Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the XIth Panchen Lama of Tibet, turns 15 on 25 April 2004. It is his ninth year in Chinese custody at an undisclosed location after he and his parents disappeared in 1995.
On 14 May 1995, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the Xth Panchen Lama. The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) declared the announcement invalid and illegal. Three days later, the six-year-old boy and his parents disappeared and have never been seen again.
A few months after the disappearance, the PRC government appointed its own Panchen Lama, a boy named Gyaltsen Norbu. A year later, in May 1996, the PRC admitted to holding Gedhun Choekyi Nyima “at the request of his parents” for “he was at the risk of being kidnapped by separatists and his security had been threatened”. It is strange that the Chinese authorities would go to such lengths to provide “security” for someone they considered just an ordinary boy.
In the years following this announcement, the PRC ordered that only the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama was to be recognised in Tibet, while monks, nuns and ordinary Tibetans were ordered to denounce Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. There were many cases of arrests, detentions, sentencing and expulsions from religious institutions of monks and nuns who failed to denounce the real Panchen Lama. Refugee testimonials confirm that pictures of the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama are displayed prominently in the main monasteries and tourist hotels of Tibet. On the other hand, pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Gedhun Choekyi Nyima are banned in most parts of Tibet.
Many UN representatives and government delegations around the world have expressed concern over the Panchen Lama’s continued detention, and called for the Chinese authorities to allow access to the boy by an independent figure acceptable to the Chinese Government and Tibetans to verify his health and living conditions. However the PRC continues to deny any outside access to the child and his parents.
In October 2000 a British delegation was told by Chinese authorities that the boy was well and 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 boy of approximately the right age. However it was impossible to determine the boy’s identity or location, and the British officials were not given the photos to take with them.
In August 2001, a Polish Parliamentary delegation visiting Lhasa was told in response to repeated questions that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was 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 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 March 2002, a government delegation from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (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.In the light of a refusal to provide photographs which positively identify Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, or to allow independent access to the boy and his family, the Tibetan people can only fear the worst.
The continued disappearance of the second highest lama in the Tibetan hierarchy completely contradicts China’s claim to respect religious freedom in Tibet. It is highly concerning that such prominent religious figure as the Panchen Lama has been denied and bereft of any traditional religious studies and training even if he is alive. Chinese authorities have continued to crackdown on religious figures in Tibet in the belief that Buddhism breeds political instability in volatile regions of Tibet. Trulku Tenzin Delek, the respected religious leader from Sichuan Province, is currently under death sentence more for his social and religious activism than for his alleged political activities. Geshe Sonam Phuntsok, another prominent religious figure is serving five years’ detention for his expressed allegiance to the Dalai Lama. Chadrel Rinpoche, Head of Search Committee for the Xth Panchen Lama’s Reincarnation, and Champa Chung, Secretary of the same Committee are reportedly under house arrests at undisclosed locations after having served their sentences of six years and four years respectively.
The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) is appalled at the Chinese Government’s continued detention of a 15-year-old boy. TCHRD calls upon the PRC to allow an independent figure to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and verify his health and living conditions. TCHRD urges the international community to be stronger in their condemnation of China’s human rights record in general and to pressurize the Chinese Government to release the young Panchen Lama and to provide him with proper access to religious studies and training. TCHRD appeals the United Nations and its various thematic bodies to intervene on the matter and to maintain constant pressure on the Chinese Government to secure release of the young Panchen Lama.