China Continues to Detain Tibet’s Second Highest Leader 25 Years On

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Panchen Lama

There are growing concerns that the Chinese government will move to appoint its own candidate for the next Dalai Lama: the Tibetan people’s most important spiritual leader. And these fears are warranted, as 25 years ago this month, Beijing disappeared Tibet’s second most senior figure.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was appointed the 11th Panchen Lama on 14 May 1995. Born in Chinese-occupied Tibet, the then six-year-old boy and his family were kidnapped by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) just three days later and have never been heard from since.

The Dalai Lama publicly announced the young boy as the Panchen Lama, which was in defiance of the Chinese government’s push to select its own person for the role. And six months after the boy’s abduction, the CCP installed Gyaincain Norbu as the spiritual leader.

In response to a question put to Beijing by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on 18 May this year, a spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry said the world’s youngest political prisoner apparently has a job and a family. And the now 31-year-old wants to be kept out of the limelight.

Sixty years of resistance

After a decade of encroachment, by 1959, the CCP had consolidated its control over the nation of Tibet. And it was in March that year – following the brutal suppression of the Tibetan Uprising in Lhasa – that the Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayas into India.

Now 84 years old, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso serves solely as Tibet’s foremost spiritual leader. But, up until 2012, he also functioned as the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, as he took on the role of political leader on the world stage.

These days, Beijing’s substitute Panchen Lama is a full card-carrying member of the CCP, with a position on its top political advisory body. And with China having flagged plans to choose the next Dalai Lama, Tibetans are very clear that they want no interference in the vital succession process.

Free the Panchen Lama

The Australia Tibet Council outlined in a press release on the 25th anniversary of the Panchen Lama’s kidnapping that the crime is part of the CCP’s “broader strategy to control Tibetan Buddhism, interfere in the future reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama, and cement its rule in Tibet”.

Co-deputy leader of the Australian Greens Nick McKim was one of several Australian federal politicians that spoke out in support of the Panchen Lama, as part of the Australia Tibet Council’s Free the Panchen Lama campaign.

According to McKim, “the story of the Panchen Lama exposes the brutal reality of the Chinese government’s occupation and invasion of Tibet”. And he underscored this by pointing out that Freedom House has found Tibet to be the second least free country after Syria for the last five years.

The Greens Senator outlined that “away from the gaze of the international community the Chinese government” is destroying Tibet’s culture, it’s way of life and its environment.

Indeed, the formerly independent nation is now one of the most heavily policed and surveilled places on the planet.

“So, we need to stand up for Tibet,” McKim made clear. “And we need to stand up for the Panchen Lama.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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