30th Birthday of Tibet’s Missing Panchen Lama Marked With Calls For His Freedom

Marches in India and statements from U.S. lawmakers fete the disappeared lama.

An RFA cartoonist's rendition of what the 11th Panchen Lama, last seen in 1995 when he was six years old, might look like on his 30th birthday, April 25, 2019.

Tibetans around the world, their supporters and religious freedom advocates marked the 30th birthday of the Panchen Lama with marches and calls on China to release the  the second most well-known religious figure in Tibet.

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.

The religious leader’s whereabouts and condition remain unknown and he has not been seen in public since his disappearance.

“As much as the Chinese government wants us to forget you, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wishes you happy birthday and we unanimously advocate for your immediate release,” said Tenzin Dorjee, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“It is heartbreaking that you have been forcibly disappeared since age six and still remain in captivity and China has censored even basic information on you and your whereabouts. However, Tibetans’ faith in Your Holiness is unshakable,” he said in a written statement.

Addressing at the ceremony held at the Dharamsala, India  headquarters of the Dalai Lama, Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration, called on the Chinese government to release 11th Panchen Lama to his rightful place and allow him to practice his religion.

Also in Dharamsala, the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) led a peace march simultaneously in five regions across India to highlight the issue of his incarceration as a young boy.

One of the routes covered was from Mysore to Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in which 200 people walked 200 km (120 miles) over nine days.

“We want clarification from the Chinese government on his whereabouts. We want our Lama back or at the least Chinese government must release his picture to confirm his wellbeing,” marcher Tsering Youdon, 69, told RFA.

In northeastern India, a group of 250 marchers covered 106 km (65 miles) from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, to Siliguri in West Bengal.

The groups Students for a Free Tibet, India and the Tibetan Youth Congress, both based in Dharamshala, staged a bike rally to honor the Panchen Lama member Panchen Lama’s birthday. Thirty cyclists rode through different cities to spread awareness about the Panchen Lama, arriving in New Delhi on Thursday.

“The Chinese government is only to be blamed for us celebrating Panchen Lama’s birthday in absentia, and through this campaign we are trying to create awareness about Panchen Lama’s disappearance and Tibet’s issue in general," said Rigzin Choedon, organizer of the bike rally.

At a birthday celebration at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, the seat in exile of of Panchen Lama in South India, the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, Pema Jungney, told the crowd: “International support is all we need at the moment to find out Panchen Lama’s whereabouts.”

A member of Tibetan Parliament in Exile, Youdon Aukartsang, underscored in her remarks at the birthday gathering Tibetan rejection of the atheist Chinese Communist Party’s interference in the selection of Tibetan lamas.

“How can a government that does not have faith in religion claim to interfere in the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama?”

U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, the chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said the Panchem 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,” he said in a statement.

“And the 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,” added McGovern.

“In honor of his birthday, I again call on the Chinese government to free the true Panchen Lama immediately and without conditions and to uphold its international obligation to respect the religious freedom of all persons,” he wrote.

Reported and translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.