Tibetan advocacy organizations and international rights groups called this week on China to release a high-ranking Tibetan religious figure taken into custody 22 years ago and held incommunicado ever since.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, now 28 years old, was detained together with his family by Chinese authorities in 1995 after he was identified by exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most-senior Buddhist monk.
A Beijing-backed candidate, Gyaincain Norbu, was then installed by China in his place, and remains unpopular among Tibetans.
Nothing has been learned of the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima since he vanished with his family in detention, and requests by the United Nations and other international agencies and human rights organizations to visit him have consistently been refused by Beijing.
Speaking in an interview with RFA's Tibetan Service, Dardon Sharling—a secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Dharamsala, India-based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)—described the Panchen Lama's continued disappearance as the "greatest representation of China's overall policy toward Tibet and Tibetans."
"The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance has told CTA officials that the issue of the Panchen Lama remains an 'unresolved case,'" Sharling said.
China's refusal to allow the young lama to fulfill his traditional role is a "huge loss not only for the Panchen Lama himself but also for Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan people," Sonam Gyaltsen—a professor of history at the College of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarah, in Dharamsala—told RFA.
"Getting a proper spiritual education is the most important cause for a reincarnated lama to be able to continue the work of his predecessor," Gyaltsen said.
'Serious international crime'
In an open letter released on April 25, the Panchen Lama’s birthday, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom commissioner Tenzin Dorjee chose words that spoke directly to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, voicing his sadness that the missing Panchen Lama may never read his words.
“Ever since you were abducted as a young child at the age of six, the Chinese government has refused to share even basic information about you and your whereabouts,” Dorjee wrote.
“Please know that I think about you every day, and as each year passes, my resolve to find you and restore you to your rightful role becomes stronger.”
“The continued detention of the Panchen Lama in secret is an act of enforced disappearance,” the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) added in a statement this week.
“[This] is a serious international crime that violates multiple human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other major international human rights instruments,” TCHRD said.
“TCHRD calls on the Chinese government to end the enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama and allow him to live like a ‘normal’ human being with all the basic rights such as life, livelihood, and [freedom of] movement,” the rights group said.
Interference from Beijing
The selection of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan areas of China is now subject to approval by Beijing, with high-ranking religious teachers often cultivated by the government as “patriotic lamas”-—politically reliable figures who will not call for Tibetan independence from Chinese rule.
China is now keen to engineer a process that produces a pro-Beijing monk as the next Dalai Lama when the present holder of the title, now 81, eventually passes away.
“Without any recognition from the Dalai Lama, the Chinese authorities can never be able to put the stamp of legitimacy to their selection of any religious leader, whether it is the Panchen Lama or a future Dalai Lama,” Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said in an April 25 statement.
“China might want to have its own version of Rule by Incarnation,” Tsering said. “But it is the will of the believers that will really matter.”
“The earlier the Chinese authorities realize this, the better it will be for them.”
Reported by Urgyen Tenzin for RFA's Tibetan Service. Translated by Kalden Lodoe. Written in English by Richard Finney.