Panchen Lama turns 18

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Tibet's Panchen Lama Turns 18 In Chinese Custody

The boy recognized by the Dalai Lama (1) as Tibet's 11th Panchen Lama turns 18 today after spending almost twelve years under Chinese captivity. The Panchen Lama, regarded as one of Tibet's most important religious figures, was abducted by the Chinese state in May 1995 at the age of six and became the world's youngest political prisoner (2). China has flatly rejected all requests for information on his whereabouts and well-being from national governments, the EU and UN (3) and it remains unclear what China's intentions are for the long-term future of the boy.
"China's detention of the Panchen Lama represents a crime not only against a child, but against the entire Tibetan people who regard the ongoing detention of one of their most important religious leaders as a source of great distress. It is a clear demonstration of the lengths to which China is prepared to go to control, and ultimately crush, both Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan identity itself," said Matt Whitticase of Free Tibet Campaign.

China's reasons for abducting the Panchen Lama became clear when, soon after the abduction, it appointed its own Panchen Lama (4). The Panchen Lama is responsible for selecting the future reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. By appointing, and thereby controlling, its own Panchen Lama China sought to appropriate the right to select the reincarnation of the present Dalai Lama and ultimately to control the future of Tibetan Buddhism and identity itself. China has aggresively promoted its Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, whose visits to Tibet and participation in events such as last year's World Buddhist Forum in China are widely reported in the official state media in an attempt to boost his legitimacy. The Tibetan people however refuse to recognize Gyaltsen Norbu as the true reincarnation of Tibet's 11th Panchen Lama. One Tibetan monk told Tibet Watch (5): "The Panchen Lama who was chosen by the Chinese Government has no recognition and faith from the Tibetan people although [the] Panchen Lama is the highest position in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and he is a precious lama."

Contact: Matt Whitticase 07904 063 746 or 020 7324 4605, email

Notes to Editor:

(1) Historically Panchen and Dalai Lamas have shared a close relationship in Tibetan Buddhism. The reincarnation of one is responsible for passing on the body of Tibetan spiritual learning to the younger reincarnation of the other. The reincarnation of one cannot be recognized as legal in a religious sense without the recognition of the other. By refusing to recognize the Dalai Lama's choice of Panchen Lama, China seeks to break this crucial relationship and, in so doing, determine the long-term future of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet itself.

(2) Gedhun Choekyi Nyima [the lay name of the Panchen Lama] and his parents have not been since they were abducted in 1995.

(3) China has justified the ongoing detention of the Panchen Lama by asserting that he is a young boy who wishes to be left alone. His reaching of adulthood, however, means China can no longer seek to justify his detention on the grounds of age.

(4) On 8 December 1995 Gyaltsen Norbu was enthroned as Tibet's 11th Panchen Lama. The political importance attached by the avowedly atheist Chinese Government to the appointment of Gyaltsen Norbu, in place of the Dalai Lama's choice, as Panchen Lama was underlined by the close role played by then President Jiang Zemin in the enthronement ceremony.

(5) Tibet Watch is a research-based sister organization to Free Tibet Campaign.

(6) To mark the Panchen Lama's 18th birthday Free Tibet Campaign has launched an online petition demanding his immediate release. The site also has a downloadable short campaign video, highlighting the case of the Panchen Lama. Both the film and petition can be found at

(7) A high resolution photo of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (1.3MB, 300dpi), Dalai Lama's choice of Panchen Lama can be found at: