Panchen Lama: a chidlhood lost

It is now two years since 14 May 1995, the day the Dalai Lama officially proclaimed Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the X!th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Two years later and the Panchen Lama and his parents are still missing somewhere in China, their whereabouts and well being unknown. Tibetan people have not forgotten the young lama, who turned eight years old on 28 April, and the emotions his continuing disappearance produces are captured in the pictures reproduced on the next page, designed by exiled Tibetan school children.

“I am Panchen, my monastery is Tashilhunpo. I sit on a high throne. My monasteries are in Tsang, in Lhasa and in China”. These were the words of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima just as he was able to speak. He was born on April 25, 1989, on the nineteenth day of the third Tibetan month in the Earth-Snake Year. His father Konchog Phuntsok and his mother Dechen Chodron are from Lhari district in Nagchu, north-eastern Tibet. On May 14, 1995, His Holiness the Dalai Lama proclaimed six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th reincarnation of the late Panchen Lama, the second highest religious authority in Tibet. On that day he also received his ordained name of “Tenzin Gedhun Yeshe Thrinley Phuntsok Pal Sangpo”. Officials in Beijing were enraged that their plans to control the selection process had been disrupted and shortly after this announcement, the child and his family were reported missing from their home, said to have been taken by security forces to Beijing.

China repeatedly denied having taken the Panchen Lama into detention. They also began a propaganda campaign against the Panchen Lama, saying his family was “notorious among their neighbours” and the boy himself had once drowned a dog which the official Chinese News Agency proclaimed “a heinous crime in the eyes of the Buddha”. Such unsupported allegations further antagonised the Tibetan people. On the morning of November 4, 1995, 75 Tibetan party members and religious representatives from the “Tibet Autonomous Region” and other parts of Tibet incorporated into Chinese provinces received an ‘invitation.’ They were selected directly by Beijing specifically to discuss the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and were told that attending the meeting in Beijing was a ‘test of your nationalism and your political stand’.

In a deliberate overruling of the Dalai Lama’s proclamation, on 29 November 1995, the Chinese authorities declared Gyaltsen Norbu as their selected reincarnate of the 11th Panchen Lama. His name was drawn from an 18th century golden urn and an elaborate ceremony was held in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. The late 10th Panchen Lama himself had however, declared “According to Tibetan tradition the confirmation of either the Dalai or the Panchen Lama must be mutually recognised”. This was printed in the official Chinese publication China Reconstructs in January 1988.

On December 8, 1995, the enthronement of the rival Panchen Lama took place at the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. Chinese authorities issued an order to all the high incarnate lamas, religious leaders and cadres to arrive at Tashilhunpo Monastery in time for the enthronement . They were told that they could not feign ill health so as to miss the “coronation”. This provoked massive protests in Tibet. Tibetans in the three major cities of Lhasa, Shigatse and Chamdo staged sporadic demonstrations to protest China’s infringement of Tibet’s religious matter. Wall posters appeared with increasing frequency on street walls of Lhasa and Shigatse. Two hundred members of the French Parliament issued an official protest on 2 December, 1995, against China’s actions and unanimously agreed to sponsor Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the youngest political prisoner of conscience. In Tashilhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, monks openly revolted resulting in massive turmoil. The revolt was forcefully crushed: many monks were taken into detention and beaten and there were more than 50 arrests. Monks in many monasteries voluntarily left their monastery or were expelled when they refused to denounce the Panchen Lama chosen by them.

In May 1996, over a year since the disappearance of Gedun Choekyi Nyima and his parents, Wu Jianmin, China’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, admitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that he “has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents”. The Committee requested that China allow a UN representative to “visit the family and provide reassurance”, but received no public response from Beijing. In the last two years, various human rights organisations and concerned individuals all over the world have expressed grave concern at the continuing detention of the Panchen Lama. Denmark tabled a draft resolution during the 53rd UN commission on Human Rights in Geneva in March/April 1997, concerning the human rights situation in Tibet and China. The resolution, sponsored by 14 other countries, also raised for the first time, the issue of the Panchen Lama. Discussion was blocked however by a no-action motion by China.

The matter of recognising the Panchen Lama or any high lama is a question of religious belief and the Tibetan people will recognise only the one chosen by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. From exile in India, the Dalai Lama reaffirmed his choice and insisted, “My recognition of the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation cannot be changed”.

By appointing another Panchen Lama, atheist China disregarded Tibetan religious traditions and violated the right of Tibetan people to manage their own religious affairs. The Tibetan reincarnation system has always been a purely religious matter and China’s politicisation of the process represents an attempt to strengthen their control over Tibet. Today the Panchen Lama remains the world’s youngest political prisoner. With his childhood sabotaged at such a tender age, his future remains bleak. The Chinese say he is alive, but they have not mentioned where and they have not allowed any independent monitor to visit he and his family.

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