In May 1995, Chinese occupying forces abducted six year-old Panchen Lama (Gedhun Choekyi Nyima) from his home in Tibet. The child has not been seen or heard from since.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is recognised by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, one of the highest-ranking spiritual leaders in Tibet.
Since his disappearance, China has repeatedly ignored demands to confirm his safety and wellbeing.
The previous Panchen Lama (Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyaltsen) spoke out against Chinese rule many times and wrote a report chronicling Tibet's famines in the 1960s. As a result, he spent more than eight years in jail and died in suspicious circumstances in 1989.
Beijing ordered the abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery, Chadrel Rinpoche, to head the search for the Panchen Lama's reincarnation. He duly sent a list of possible candidates to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama is in exile, and on 15 May 1995, the Dalai Lama announced that Gedhun had been recognised as the 11th Panchen Lama.
However, the Chinese government rejected the Dalai Lama's candidate as "illegal and invalid" and on 17 May 1995, the authorities abducted the child and his family.
Chadrel Rinpoche and his assistant Jampa Chung were then arrested and served six-year and four-year sentences respectively for "selling state secrets" and "colluding with separatist forces abroad".
Chadrel was released at the beginning of 2002, though it is believed he remains under house arrest in Lhasa. Jampa Chung should have been freed in 2000, but in 2003 it was reported that he may still be in custody.
Six months after Gedhun's abduction, China announced that it had selected a Tibetan boy called Gyaltsen Norbu to become the Panchen Lama.
Since his selection, Gyaltsen, who lives in Beijing, has only returned to Tibet three times. His visits are carefully stage managed and heavily policed and Tibetans still refer to him as the 'Panchen Zuma', or 'false Panchen'.
In May 1996, China admitted that Gedhun and his family were being held at a secret location and China's ambassador to the UN claimed that, "(Gedhun) has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents." He did not say where Gedhun was being held.
In February 1998, American clerics visiting Tibet were told that Gedhun was in Beijing, but in March 1998, the vice governor of Tibetan Autonomous Region Yang Chuantang told Austrian delegates that he was actually living in Lhari - the place of his birth. In April 1998, a third location was put forward when a British journalist was told that Gedhun was studying, possibly in Gansu Province.
The Chinese government still refuses to reveal Gedhun's whereabouts or respond to requests from the United Nations and Western governments to check on his wellbeing.
Panchen Lama facts
- The abduction and replacement of the Panchen Lama is part of China's efforts to 'stabilise' Tibet by controlling its religion and breaking the Dalai Lama's influence.
- He is the second most important figure in the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism
- He also traditionally recognises the Dalai Lama's reincarnation.
- The Dalai Lama has stated that if he dies in exile his reincarnation will be born in exile, not in Tibet. He also says a new Tibetan leader may be elected democratically.