China should immediately free the Panchen Lama from custody and allow him to return to his monastery to assume his role as the second most well-known religious figure in Tibet, a Tibetan advocacy group said on the eve of his 30th birthday.
On May 14, 1995, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, recognized six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama and three days later, Chinese authorities took him and his family away, installing another boy in his place. He was for years considered the world’s youngest political prisoner.
While the religious leader’s whereabouts remain unknown and he has not been seen in public since his disappearance, “it is believed he is still alive,” Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said in a statement marking his April 25 birthday.
“As the Panchen Lama turns 30, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) calls on China to immediately free him and allow him to return to his monastery, Tashi Lhunpo, and assume his vital role as a religious leader,” the statement said, noting that enforced disappearance is defined as a crime by the United Nations.
“China’s attitude toward the Panchen Lama clearly shows that its claim of respecting religious freedom in Tibet—a historically independent country that China has occupied and ruled with an iron fist for the past 60 years—is aimed solely at serving its political goal of controlling Tibetan Buddhism.”
ICT called the case of the detained Panchen Lama an example of “China’s long game for securing control over Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet,” noting that the boy who was officially selected to replace him—Gyaltsen Norbu—now takes part in formal events and “serves as a proxy for the Chinese government.”
Historically, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama have been involved in the recognition of each other’s incarnation, and ICT said that by empowering its selected Panchen Lama, China hopes to commandeer the eventual rebirth of the 83-year-old Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India for the past 60 years.
Reuters news agency quoted the Dalai Lama last month as saying his incarnation could be found in India, and warned that any successor named by China would not be respected—much as Beijing’s anointed Panchen Lama has been widely rejected by Tibetans.
While the Dalai Lama has said that only he has the authority to decide his future incarnation, China’s Foreign Ministry said in March this year that it “must comply with Chinese laws and regulations.”
Call for support
ICT noted that lawmakers from both the U.S. and the European Union have called on China to end its interference in the reincarnation system, and it called on the broader global community to reaffirm the right of Tibetans to practice their religion without meddling from the Chinese government.
“World leaders must also insist that China immediately release the Panchen Lama so he can perform his essential role in serving his people as one of their most important spiritual leaders,” the advocacy group said.
ICT president Matteo Mecacci said that while the Panchen Lama has spent nearly a quarter-century as a political prisoner, “he has the majority of his life ahead of him to benefit his people and the whole of humankind.”
“While Chinese leaders believe they can control the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama, their efforts have been and will continue to be rejected by both Tibetans and the international community,” he said.
“Therefore, the smartest thing for China to do if it wants to reclaim trust and goodwill around the world is to free the Panchen Lama immediately and immediately stop its interference in Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations.”
Macacci was joined by U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, the chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Congressional-Executive Commission on China, who called the Panchen Lama’s enforced disappearance “one of the most egregious examples of China’s violation of the religious freedom rights of the Tibetan people.”
“In honor of his 30th birthday, I again call on the Chinese government to free the true Panchen Lama immediately and without conditions,” McGovern added.
In a personal message to the Panchen Lama on his birthday, Tenzin Dorjee, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called on U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose sanctions on Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for perpetrating religious freedom violations.
He also called for the continued implementation of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 to seek access to the lama and press for his “immediate and unconditional release.”
ICT’s call for the Panchen Lama’s release came as the International Tibet Network (ITN)—a global coalition of Tibet-related non-governmental organizations—unveiled a reconstructed image of how the lama would look at the age of 30, as part of a bid to draw international attention to his case and assist in the ongoing search for him.
The image, created by a British forensic artist listed with the U.K. National Crime Agency, “sends a message to Beijing that the world has not forgotten about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, despite all of their efforts to erase him from our history,” said ITN Asia regional coordinator Lobsang Yangtso.
“It also allows Tibetans to continue to hope that he will one day be free again,” he added.
A day earlier, 30 Tibetan activists from the Tibetan Youth Congress set off on a car and motorcycle rally from the seat of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India to raise awareness about the Panchen Lama on his birthday.
The activists, who say the rally is in support of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama and call for his release from captivity, plan to ride through Chandigarh and Sonipath and arrive on April 25 in the Indian capital Delhi, where they will take part in an event to honor the spiritual leader.
The Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) also plan to hold simultaneous peace marches in five regions across India to highlight the Panchen Lama’s incarceration, beginning on April 25.