Dharamshala: Exactly 25 years ago on May 17, 1995, a six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima who would become the second-highest spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism disappeared all of a sudden along with his family.
They have not been heard or seen since. The Chinese government has only given frail statements about their whereabouts and well being while refusing to comment further on the issue.
Since the enforced disappearance of Tibet’s 11th Panchen Lama, many world leaders, TSGs and international organizations have strongly voiced for his swift release and called out China’s meddling in the recognition of reincarnated lamas. And yet, not a single clue about the child who if alive would be 31 of age.
As today marks the 25th anniversary of the enforced disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, President Dr Lobsang Sangay led CTA hosted a virtual panel discussion and a global candlelight vigil to remember Panchen Lama and honour his 25 years of an ordeal in captive.
Earlier during the month-long campaign that CTA has initiated for Panchen Rinpoche, President Dr. Lobsang Sangay stated that the Tibetans will not forget Kunzik Panchen Rinpoche and will remember him till he is released and till he can be with the Tibetans to practise and become a great spiritual and national leader as the 10th Panchen Lama. He has also urged the global audience to participate in a global candlelight vigil for the release of Gendun Choekyi Nyima and all other Tibetan prisoners of conscience.
As Tibetans and friends of Tibet commemorate this day, CTA President Dr. Lobsang Sangay, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery Zeekyab Rinpoche, Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, Commissioner, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Bhuching K. Tsering, Vice-President of International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) came together for a virtual panel discussion on the missing 11th Panchen Lama while renewing global campaign for his release.
The panel commenced with President Dr. Sangay acknowledging and thanking all nations and their Parliaments, international human rights organizations, and individuals for their continued support in the case of 11th Panchen Lama.
President Dr. Lobsang Sangay identified that the case of 11th Panchen Lama not only reflects an injustice to one person, rather an injustice to six million Tibetans and their right to religious freedom. He affirmed that Buddhists around the world and Tibetans in exile and especially in Tibet, have been living in hope that one day they will be able to receive blessings from the Panchen Lama.
When Tibet’s 11th Panchen disappeared along with his family, the Chinese authorities wasted no time to appoint a young boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as their own 11th Panchen Lama confirming their politically driven effort to undermine and control Tibetan Buddhism.
Despite China’s incessant effort to dictate unauthorised policy over matters concerning the recognition of reincarnated lamas and additionally justify their action, they have miserably failed in their motivation as Tibetans have not yielded under their repression and China could never displace the true position of true Panchen Lama from the hearts and minds of Tibetan people.
“For Tibetans in Tibet and in exile, and for Tibetan Buddhist followers around the world, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the six-year-old boy recognized by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will always be the true Panchen Lama,” said the President of CTA.
President Dr Sangay strongly condemned China’s claim that religious freedom prevails in Tibet and that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom. He asserted that this particular claim made by China is far from the truth and called out China to provide verifiable information on the wellbeing and whereabouts of the 11th Panchen Lama, his family and Chadrel Rinpoche, the former Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and the head of the search committee for the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, through pictures and videos if there is any truth in their assertions.
President Dr Sangay then remarked that the day’s significance is also a reminder of the commitment to the legacy of the 10th Panchen Lama, a courageous figure Tibet has ever known and who through his famous 70,000 characters petition detailing failures of the Chinese reform policies in Tibet put China in dilemma.
For his boldness and unyielding persona, he was put under immense torture during his 9 years imprisonment. And even after his release from prison, the 10th Panchen Lama remained ever more committed to his sworn oath in the petition, “I will certainly not allow any trace to be left in my history which would tarnish my reputation as a descendant of the hardworking and brave Tibetan nationality.”
“He stayed committed and undeterred till his last breath when he died under mysterious circumstances in his monastery. His death was acquitted as natural death by the Chinese government,” however, said President Dr Sangay that he and his people don’t believe and accept that the 10th Panchen Lama died of natural causes just as they don’t believe that his reincarnate, the 11th Panchen Lama is under safe protection.
President Sangay called out China to confront the truth and release the 11th Panchen Lama along with his family, Chadrel Rinpoche, and all Tibetans unjustly imprisoned. Likewise, he appealed to the international community to make a concerted effort to press China to release Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and resolve the critical human rights situation in Tibet.
On the final note, President Dr Lobsang Sangay thanked all nations and their Parliaments, international human rights organizations, and individuals for their continued support in the case of 11th Panchen Lama including Tibetan NGOs and the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery for continuously undertaking various initiatives to ensure the release of the 11th Panchen Lama.
“We pray and hope that His Eminence the 11th Panchen Lama will soon be able to return to his rightful place at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse. We pray that under the auspicious presence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and His Eminence the 11th Panchen Lama, peace will shine soon over Tibet”, CTA President concluded his remarks.
Abbot Zeekyab Rinpoche of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the exile seat of the missing Panchen Lama, paid his respects to the 10th Panchen Lama Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyaltsen and the 11th Panchen Lama, honouring the great legacy and contributions of the Panchen Lama lineage towards the flourishing of the Tibetan culture, language and Buddhist tradition.
Rinpoche remarked that the 10th Panchen Lama, in particular, committed till his last breath to serve the aspirations of the six million Tibetans and even while suffering years of imprisonment and torture for criticizing the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet, he continued to fight for the freedom and dignity of the Tibetan people.
Such was the influence and leadership of Tibet’s spiritual leaders that the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lamas were regarded as the ‘Sun and Moon’ in Tibetan Buddhist spiritual firmament.
“His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are the indispensable figures and spiritual leaders of Tibet,” said Zeekyab Rinpoche.
“Among the incarnation lineages recognized in Tibet for centuries, the lineages of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were particularly revered in Tibet, owing to their unique spiritual bond and their interchangeable roles as teacher and disciple to each other.”
This extraordinary bond dates back in 1447 when Gedun Drupa founded the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse, one of the biggest monastic Universities of the Gelugpa School which later became the official seat of the Panchen Lamas.
Even the title of ‘Panchen’ meaning ‘Scholar’ was first bestowed during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyatso, when the Dalai Lama bestowed the title and the ownership of Tashilhunpo Monastery to then Tashilhunpo’s abbot, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen (the third Panchen Lama). Since then his three previous and subsequent incarnations came to be known by the title Panchen Lama.
Zeekyab Rinpoche reminded here that China’s forcible disappearance of the 11th Panchen is therefore of great concern not only to the people but the centuries-old spiritual tradition of Tibet.
With this, Rinpoche urged the leadership of CTA, governments, parliaments and international religious freedom groups and organizations and individuals to continue to press the Chinese government to release the authentic 11th Kunsik Panchen Lama, Gedun Choekyi Nyima so that he may return to his rightful seat at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and assume his spiritual leadership.
Zeekyab Rinpoche especially thanked the US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, Italian Parliamentarians, Swiss Parliamentarians, Czech Parliamentarians, Senators of the Czech Republic, Lithuanian parliamentarians, the UK, Slovak parliamentarians who issued statements for the release of the Panchen Lama and International organisations such as the Human Rights Watch and others for joining the campaign for the 11th Panchen Lama.
“I take this opportunity to deeply thank all of you for your unwavering support for the immediate release of the 11th Panchen Lama. And, urge you to continue your support until the issue is resolved.”
Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, former Commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) spoke on his efforts as a member of USCIRF and added that his biggest achievement during the 4 years of service was the adoption of Panchen Lama as a prisoner of conscience along with his colleagues VC Nadine Maenza and Congressman James McGovern.
In a scathing diatribe to the Chinese policies in Tibet, Dr. Tenzin especially condemned their interference in the matter of reincarnation and Tibetan Buddhism. He stated that China’s oblivious policy toward the human rights standard is not only evil and brutal but a complete failure.
Dr. Tenzin pointed out that one’s freedom of religion and belief among the rights mandated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the most vital one and for that same reason, he asserted that USCIRF was established based on the rights enshrined in the article 18 of the UDHR.
He established the commission’s commitment to safeguard and defend the universal right to freedom of religion or belief must be valued and respected.
“We have spent enough time talking and raising awareness about the case of 11th Panchen Lama, now is the time to act for all us and fruitfully bring the results” urged Dr. Tenzin.
He urged the US Congress and President to implement the Magnitsky bill on Chinese officials responsible for the persecution of religious minorities, specifically referring to the Panchen Lama.
He reminded the urgency to act on the matter for the swift release of Panchen Lama and all the Tibetan prisoners of conscience alike.
He called out China to provide verifiable video evidence if Panchen Lama and his family is well and protected. He demanded that China must be held accountable without a second thought and that they must honour its claim of ethnic harmony in China by fulfilling the aspiration of the Tibetan people beginning with the release of Gendun Choekyi Nyima.
Bhuchung K. Tsering, Vice President of ICT in his remarks on the case of the Panchen Rinpoche’s enforced disappearance highlight two significant points: international community’s response to the enforced disappearance of Panchen Rinpoche; and their perception of this issue.
He said Panchen Lama’s issue is representative of the larger Tibet issue. Both the cases of the spiritual leader and Tibet are subjects of colonial rule. Both had their religious freedom taken away by the Chinese occupying forces. Thirdly, it is a violation of international laws because of the involuntary nature of the disappearance. With the view to turn Tibetans into a minority in their own land, Tibetans’ ownership of their ancestral land and property has been divested by the government.
He criticized China’s initial response to the UN officials’ question wherein they attempted to justify their actions by alleging that the Panchen Lama had asked to be removed from his parents, which was a blatant lie. In 2007, after a Pakistani representative for religious freedom enquired about the Panchen Lama, China responded then, saying the Lama was studying and in good health.
As well as in 2015, when an autonomous region representative asked this question, China gave the same unconvincing response.
However, the 2007 revelation made by China that the Panchen Lama was taking Chinese culture studies and possible prohibition of the study of Tibetan Buddhism is concerning, the ICT Vice President said. It foreshadows what might be in store with China’s insistence on deciding the future Dalai Lama.
Despite China’s occupation of Tibet for these many decades, it has not won over the Tibetan people’s heart, their loyalty or trust. In contrast, the 10th Panchen Lama when he first assumed his legitimate role, Tibetans were undecided about him. But through his dedicated efforts in establishing schools across Tibet and maintenance of the many sacred monasteries, the Tibetan public came to revere him.
On the shifting nature of the Panchen Lama’s case from a religious issue to a political issue. The ICT Vice President said China’s old accusation of Tibetans politicising a religious issue should be fired back at them in light of their unwarranted interference in the matters of the succession of the Dalai Lama. He asserted that it should be brought up into international discourse as it is highly concerning.
Following the panel, CTA hosted a virtual candle vigil in conjunction with prayers for the well being of Kunzik Panchen Rinpoche and his family. The movement was led by Sikyong, Kalons, Secretaries, and the staff while the Tibetans in India and abroad observed the vigil from their homes.
During the live panel session, International Relations Secretary, Karma Choeying presented a detailed report of the monthlong global advocacy campaign led by Offices of Tibet around the world and the India Tibet Coordination Office based in Delhi in marking the 25th anniversary of the Panchen Lama’s disappearance.
Unhindered the COVID-19 lockdown imposed around the world, the Offices of Tibet as the CTA emissaries abroad carried out vigorous monthlong lobbying and advocacy, including at the United Nations, to press China further on the case of the enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama. As a result of the monthlong campaign, the global call for the release of the Panchen Lama garnered a groundswell of support and endorsement of government officials, parliamentarians, prominent international rights organizations in CTA’s call for the release of the 11th Panchen Lama, his family and all prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese prisons. Thanks to these efforts, a joint petition to the United Nations urging it to press China for the immediate release of the 11th Panchen Lama has also been submitted.
The detailed report of each Office of Tibet including of ITCO was read out by Secretary Karma Choeying. The individual reports can be read on tibet.net.