On 25 April 1995, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima turned six years old. Barely a month later, he became the world’s youngest political prisoner.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is the Panchen Lama, the second highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.
To many Tibetan people, he is a figure who commands deep respect and reverence. To the Chinese government, which has occupied Tibet since invading it in 1950, the young Panchen Lama was a potential threat to their rule.
Who is the Panchen Lama?
The Panchen Lama is one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, second only to the Dalai Lama himself. Perhaps his most important job is the role he plays in recognising the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, who then in turn finds the reincarnated Panchen Lama. This tradition has endured for centuries.
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.
In 1995 a list of possible candidates for the next Panchen Lama was sent to the Dalai Lama (living in exile in India), and on 15 May he announced that Gedhun had been recognised as the 11th Panchen Lama. Two days later, the Chinese government abducted the child and his family. None of them have ever been seen or heard from again.
Why was he kidnapped?
The Chinese government rejected the Dalai Lama's candidate as "illegal and invalid" and, six months after Gedhun's abduction, China announced that it had found the "real" reincarnation. They named Gyaltsen Norbu, a Tibetan boy and the son of two Communist Party members, as the Panchen Lama.
Since his selection, Gyaltsen, who lives in Beijing, has only rarely visited Tibet. His visits are carefully stage managed and heavily policed and Tibetans still refer to him as the 'Panchen Zuma', or 'false Panchen'.
Gyaltsen Norbu is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a top advisorybody to China's government and a senior figure in China’s state-run Buddhist Association. In a speech in 2015, he vowed to uphold "national unity" - the Chinese government's term for opposing any change in Tibet's status.
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. Not only are they attempting to use their puppet Panchen Lama to control and influence Tibetans today, but when the time comes to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama they will use him to try and legitamise the appointment of their own pro-China candidate as the next leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Where is the Panchen Lama now?
The location of the Panchen Lama is one of China’s most tightly-guarded secrets, one that they refuse to share. Despite Beijing’s claims that he is safe and does not want to be disturbed, Tibetans continue to demand to know where he is. Even after China appointed their own, pro-Chinese Panchen Lama, Tibetans have never forgotten Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
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.
In May 2016, Free Tibet confronted the Chinese Ambassador to the UK during a talk and he was asked directly about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. He responded only that he was safe and "is just [an] ordinary boy”.
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.
On 25 April, Free Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet marked the Panchen Lama’s birthday by launching a worldwide effort to challenge Beijing to reveal his location and provide proof to the world that he is safe. Throughout April and May, we want to flood the Chinese authorities with cards from around the world, celebrating the Panchen Lama’s birthday and requesting that the Chinese authorities reveal where he is. We need to generate enough international pressure to force Beijing to respond.
To get involved, you can buy a birthday card or get creative and make your own. Write your message and send them to Free Tibet in the UK, or Students for a Free Tibet in the US.
The Grayston Centre
28 Charles Square
Students for a Free Tibet
602 East 14th Street
2nd Floor New York
We also need to spread the word about the Panchen Lama. We have created our own missing persons poster that you can print off and post in your local community. The poster will direct people to our "Free the Panchen Lama" Facebook page and make sure that more people can get involved.
You can also spread the word online – why not take a photo of your poster and tell us where you have put it up? You could also design your own posters and send them through to us. We will put your photos up on social media and show that the search for the Panchen Lama is a global effort. Send your pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org or post them to us on Facebook.
Please follow the campaign by joining our "Free the Panchen Lama" Facebook page, and be sure to spread the word to make sure that this is a birthday that the Chinese government doesn’t forget.