The world is currently facing the dilemma of tackling the COVID – 19 pandemic, along with attempting to jumpstart a failing global economy and a host of corollary issues related to the disease that a few months ago did not register anywhere along the Richter scale of “news worthiness”. At the present moment our social media accounts and news channels are saturated with information and analysis of the pandemic. Therefore it is not surprising that a recent statement by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, on the condition of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, passed under the radar of our attention.
The Panchen Lama is second highest ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism. After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, his successor was chosen according to the rituals associated with the tradition and approved by the 14th Dalai Lama in 1995. The prompt disappearance of the six year old and the installation of a new ‘Panchen Lama’ by the Chinese Government remains one of the greatest affront by the CCP to the faith and religious sentiments of millions of Tibetans inside and outside occupied Tibet. In 2007, the CCP passed a law stating that all reincarnations needs to be approved by the State, which is a clear attempt to legitimize its control over Tibet’s religious institutions and traditions as well play its hand over the pertinent issue of the successor to the 14th Dalai Lama. The disappearance of the six year old Panchen lama and the subsequent installation of his ‘replacement’ was the precursor to the CCP’s present line of action.
Zhao Lijian’s comments that the 11th Panchen Lama is currently attending college and that neither he or his family wishes to be disturbed in the “current normal lives” reads like a line straight out a poorly produced theatrical flick yet the grim situation surrounding his continued state enforced disappearance speaks volumes about the dystopian regime and its utter disregard for human rights and freedom. The statistic of China’s detainment of Tibetans is staggering : according to the Political Prisoner’s Database of the United States’ Congressional – Executive Commission on China, there has been 9116 political prisoners in mainland China from 1981 to 2018 but 4,012 of them were / are Tibetans, a massively disproportionate number considering the Tibetan population of 7 million makes up a mere 0.05 percent of the total Chinese population of 1.4 billion. The Panchen Lama is the most recognizable name among that statistic yet also the most fiercely “guarded” by Beijing. Furthermore, Tibet remains a source of insecurity to the communist regime and Tibetans have continued to bear the brunt of its securitization policies. Recently
The youngest political prisoner in the world at the time of his detainment, the whereabouts of the Panchen lama remains a closed guarded secret of the CCP with the recent cursory remark being one of the handful ever made by any of its officials. Although China denies that the case of the Panchen Lama is one of enforced disappearance, according to the United Nation’s International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, an enforced disappearance is defined as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State … followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law”. Unsurprisingly China is not a signatory to this convention, which would have opened it up to a plethora of inquiries about its abject record in this matter yet the veracity of the case of the Panchen Lama is unquestionable.
Two cases of the Panchen Lama remains pending at the United Nations : one with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance and the other with the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Various UN Committees and Special Rapporteurs including Committee Against Torture and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion have questioned China and called for his release. A number of countries such as the United States and organizations such as Human Rights Watch have continued to advocate for his release yet China remains elusive about his whereabouts, adhering to the tired out rhetoric that he is “safe” and is being kept away for “his own protection”.
The safety of the Panchen Lama remains ever in doubt, despite the “assurances” of the Chinese Government. The high profile case of China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment in 2009 for his political beliefs, serves as a worrying indicator for millions of Tibetans and other concerned about the Panchen Lama. Liu Xiaobo succumbed to terminal cancer in 2017, just weeks after he was released on medical parole yet China did not allow him to travel abroad for medical treatment or even release any statement about his medical condition until the very end when it was already too late. Therefore it would be an act bordering on sheer ignorance to believe in China’s statements on the Panchen Lama. It has been 25 years since the world last heard of Gedun Choekyi Nyima or his family. If unchecked and not held accountable, the Communist Party of China will make it a certainty that the world never hears of them ever again.
*Tenzing Wangdak is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute. He is a TSP Alumna and graduated from New York University. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.