Nearly 25 years after the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, United States is increasing pressure on the Chinese government for his immediate release. The Panchen Lama, who was six years old when he disappeared, was the world's youngest political prisoner.

Panchen Lama
Panchen Lama
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was appointed as the 11th Panchen Lama by Dalai Lama in May 1995.

The Panchen Lama is a reincarnate custodian of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a well-known religious figure in Tibet at the time of his disappearance. One of the most important figures in the Gelug tradition, Panchen Lama is second only to Dalai Lama.

The mysterious disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima

A native of Lhari County, Tibet Autonomous Region, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was declared as the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism by Dalai Lama on May 14, 1995. However, his appointment was rejected by the search team of the State Council of the People's Republic of China.

Three days after his public appointment as Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, along with his family, was taken away by the Chinese government under the garb of protective custody. Since then, the Panchen Lama has not been seen in the public eye.

The US joined the rising voices demanding the release of the missing Panchen Lama, making it clear that Chinese authorities have no right to appoint the Dalai Lama. Addressing the reporters, Sam Brownback, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said: " We do not have any idea of the whereabouts, and yes, we continue to press the Chinese authorities to release the Panchen Lama, to let him free, but (also) to let the world know where he is."

"This takes on, I think, an increased interest and focus and importance as the Chinese Communist Party continues to assert their right to appoint the next Dalai Lama. They don't have the right to appoint the next Dalai Lama any more than they (have) the right to appoint the next pope," he told reporters.

China remains evasive on Panchen Lama's whereabouts

Untraceable since 1995, Nyima's disappearance has often been questioned by the human rights groups. In 1996, despite the request from the Committee on Rights of Child, China declined to divulge the details about Panchen Lama, stating that he was at risk of being kidnapped by separatists and that his security had been threatened.

In a statement in 2015 on the Dalai Lama-appointed Panchen Lama, a pro-Beijing official in Tibet said the young man was healthy, enjoying an education and "does not want to be disturbed."

Later in July 2017, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the UN Human Rights Council, Asma Jahangir, requested permission for an independent expert's visit to confirm the well-being of Nyima. In response, China issued a statement maintaining that he was leading a normal and happy life. "The allegation that he disappeared together with his parents and that his whereabouts remain unknown is simply not true," stated the authorities.

China and its obsession with Panchen Lama

In its bid to win the hearts of the Tibetan community, China selected Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995. However, many Tibetans rejected the appointment. Gyaltsen Norbu has repeatedly made tightly scripted pblic appearances.

Channel News Asia stated that 'China has made clear it could seek to name a successor to the 84-year-old Dalai Lama, in a hope that the global movement for Tibetan autonomy will wither away without the charismatic monk.'

The publication further reported that the Dalai Lama, who is known to have serious health issues, is considering breaking tradition to dash Beijing's plans of appointing his successor. 'He has spoken of appointing his own successor - perhaps a girl - while he is still alive or declaring the institution finished with him,' reported CNA.

The United States Commissioner for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Gary Bauer, called for the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, a post vacant since January 2017. "The Chinese Communist Party is attempting to erase the unique identity of Tibetan Buddhism. We need to utilize all of the policy tools available, including the position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, to confront this grave threat to religious freedom," he said.

Voices demanding release of Panchen Lama increase

Radio Free Asia quoted Tenzin Dorjee, chair of the USCIRF, stating that in wake of coronavirus pandemic, concerns about Panchen Lama have increased. "Amidst the increasing spread of the coronavirus around the globe, we are ever more worried about his health condition at this moment. We insist that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) immediately release a televised statement on the well-being of the Panchen Lama and confirm that he is alive. The world community must also insist that China immediately release the Panchen Lama," said Dorjee.

Panchen lama
Voices demanding release of Panchen Lama grow. AFP

A separate statement issued by the USCIRF mentioned that the group is "deeply worried" about the Panchen Lama, who it recently added to a project on religious prisoners of conscience. "On his 31st birthday, we urge the Chinese government to show some compassion and free Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The United States remains deeply concerned that PRC (People's Republic of China) authorities continue to take steps to eliminate the religious, linguistic, and cultural identity of Tibetans, including their ongoing destruction of monastic dwellings and other structures important to the study and practice of the faith," the spokesperson said in a statement.

The publication further reported that Mikulas Peksa, a member of the European Parliament and president of its Tibet Interest Group, urged in a letter to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to exercise pressure on Beijing for the release of the Panchen Lama. "We urge the European Commission to call upon the Chinese government to finally ensure freedom of religion and belief in Tibet, by freeing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his parents immediately without any conditions, together with all Tibetan political prisoners," wrote Peksa. The letter was signed by 31 of his fellow lawmakers.