26 Years On, Tibet’s Panchen Lama Stays in Chinese language Custody

Twenty-six years ago to the present day, on May 17, 1995, the Chinese government Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the election of the Dalai Lama to succeed the Panchen Lama, the second most important authority in Tibetan Buddhism, “disappeared”. Both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are “tulkus,” incarnated custodians of a certain line of teachings. Both roles are closely related and both participate in the process of recognizing the other’s believed reincarnations.

Nyima came from a poor Tibetan family in a remote village in Lhari County and was just six years old when he and his family were abducted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities. This made him the youngest political prisoner in the world. The Chinese government claims Nyima and his family are alive but continue to refuse to release them or allow them to meet with observers.

In order to appoint a preferred successor to the position after Nyima’s disappearance, the CCP authorities forced another group of monks to identify another child of the same age, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the official reincarnation. Norbu, who was “selected” by the CCP authorities at the age of five, lives under effective house arrest in Beijing and is shown annually in Tibet, accompanied by police, officials and a massive advertising campaign involving hundreds of staged believers.

Given that reincarnated lamas play the supreme role in Tibetan (and Mongolian) Buddhism, the Chinese authorities are well aware of the inseparability of this authority from the politics of the region and seek to accord it with “socialist features” “tame”. ”

Ordinary Tibetan Buddhists, unsurprisingly, have refused to recognize Norbu as the true reincarnation, commonly referring to him as “Gyami Panchen” (the “Chinese” Panchen) or “Panchen Zuma” (meaning “false panchen”).

The fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who lives with the Tibetan government-in-exile in Himachal Pradesh, India, will be eighty-six this year and knows that his days are numbered. He is very aware of this march to suppress Tibetan autonomy and has made various public statements that make it almost impossible for a successor appointed by the Chinese state to be seen as legitimate by Tibetan communities, for example by suggesting that his successor be abroad could be born, mostly in India, or even that she could be a woman.

It has long been clear that, as the Dalai Lama has proposed, the Chinese authorities are preparing for a full coup of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. Indeed, in August 2007, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a decree requiring all reincarnations of tulkus of Tibetan Buddhism to be subject to government approval or risk of being deemed “illegal or invalid”.

In view of this year’s anniversary, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reiterated the two decades-long demand on the Chinese government to reveal the whereabouts of the Nyima family. However, international concern has generally decreased. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disappearance last year, almost fifteen Swiss, four Italian parliamentarians, sixteen Czech MPs and sixteen Czech senators signed four applications for release.

For international observers, the disappearance of Nyima and his family and the ongoing encroachment on the freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists is just another item on the ever-growing list of the Chinese government’s monstrous abuses of its own people. In addition, it is a deeply troubling reminder of the regime’s inability to endure real opposition, be it transcendent, political, or both.

While human rights organizations use the anniversary of his disappearance each year to highlight the crime of Nyima’s abduction and unknown whereabouts, the Chinese government is still under no obligation to comply. However, it is likely that after the death of the incumbent Dalai Lama, a popular international figure, global outcry will increase as the CCP inevitably tries to force a Party-appointed successor. The question is whether the international community is willing and able to hold them accountable for this crime if or when it happens?

Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy is an associate writer for Foundation for Uyghur Freedom and a contributor to Young Voices.

Image: Reuters.

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