By: Kungsang Monlam
The Panchen Lama is a dominant spiritual authority as well as being regarded as the second-highest religious figure in the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Panchen Lama lineage dates back to 1385, and since, an interesting relationship was built between the two highest spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism in such a way that each of them assist in recognizing each other’s reincarnation and acts as a spiritual guide to the other.
The Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas were the highest figures and enjoyed an admiration unequaled among Tibetans.
Each of the successive Panchen Lama lineages has played a very significant role in reviving and preserving the rich and unique culture of Tibetan Buddhism.
One of the most courageous and capable amongst them was the 10th Panchen Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen, who firmly and fearlessly committed himself to the greater cause of Tibet in its most difficult time.
He fearlessly faced Chinese Communist leaders, and made his own contribution in preserving and protecting religious freedoms under the repressive Chinese Communist regime.
Although he was given the title of the highest political figure amongst Tibetans, he never ceased to struggle for the welfare and the well-being of common Tibetans.
Choekyi Gyaltsen was disappointed in seeing his Tibetan culture on the verge of eradication while the heavenly beauty of the Tibetan plateau was devastated and depleted in the name of development, without consulting Tibetans.
And then he made a very direct and critical comment against the Chinese authorities, saying “the Chinese government has brought more destruction than development”.
He visited all three traditional regions of the Tibetan plateau and was saddened to see the cultural influences the Chinese forced upon Tibetans.
Based on his own experiences of traveling extensively on the Tibetan plateau, he submitted a 70,000 character petition to the Chinese premier Mao Zedong, criticizing the Chinese colonist practice of genocide against Tibetan culture, and the suppression of peace-loving Tibetans with systematic repressive policies.
His petition was considered as the most detailed attack on the Chinese hardline policies in Tibet.
It was seen as a poison arrow aimed against the Chinese leadership.
As such, the 10th Panchen Lama was accused of being anti-Chinese and labeled a counter-revolutionary, separatist, and a threat to the Chinese rule in Tibet.
He was thus imprisoned by the Chinese for 14 years.
In January 1989, the Panchen Lama delivered one of the most courageous speeches against the Chinese development in Tibet. He said “Since liberation, there has certainly been development, but the price paid for this development has been greater than the gains.”
Thereafter, he was mysteriously poisoned. It is believed by Chinese officials.
After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama on 28th January 1989, the concerned monks of the Tashilhunpo monastery (the traditional monastery seat of Panchen Lama) and the general Tibetan public requested His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to recognize the 11th Panchen Lama.
Therefore, on May 14, 1995, His Holiness recognized a young boy Gedhun Choekyi Nyima from Lhari in Nagchu as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.
After three days, the Chinese authorities abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his whereabouts and that of his family are still unknown to the rest of the world.
The last time the world heard about the Panchen Lama and his family was in 2010, when the Chinese told reporters that the Panchen Lama and his family are doing well like any other common citizens in Tibet.
China’s abduction and arrest of the 11th Panchen Lama not only violates the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child, but also violated his religious freedoms by denying his rights to study in his monastery.
Chadrel Rinpoche, a close disciple of the 10th Panchen Lama who later became Khenpo of the Tashilhunpo monastery was also arrested, imprisoned and held under house arrest until his reported death from another suspicious poisoning in 2011.
Chadrel Rinpoche stood firm in his stand and support for the search for the reincarnation that was recognized by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – at the cost of his life.
Right after the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama, the Chinese government arranged secret meeting at Jokhang Temple on 28th November 1995, and appointed Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama. This is again a clear violation of the religious rights of the Tibetans, whereby Tibetans were forced to believe in the Chinese government-appointed Panchen Lama.
Ever since, the international community has been raising the issue of his whereabouts for the last 26 years.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) listed Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as an individual detained on account of religious beliefs in its annual report in 2013.
The United States has been calling on China to release the 11th Panchen Lama from detention and demanded China allow him to assume his traditional role. On the
occasion of the 25th anniversary of his disappearance, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also called on China to make the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts known to the public.
China should be questioned for not only violating its international commitments to uphold religious rights and personal belief systems, but also for failing to uphold its own Constitution that promotes religious freedom for all.
Other international communities have also been urging and appealing to the Chinese government to allow the United Nations’ High Commissioner and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
After repeated attempts to gain access to him, no international agency or human rights organization has been allowed to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima or his family, and their whereabouts remain uncertain.
In an attempt to establish their authority over the religious matters of Tibetans and their belief system, China introduced order number 5, officially named ‘Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism’.
Order number 5 states that a ‘Reincarnation Application’ must be filed by all Buddhist temples before they are allowed to recognize individuals as Tulkus (reincarnated teachers).
They have purposefully introduced this measure to control any claims over religious leaders, who play an important role in influencing common Tibetans.
China has even gone so far as to claim that they will also appoint a successor to the Dalai Lama in the future.
However, the issue of the Dalai Lama’s succession has been addressed by the ‘Tibet Policy and Support Act- 2020’ by the US Congress which bars China from appointing a Tibetan Lama as per their liking.
The Panchen Lama’s capture is as ruthless as any other case of kidnapping elsewhere in the world, but the fact that it doesn’t get the amount of attention other cases get is abhorrent.
It is time a boy who was abducted at the young age of six and has been held captive for years be freed.
China has to face the consequences for their acts of cruelty and injustice.
It is high time for the world to take action for Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.