It is nearly 24 years since the Chinese government kidnapped the Panchen Lama – and groups around the world are calling for Beijing to reveal what has happened to the boy, who would now be 30 years old and the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. If he is still alive.
Groups in India and the US have published portraits of what the Panchen Lama might look like on his 30th birthday and are demanding to know what became of him after he was taken into custody when just six years old.
“Despite China’s sporadic claims that he was attending school and leading a normal life, no one has seen or heard from the 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima since May 17, 1995, the day Beijing took him away as a six-year-old boy and rendered him disappeared ever since,” the Tibetan Bulletin said recently. The bulletin is published by Tibet’s government-in-exile, which is based in India and also represents the Dalai Lama.
Mr Nyima was born in Chinese-controlled Tibet on April 25, 1989. But Beijing does not recognize him as the Panchen Lama.
“The Panchen Lamas and the Dalai Lamas play a significant role in the recognition of each other’s reincarnation when they are in a position to do so, although it is neither mandatory nor indispensable,” a report by the Central Tibetan Administration said.
Buddha of Boundless Light
Both Tibetan men are believed to be incarnations of Buddha in different versions. The Buddha of Compassion is said to be reincarnated as the Dalai Lama, while the Buddha of Boundless Light becomes the Panchen Lama.
The 10th Panchen Lama died in mysterious circumstances in 1989, and on May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama announced his recognition of the six-year-old son of a doctor and nurse in Tibet as the Panchen Lama’s 11th reincarnation.
Three days later, China took the child and his family into custody and manipulated cooperative Tibetan Buddhist clergy to declare another Tibetan boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the genuine reincarnation.
The Dalai Lama fled the lavish Potala Palace in Tibet in 1959 during a communist Chinese assault with help from the US Central Intelligence Agency. He has lived in self-exile in northern India since then and has consistently demanded greater autonomy for his former homeland.
Beijing apparently did not want him to have Mr Nyima as a possible future ally who could recognize the next incarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama, who is now 83.
“They [the Chinese government] say they are waiting for my death and will recognize a 15th Dalai Lama of their choice,” the Dalai Lama wrote in 2011.
To highlight Mr Nyima’s disappearance, the International Tibet Network’s Political Prisoners Campaign Working Group commissioned artist Tim Widden to create a portrait of him as an adult for a film titled, “Where is Panchen Lama?” which was shown on television by the BBC recently.
Mr Widden’s age-progression image was based on a color photo of Mr Nyima as a child, the only known picture of him.
“Widden says he had to assume average health and average weight, though it could easily be that he is emaciated,” the BBC said. “He also had to guess a hairstyle.”
‘Part of plot to control Tibet’
Similarly, the US government’s Radio Free Asia (RFA) published on its website a different portrait by its “cartoonist” of what the boy might look like on his 30th birthday.
“He was, for years, considered the world’s youngest political prisoner,” the Washington-based RFA said.
US Congressman (D-MA) Jim McGovern said the Panchen Lama “will mark his 30th birthday as one of the world’s longest-held prisoners of conscience.
“The enforced disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama is an egregious example of the Chinese government’s violation of the religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists, who have the right to choose their own religious leaders without government interference,” McGovern said on April 26.
“The [Chinese] government’s designation of an alternative Panchen Lama merely victimized another young person as a consequence of its policies to undermine and control the Tibetan people.”
McGovern is co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, composed of members of the US House of Representatives. He is also chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan, bicameral group monitoring China’s human rights, rule of law, and political prisoners.
“How can a [communist] government that does not have faith in religion, claim to interfere in the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama?” said Youdon Aukartsang, a member of Tibet’s parliament-in-exile at the Dalai Lama’s Himalayan headquarters in Dharamsala, India.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.