US Urges China to Reveal Whereabouts of Tibet’s ‘Disappeared’ Panchen Lama

2021-04-23
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US Urges China to Reveal Whereabouts of Tibet’s ‘Disappeared’ Panchen Lama A member of the Tibetan Youth Congress poses for a photograph before embarking on a motorcycle rally to create awareness about the Panchen Lama in Dharmsala, India, April 23, 2019.
Photo: RFA

China should disclose the whereabouts of Tibet’s Panchen Lama, who vanished into Chinese custody as a young boy 26 years ago, and let him meet outside observers in person, the U.S. State Department said in what Tibetans hailed as a strong show of support for their beleaguered traditions.

Tibet’s Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was recognized on May 14, 1995 at the age of six as the 11th Panchen Lama, the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989.

The recognition by exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama angered Chinese authorities, who three days later took the boy and his family into custody and then installed another boy, Gyaincain Norbu, as their own candidate in his place.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told a news briefing that on his 32nd birthday on Sunday, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima would be “forced to spend another year disappeared, separated from his community, and denied his rightful place as a prominent Tibetan Buddhist leader.”

“We call on the PRC Government to immediately make public the Tibetan-venerated Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and to give us this opportunity to meet with the Panchen Lama in person,” said the spokesman, who underscored U.S. support for Tibetans’ religious freedom and cultural identity.

“We respect Tibetans’ right to select, educate, and venerate their own leaders, like the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, according to their own beliefs, and without government interference,” added Price.

U.S. officials have made similar appeals to Beijing in the past, but Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong, or leader, of Tibetan Central Tibetan Administration said this year remarks were “one of the strongest so far.”

“I particularly want to thank the State Department for urging the PRC to make the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama known to the public, and to create an opportunity for the U.S. government to meet with the Panchen Lama,” he told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

'Absurdity and ruthlessness'

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reiterated its call for the Chinese government to release Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

“It has been nearly 26 years since the Chinese Communist Party’s enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was only six years old at the time of his abduction. As Gedhun turns 32 on April 25 this year, his whereabouts and wellbeing remain unknown. This lack of information is unacceptable,” said noted USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza.

“USCIRF renews its call for the Chinese government to allow an independent expert to visit and confirm the wellbeing of the 11th Panchen Lama, and to release him immediately and unconditionally,” she added.

"It is despicable that the Chinese Communist Party continues to interfere in the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama,” added USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel.

“The combination of the level of absurdity and ruthlessness in the CCP’s persecution of the Tibetan community should alarm the international community, which should stand united in calling for the release of the Panchen Lama.”

Bhuchung Tsering, interim president of the International Campaign for Tibet, told RFA that “the strong statement from the U.S. government will be helpful in garnering more attention around the world.”

The Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, passed in the U.S. Congress in December and signed into law by  then President Donald Trump, establishes as U.S. policy that the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including future successors to exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, is a decision to be made only by Tibetans, free from Chinese government interference.

Concerns over the advancing age of the Dalai Lama, now 85, have renewed uncertainties in recent years over his possible successor after he dies, with Beijing claiming the right to name his successor and the Dalai Lama himself saying that any future Dalai Lama will be born outside of China.

Tibetans remain bitter about Chinese intervention in the selection of the current 11th Panchen Lama, whose predecessor died in 1989, and the Panchen Lama installed by Beijing remains unpopular with Tibetans both in exile and at home.

Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force 70 years ago, and the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers later fled into exile in India and other countries around the world following a failed 1959 national uprising against China’s rule.

Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on the region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of cultural and religious identity, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.

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

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