TCHRD commemorates 25th birthday of Tibet’s disappeared Panchen Lama

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the XIth Panchen Lama of Tibet
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the XIth Panchen Lama of Tibet

Today marks the 25th birthday of the XIth Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, one of the most important spiritual leaders of Tibet, who disappeared when he was 6 years old.[i] This is the 19th year in succession when Tibetans have to commemorate the birthday of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in his absence.

On 14 May 1995, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a son of nomadic parents, as the reincarnate Panchen Lama. A day later, the boy and his parents were disappeared from their home in Lhari County in Nagchu Prefecture in Central Tibet.[ii]  The Chinese government initially denied allegations that he had been disappeared by Chinese government agents. A few months after the disappearance, Chinese government appointed Gyaltsen Norbu as its own Panchen Lama.

A year later, in May 1996, as international pressure mounted, China admitted to holding the XIth Panchen Lama “at the request of his parents” for “he was at the risk of being kidnapped by separatists and his security had been threatened”. Subsequently, in a series of conflicting reports, China variously claimed that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was living in Beijing, and in Tibet, with his parent wishing not to be disturbed and wanting to lead a quiet life, etc. China also claimed that the “perfectly ordinary boy” was in “protective custody”- this explanation defies logic. If Gedhun Choekyi Nyima were just an “ordinary boy” as China continues to claim, why would the Chinese government resort to such means as to abduct the boy and continue to detain him incommunicado.

The disappearance of the Panchen Lama demonstrates the extreme hostility and suspicion with which Chinese government views Tibetan religion and its clergy.[iii] The act also represents the manipulation of Tibetan Buddhism for political purposes as is evident in the Order No. 5 issued by the Chinese government to control and institutionalize the Tibetan reincarnation system, a move that essentially prohibits Buddhist monks from reincarnating without government permission.[iv]

China’s continuing crime of holding Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in secret location continue to cause much concern and condemnation among parliamentarians, civil society groups and human rights activists including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteurs who have raised the issue and expressed concern over the Panchen Lama’s continued detention on different occasions. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the continued disappearance of the XIth Panchen Lama continue to deprive them of their right to freedom of religion or belief.

In 2005, on the tenth anniversary of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s disappearance, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in a communication sent to the Chinese government called the act of secretly holding Gedhun Choekyi Nyima “grave interference with the freedom of belief of the Tibetan Buddhists who have the right to determine their clergy in accordance with their own rites and who have been deprived of their religious leader. “[v]

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 education’ campaign in Tibet’s monasteries and nunneries that has been intensified in recent years seeks to indoctrinate certain beliefs into the psyche of the monks and nuns in Tibet, such as recognition of the unity of the Chinese motherland, the denunciation of the Dalai Lama, putting ceiling on the number of monks and nuns allowed in monasteries and nunneries, and the forced recognition of the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama. If monks and nuns refuse to agree to these points they face harassment, expulsion or even arrest.

In the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1981, Art. 6 (g) provides that the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief includes the freedom “to train, appoint, elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders [.]”[vi] This Declaration remains the most important contemporary codification of the principle of freedom of religion and belief.[vii] The Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 22, Para. 4 has clarified that “in addition, the practice and teaching of religion or belief includes acts integral to the conduct by religious groups of their basic affairs, such as the freedom to choose their religious leaders, priests and teachers [.]”[viii]

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) remains deeply concerned about the whereabouts, well-being and the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family members. It is appalling and unacceptable that as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the government of the People’s Republic of China continue to engage in enforced disappearance, a serious international crime that violates multiple human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other major international human rights instruments.[ix] TCHRD urges the international community including governments, human rights groups and other civil society groups to pressure China in releasing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family members without any conditions and delay. TCHRD believes that one of the most important steps toward the protection of international human rights system is to ensure that states are not allowed to set unlawful and negative precedent.



[i] Cultural Genocide and the 11th Panchen Lama,

[ii] Tibet’s Stolen Child: Documentary Film,

[iii] His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the issue of reincarnation,

[iv] Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism (ICT Translation)

[v] Framework for Communication: Freedom of Religion or Belief,

[vi] General Assembly A/RES/36/55,

[vii]STUDY GUIDE: Freedom of Religion or Belief

[viii]Framework for Communication: Freedom of Religion or Belief,

[ix] Into Thin Air: An Introduction to Enforced Disappearances in Tibet,

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