The Tenth Panchen Lama: A Life of Agony and Sacrifice
The late Panchen Lama was born on February 3, 1938 in the village of Karang Bidho in Amdo, northeastern Tibet. Almost from the time of his birth, he was caught in the politics of China’s ambitions towards Tibet and Tibet’s stubborn resistance to the Chinese political game.
The Panchen Lama was only eleven when the commander of the PLA Lanzhou military division sent a telegram in his name to Mao Zedong, requesting the "liberation of Tibet". In reply, Mao wrote, "The people of Tibet have great love for the motherland. They are opposed to foreign imperialists and willing to join the new united, egalitarian and powerful nation of the PRC."
In pursuance of its "divide and rule" policy, the Communist Government of China tried to bring up the Panchen Lama as a rival to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1951 the Panchen Lama was invited to Beijing to coincide with the arrival there of a Tibetan delegation, which was eventually forced to sign the infamous "Seventeen-Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet". While in Beijing, the Panchen Lama was forced to send a telegram to the Dalai Lama, stressing the importance of implementing the "Seventeen-Point Agreement under the leadership of the People’s Government of China".
On 28 April 1952, the Panchen Lama arrived in Lhasa en route his monastery in Tashilhunpo, Shigatse. During his brief stay in Lhasa, he had two audiences with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness’ impression of the Panchen Lama during those meetings is recorded in his memoirs, My Land and My People. His Holiness states that the Panchen Lama "showed a genuine respect for my position, as the customs of Buddhism requires towards a senior monk. He was correct and pleasant in his manners — a true Tibetan, and I had a firm impression of unforced goodwill. I felt sure that left to himself he would have whole-heartedly supported Tibet against inroads of China".
After the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, the Panchen Lama was appointed the acting chairman of the "TAR Preparatory Committee". In 1960 the Chinese appointed him the Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, hoping to use him as their puppet spokesman for their policy in Tibet. However, the Panchen Lama remained a steadfast Tibetan nationalist. He was deeply disturbed to find that China had jailed hundreds of thousands of Tibetan government officials, the high lamas and scholars, the community leaders and citizens from many other walks of life. He complained to the Chinese authorities that they were terrorizing the whole populace of Tibet. The Chinese brushed aside his protest by saying that such mistakes were inevitable in all reform movements.
In his capacity as the Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, the Panchen Lama visited many parts of Tibet. Then, in May 1962 he submitted a 70,000-character petition to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, detailing the atrocities the Chinese army had inflicted on Tibetans. Amongst other things, the petition pointed out: "After the introduction of reforms, Buddhism has suffered a serious setback and is now on the verge of extinction. ... Many prisoners died pitiable deaths when the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was being introduced. This has greatly reduced the population of Tibet over the past few years. ...With the exception of old people, women and children, most of the able-bodied men and intelligent people in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan were incarcerated."
Chairman Mao Zedong reacted with fury to the petition. He termed the petition a "poisoned arrow" directed at the Communist Party of China".
The Panchen Lama further enraged the Chinese leadership in 1964 when he declared before a huge crowd at Shugtri Linka, his residence in Lhasa, that he considered His Holiness the Dalai Lama as his "refuge for this and the next life".
Subseqeuently, at a TAR Preparatory Committee meeting, held from September 18 to November 4, 1964, Zhang Guohua and other Chinese officials bitterly accused the Panchen Lama of being anti-Party, anti-socialism and anti-people. He was ousted from the post of the Committee’s chair and subjected to thamzing (struggle session). Later, he was taken to Beijing and placed under house arrest.
The start of the Cultural Revolution saw his plight worsen. In August 1966, he was struggled against, tortured and humiliated by the Red Guards. Then, in 1968, he was formally imprisoned in Beijing’s Qin Cheng prison and released only in October 1977.
In a 20-page wall poster, dated March 3, 1979, China’s foremost dissident Wei Jingsheng said that life in Qin Cheng prison was so unbearable that the Panchen Lama, among many other inmates, at one time tried to commit suicide. He refused nourishment, declaring that he did not want to go on living. "You can take my body to the Central Committee," Wei quoted him as having said. The outside world first came to know about the Panchen Lama’s reemergence in February 26, 1978 when the New China News Agency published a report that he had appeared at the fifth National Committee of the Chinese Political Consultative Conference meeting in plenary session in Beijing. Till then, even the Tibetans in Tibet did not know whether the Panchen Lama was alive or dead.
In 1980 the Panchen Lama was reinstated as the Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress. Immediately after his release from prison, the Panchen Lama asked the Chinese authorities for permission to visit Tibet.
On reaching Lhasa, he announced: "Tibet is my home and I have a special regard for this land. Although I have not lived here for the last eighteen years, my heart has always been beating with those of the people of Tibet. I have always missed Tibet and its people, and have been thinking about the welfare of Tibetans." He was to visit Lhasa seven more times before his death, and he also toured various parts of Kham and Amdo.
Speaking to a gathering of Tibetans during the Monlam festival in Lhasa in 1985, the Panchen Lama said: "His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I are spiritual friends. There are no differences between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and me. Some people are trying to create discord between us. This will not succeed."
At the TAR Standing Committee Meeting of the National People’s Congress, held in Beijing in March 1987, the Panchen Lama openly criticized the Chinese Government’s policy in Tibet regarding education, economic development, population transfer and discriminatory treatment of Tibetans.
On January 9, 1989 the Panchen Lama arrived in Shigatse to consecrate the newly-renovated mausoleums of the Fifth to the Ninth Panchen Lamas. On January 24, 1989 the Panchen Lama stated in Shigatse that Chinese rule in Tibet had brought more destruction than benefit to the Tibetan people. On January 28, 1989, four days after delivering this historic condemnation, the Panchen Lama died at Tashilhunpo Monastery.
The mysterious nature of his sudden death has generated a wealth of speculation. Was he killed or did he die a natural death? What has become increasingly clear since his death is that the Tenth Panchen Lama was a patriot and martyr for the cause of Tibet. Constrained from expressing his thoughts and feelings, imprisoned and reviled for over a decade, he was nevertheless one of the harshest and most courageous critics of Mao’s policy in Tibet.