadrel Rinpoche received six years prison term in Chuandong No. 3 Prison- which held highly sensitive political dissidents- Tazhu County, Sichuan Province with three years deprivation of political rights; Champa Chung received four years in Seitru Detention Centre TAR (Public Detention Centre) in Lhasa and two years deprivation of political rights; Samdrup received two years with subsequent deprivation of political rights for one year and he was most likely detained in Seitru Detention Center.
The three defendants were convicted of “conspiring to split the country” under Article 92 the first clause of article 186, and the 23rd, 24th, 51st, 64th articles and the second clause of the 59th article of the PRCís Criminal Procedure Law. Article 92 deals with “plots to subvert the government and dismember the State” Punishment for this offence is 10 years imprisonment, though the defendants received sentences below this minimum, according to a report issued by Xinhua, the official news agency, on 7 May 1997. Xinhua explained that the court passed sentences below the prescribed minimum in view of the “details of the case.”
Though Chadrel Rinpoche’s six years’ prison term expired on 16 May 2001, he continues to be held under house arrest in Shigatse which is an extended form of detention. The continued arbitrary detention of Chadrel Rinpoche exemplifies Beijing’s total disregard of its own domestic laws as well as international laws. It violates article nine of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) signed by China in October 1998 that outlaws arbitrary detention. Prior to his detention, Chadrel Rinpoche held the posts of the Director of the Civil Administration Society and Chairman of the Democratic Management Committee of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Rinpoche was the member of Chinese Peopleís Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Vice-chairman of the TAR CPPCC.
China’s propaganda machination:
The Beijing government has intensified its efforts to endorse Gyaltsen Norbu as the real Panchen Lama. This indicates the high political priority accorded to ensuring acceptance of the boy as the valid incarnation of the XIth Panchen Lama. Most Tibetan do not accept the boy as the legitimate Panchen Lama for Tibetans maintaining loyalty to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama in May 1995 as the reincarnation of the Xth Panchen Lama, is often a keen way to express their loyalty for the Dalai Lama. Possession of pictures of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the XIth Panchen Lama is treated as a threat to China’s unity and national security in Tibet.
Chinese media assiduously began to promote Gyaltsen Norbu as the face of Tibetís Panchen Lama in the late 1990s, focusing on coverage of his visit to the Panchen Lama’s official seat, Tashi Lhunpo in Shigatse, and Lhasa, surrounded by strong and elaborate security. China has failed miserably to win over the hearts and minds of Tibetans. Gyaltsen Norbu is often referred to as “Panchen Zuema” literally meaning, “Fake Panchen” in Tibet. The meeting of China’s Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao with Gyaltsen Norbu on 3 February 2005 at the Great Hall of People clearly represents intensification of Chinaís ongoing campaign to enforce the teenager’s legitimacy as a religious and patriotic figure. Chinese official publications on Gyaltsen Norbu spoke of an abundance of mystical portents, which the atheist rulers were so convinced pointed to his authenticity as a reincarnation of the accomplished spiritual master.
In a closed-door meeting in Qinghai Province in November 2004, the regional authorities came down heavily on senior religious leaders in Amdo region of Tibet, forcing them to give approval and support to Gyaltsen Norbu. The Buddhist leaders were threatened with unspecified punishment if they failed to comply with this ruling. The move apparently came following lackluster reception Gyaltsen Norbu received while on his visit to other regions of Tibet in 2003. Despite the fact that China has lost the battle on the spiritual front over the issue of the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation but Beijing will take the battle to the political front by constantly bombarding the international media with the image of Gyaltsen Norbu This is an attempt to win international legitimacy of the boy, so much so that the Panchen Lama chosen by the Dalai Lama will soon fade from the collective memory of the world.
China followed this strategy by turning Gyaltsen Norbu’s visits to Tibet into high profile media events and decided to invite Beijing based foreign correspondents to report on it. Unfortunately, this crafty strategy seems to have paid off as a number of media outlets simply stated that Gyaltsen Norbu was indeed the real Panchen Lama, and referred to him as the “monk who ranks second only to the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism.” Many foreign media reports have also stated that the Panchen Lamas have authority to choose the Dalai Lamas, in fact while some Panchen Lamas played important roles in recognizing the Dalai Lamas, others had no role in this process. Regent Reting Rinpoche recognized the XIVth Dalai Lama and the ninth Panchen Lama, who was living then, had no role in selecting reincarnation.
The political machinations of Chinese propaganda machinery should not deceive the international community. No matter how hard Beijing tries, Tibetans will revere the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as the legitimate one. The actions of the Chinese authorities in the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama represent yet another attempt to weaken the social, moral and religious fabric of Tibetan life to further its exploitation as a colonial possession.
Background information:
On 28 January 1989, the Xth Panchen Lama, Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyaltsen, passed away at the age 50 at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, in Shigatse, Tibet, shortly after delivering an extraordinary public speech. During the speech he called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to collaborate with him in Tibetan policy making and openly challenged the Chinese leadershipís policies in Tibet. He said, “If we compare the price of the sacrifice we (Tibetans) have made with the development that we have seen, my feeling is that the value of our sacrifice has been far greater. Our sacrifice far outweighs our development.”
In his capacity as Vice Chairman of the National Peopleís Congress, the Xth Panchen Lama traveled extensively throughout the Tibetan countryside. His observations during the tour formed the basis of his famous 70,000-character petition to the Chinese leadership which he began drafting at the end of 1961. The contents of the petition was a strongly worded and provided a critical analysis of Chinese policies and the misdirection of different campaigns, including the much-touted democratic reforms in Tibet. In April 1962, at a meeting on nationalities issues in Beijing, he took the opportunity to openly discuss the situation in Tibetan areas with his fellow Tibetan delegates. On 18 May 1962, he met the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and informed him about the contents of his petition. In June, the petition was printed and circulated among the leaders of China. The Xth Panchen Lama submitted the 70,000-character petition to Mao Zedong in 1962 and he reacted very strongly in opposition to the petition. Though the initial reaction from the Chinese leaders to the petition was somewhat positive, their opinions changed dramatically around October 1962 when members of the leadership of the Tibet Work Committee began criticizing the petition for its mistakes and urged for its review. Thus the persecution of the Panchen Lama began, which included harsh struggle sessions (Tib: thamzing), similar to those used during the Cultural Revolution. This lasted for over four years. In the summer of 1967, the Panchen Lama was formally arrested and imprisoned for nine years and eight months. He was released in October 1977,and was gradually “rehabilitated” and returned to senior Party leadership.
The Panchen Lama once again began touring the Tibetan countryside and continued his work promoting Tibetan language, culture and religion. He met the fact-finding delegations of the Dalai Lama in 1979 at Beijing. He revived the traditional Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival) Ceremony in Lhasa, and emphasised on the use of Tibetan as an official language. Though it is clear that the Xth Panchen Lama was a strong critic of the Chinese regime, today the Panchen is described as a ìpatriotî by the Chinaís Communist Party (CCP).
In the light of a refusal to allow independent access to the boy and his family or to provide photographs that positively identify Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Tibetan people can only fear for the worst. The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) is appalled at the Chinese Government’s continued detention of the 16-year-old boy and his family for over a decade now. We once again call on the PRC to disclose their whereabouts and allow an independent figure to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to verify his health and living conditions. We also demand that any restrictions currently imposed are lifted immediately and that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family are allowed to return to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery-seat of the Panchen Lamas, and receive religious education and training deserving of his religious post.
The Government of People’s Republic of China, being a permanent member of the United Nations, having signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the continued disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima for the last ten years completely contradicts their claim to respect religious freedom in Tibet. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief must demand that China release Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. While we applaud the concerns of countries around Xth the world regarding their efforts to locate the Panchen Lama, TCHRD urges the international community to maintain pressure on the PRC government to allow the Committee on the Rights of the Child to meet the Panchen Lama and also to the PRC government to release the young Panchen Lama and his family.
  • Ascertain the whereabouts and well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the XIth Panchen Lama of Tibet. The 16-year-old boy went missing with his family since 1995 after he was officially recognized as the XI Panchen Lama of Tibet.
  • Release Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family immediately and unconditionally. And that the future safety of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family must be guaranteed.
  • Allow the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other independent bodies to meet Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family.
  • Ensure that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is provided with religious education and training deserving of his religious post.
  • Ensure that the religious freedom of the Tibetan people be respected, including their right to identify all religious leaders. And Stop limiting the number of monks and nuns in the monasteries and nunneries and desist from coercing them to conform to communist ideologies.
  • Restrictions imposed on Chadrel Rinpoche and Champa Chung – who are still under house arrest – be lifted immediately and allow them to lead a normal life.
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