New Delhi – April 25, 2021, marks the 32nd birth anniversary of the 11th Panchen Lama Gendun Choekyi Nyima (GCN). The world has as much information or as little as it had when he was abducted by the Chinese authorities in 1995, following his recognition by the Dalai Lama. In 1995 he became the youngest individual to have been placed under virtual detention, becoming known as the world’s youngest political prisoner.
Panchen Lama is one of the most important spiritual leaders, second only to the Dalai Lama in the hierarchy of spiritual leaders in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama share a warm and friendly relationship and have previously served as mentors and apprentices. They hold the highest decision-making power on the issue of reincarnation, and each had participated in the process of recognizing each other’s reincarnation. If one of them passes away, the other has undertaken the responsibility of searching for the reincarnated soul boy of the other and vice-versa.
The current 11th Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, was born on April 25, 1989, in Lhari County, Nagqu Region, Tibet. He was recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama, after following the Tibetan Buddhist tradition on May 14, 1995. However, two days later, on May 17, 1995, the GCN was abducted by the Chinese authorities. He has been missing for the last 26 years and is the world’s youngest and longest missing political prisoner. He was just 6 years old when he was abducted. So far, there has been no news about his whereabouts.
After the abduction of the GCN, Chinese authorities appointed its own Panchen Lama named Gyaltsen Norbu (son of members of CCP) in November 1995. This measure not only shows Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) disregard towards Tibetan religion and culture but also shows it effort to undermine the same. Xi Jinping‘s recent proposal of Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism to improve social governance is yet another move of the CCP to sinicise Tibetan religion and culture. As part of the Sinicization effort the CCP, through National People Congress, has endorsed the use of Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction in ethnic minority areas and barred the use of local language (inconsistent with the provisions of Chinese laws). Thus, the use of Tibetan language is constantly being discouraged in Tibet and the Mandarin language is being promoted-which is said to increases the probability of fetching good jobs in the markets.
China is also imposing restrictions on Tibetans to travel to other countries, particularly to countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan. In recent times, China has announced strict supervision of 15 border ports in the border areas in the name of strengthening the border control and maintenance of security and stability.
The settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet is another major concern. China has recently proposed the construction of a super dam in its 14th Five Year Plan. It is fear that China’s decision to build super dam on Yarlong Zangbo River, close to LAC, will result in large Chinese migration to the Tibetan regions, thus, further diluting the cultural identity of Tibetans and reducing Tibetans into minority like China did in Inner Mongolia.
China over the years has made full effort to give a bad name to the Dalai Lama. His image has been turned into a “separatist” by the Chinese government. It has banned the photos of the Dalai Lama and possessing his photos is considered as an act of crime. The Chinese authorities maintain strong control over Tibetans and there are reports of many arbitrary arrests of Tibetans’ political activities without any evidence. In a recent report, the Radio Free Asia reported the arrest of six Tibetans for unknown reasons. According to The Tibet Post International a monk named Rinchen Tsultrim from Kahul village in Ngaba arrested in August 2019 was said to have been sentenced to four and half in prison for allegedly communicating outside of Tibet.
Similarly, the CCP has portrayed the Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu as one of the authoritative voices of Tibet while keeping him under strict control. The CCP has also treated the previous 10th Panchen Lama Choekyi Gyaltsen harshly; however, in its historical accounts, their relations were often shown in colorful pictures.
The 10th Panchen Lama Choekyi Gyaltsen is a revered figure among Tibetans. He discovered the CCP’s attempt to repress the Tibetan rule, and he chose to stand by Tibetans. Choekyi Gyaltsen published ‘the seven thousand characters petition’ in 1962, severely criticising the CCP’s policy on Tibet, and was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison. He was rehabilitated only after Deng Xiaoping came to power. Choekyi Gyaltsen rebuilt Tibet’s religious and cultural heritages and worked hard in the interests of Tibetans, for which he gained high prestige among the Tibetans. Therefore, he was assassinated in January 1989 by the Chinese authorities.
At present, the Chinese (fake) Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu, is being projected as an official face of Tibetan Buddhism by the Chinese government. It has already leveraged the position of Gyaltsen Norbu by appointing him to a number of high profile positions, including the Vice-President of the standing committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In 2019 he was made the head of the China Buddhist Association.
As far as Gendun Choekyi Nyima is concerned, the 11th Panchen Lama recognized by the Dalai Lama, there has been no credible information at all since 1995. Way back in August 2003, when asked about the Panchen Lama, who was 14 years old then and a mino, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “He is now in a good healthy condition, leading a normal and happy life,” adding, “He is not the incarnated soul boy.”
In 2020, when the Panchen Lama was 31 years old, Chinese state media had the Chinese Foreign Ministry having a similar position, reporting, “this so-called ‘soul boy’ designated by Dalai Lama” is just an ordinary Chinese citizen living normally.” “Soul boy” is a mistranslation used by the Chinese authorities in English to refer to a reincarnated being.
So if the Chinese government considers the Panchen Lama “just an ordinary Chinese citizen,” today he is an adult and past his Age of Majority even under Chinese laws, and should be given all the rights, including to speak for himself. But the fact that the Chinese government continues to speak on his behalf shows that they have taken away his freedom of expression and that he is not “leading a normal and happy life”.
China not giving any credible information about the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts or status has even had several UN experts and working groups write formally to the Chinese government, expressing their concern and asking for an “independent monitor to visit him.”
At the heart of all these things is the issue of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. For years the Chinese government has been grooming its own Panchen Lama. It is most likely that he will play an instrumental role in deciding the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama in China. This will lead to two Dalai Lamas in the future if the current Dalai Lama decides to keep the tradition of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama continues.
The issue of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is not limited to China and the Dalai Lama but has larger geopolitics consideration with security implications in the Himalaya regions.
The US has shown its full support for Tibet on the reincarnation issue. It has, in late 2020, passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act (TPSA) and sent a strong message to China that the US stands steadfast with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government.
The Panchen Lama turned 32 years old on April 25. Tibetans and their supporters all over the world not only celebrate the birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama but also take the occasion to raise their voice to demand the release of the Panchen Lama from the CCP’s captivity.