Tibet’s India-based exile government and supporters in the United States called on Beijing on Monday to free Tibet’s second-best-known religious leader the Panchen Lama, who disappeared as a young boy into Chinese custody on 25 years ago on May 17 and is believed to be languishing under house arrest in an undisclosed location.
The Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was recognized on May 14, 1995 at the age of six as the 11th Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama.
The recognition by the Dalai Lama angered Chinese authorities, who three days later took the boy and his family into custody and then installed another boy, Gyaincain Norbu, as their own candidate in his place.
Tibetan tradition holds that senior Buddhist monks are reincarnated in the body of a child after they die.
The whereabouts of the Dalai Lama’s choice of Panchen Lama remain unknown and he has not been seen in public since his disappearance.
The Panchen Lama installed by Beijing meanwhile remains unpopular with Tibetans both in exile and at home.
Speaking on Sunday in a video conference hosted by Tibet’s exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration, in Dharamsala, India, CTA President Lobsang Sangay said China has failed in what he called Beijing’s “politically driven effort to undermine and control Tibetan Buddhism.”
“For Tibetans in Tibet and in exile, and for Tibetan Buddhist followers around the world, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the six-year-old boy recognized by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, will always be the true Panchen Lama,” Sangay said.
The Panchen Lama’s continued disappearance in Chinese custody represents an injustice not only to himself but to the Tibetan people and their right to religious freedom, Sangay added.
Also speaking via video link on Sunday, Zeekyab Rinpoche—abbot of the Indian exile branch of the Panchen Lama’s historic Tashilhunpo monastery in Tibet—thanked international human rights groups, U.S. members of Congress, and parliamentarians across Europe for their help in pressing China for answers on the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts.
“I take this opportunity to deeply thank all of you for your unwavering support for the immediate release of the 11th Panchen Lama. And I urge you to continue your support until the issue is resolved,” he said.
In a May 17 statement, U.S. Congressman James McGovern and Senator Marco Rubio, chair and cochair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called on China to immediately free the Panchen Lama and his family, calling them “among the world’s longest detained prisoners of conscience.”
“We call for their immediate and unconditional release and remain deeply concerned about official restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism [in Tibet and Tibetan regions of China],” the two U.S. lawmakers said.
The world still has no idea of the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedoms Sam Brownback said in a May 14 teleconference.
“And this takes on, I think, an increased interest and focus and importance as the Chinese Communist Party continues to assert their right to appoint the next Dalai Lama – which they do not have the right to do.”
“Tibetan Buddhists, like members of all faith communities, must be able to select, educate, and venerate their religious leaders according to their traditions and without government interference,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo noted in a May 18 statement.
“We call on the [People’s Republic of China] government to immediately make public the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and to uphold its own constitution and international commitments to promote religious freedom for all persons,” Pompeo said, calling the Panchen Lama second in spiritual authority only to the Dalai Lama.
Major point of friction
The current, 14th, Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 following a Chinese crackdown on an uprising in the formerly independent Tibet. India granted him political asylum and the Tibetan government-in-exile has been based in Dharamsala ever since.
The question of the successor to the Dalai Lama is a major point of friction between Beijing, which insists on its right to select the next top Tibetan religious leader, and Tibetans inside their homeland and around the world.
Chinese authorities meanwhile maintain a tight grip on the Tibetan region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of ethnic and religious identity, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.