The Stolen Child of Tibet

by Akshara Bharat (Guest Author)

For Tibetan Buddhists, the Panchen Lama is the second most important figure of reverence after the Dalai Lama, and plays a key role in identifying the next re-incarnation of the Dalai Lama. For centuries, these two spiritual figures have held a significant role in the spiritual, religious and political lives of the Tibetans. In Tibet’s former religious government, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas were supreme figures of religious authority and since the 16th century, they have been involved in recognising each other’s successive incarnations.

Following the annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India along with 80,000 refugees and is presently living in exile in Dharamshala in North India. In May 1995, the Dalai Lama identified the six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama who, two days later, became the world’s youngest political prisoner after he and his family were abducted by the Chinese government. Since then, his whereabouts are unknown. Beijing not only rejected the Dalai Lama’s chosen candidate, but also placed an imposter in his place, a Tibetan boy named Gyaltsen Norbu, whom Tibetans refer to as the ‘Panchen Zuma’ or the ‘False Panchen’.

If Gedhun Choekyi Nyima or the 11th Panchen Lama is still alive, he must be 31 years old by now. Unfortunately, his whereabouts are still unknown. China claims that he is “safe & is living a normal life” and has been keeping the location of the Panchen Lama as one of the most tightly guarded secrets. On one hand the Chinese authorities say that Gendun Choeki Nyima is being kept somewhere secret “for his own protection”, while on the other hand they also denounce his incarnation as the 11th Panchen Lama. If he is just an ordinary boy, then why are his whereabouts kept hidden from the world? The way Beijing justifies the abduction of a six-year-old innocent child, is tone-deaf and utterly preposterous.

China is hell bent on eliminating the religious and cultural identity of Tibet and wants absolute control over the selection of Dalai and Panchen Lamas as these two spiritual figures play the most significant roles in Tibet’s political and religious discourses. In 2007, Beijing passed a law and made it clear that the reincarnation of a living Buddha is “subject to an application for approval”.

The enforced disappearance of a six-year-old along with his family amounts to gross human rights violation at the hands of China. Although, for Beijing issues like religious freedom, liberty, and individual rights do not hold much significance. Hence, for the Chinese authorities, suppression of Tibetans’ religious and political freedom is just a way of ensuring Tibet’s complete obeisance to China.

On 10th of March this year, Gyaltsen Norbu, the fake Panchen Lama announced that Tibetan Buddhism will be moving towards ‘Sinicization’, which broadly refers to bringing non-Chinese communities under Chinese culture and political system. Sinicization is not just an imposition of Communism on Tibetan Buddhism, but also poses a grave threat to the survival of Tibetan identity and Tibetans themselves. It’s a travesty that even in the 21st century, a belligerent country like China is trying to impose itself upon a weaker country, and people are not allowed to exercise their basic freedoms.

Thankfully, the atrocities committed by China aren’t going unnoticed by the international community. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the UN Working Group of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), US Congress, parliaments in Canada and UK have urged the immediate release of the 11th Panchen Lama. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also called on China to immediately make his whereabouts public.

The Chinese Government must stop interfering with the religious freedom of Tibetans and must set the 11th Panchen Lama free. Kidnapping a six-year-old and depriving him and his family basic human rights is an abhorrent act on the part of China. This shows that those at the helm of affairs in Beijing are power obsessed, and have no regard whatsoever for the emotions, beliefs, liberties and welfare of those who they claim to govern.