A youth named by China as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism but reviled by many Tibetans as a fake has pledged his patriotism, Chinese state media said on Tuesday, amid a year of sensitive anniversaries for Tibet.
Gyaltsen Norbu was selected as a boy by officially atheist Beijing in 1995 as the 11th Panchen Lama in China’s drive to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans.
Tibet’s current spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had announced his own choice of a six-year-old boy, who was taken away by authorities and has since vanished from public view.
This year not only marks the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of the six-year-old boy but also the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 following an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.
During a seven-day tour of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, which borders what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region and is home to many ethnic Tibetans, China’s Panchen Lama visited temples, met monks, blessed followers and lead prayers, the official Xinhua news agency said.
“The Panchen Lama pledged to uphold patriotism and make contributions to national unity, ethnic solidarity, religious harmony and social stability,” the news agency said.
“He called on all Chinese Tibetan-Buddhist followers to love the country, make efforts to benefit the people and practice benevolence to promote social development and protect national interests,” it added.
China has gradually exposed its Panchen Lama in public roles in the hope he will achieve the respect commanded by the Dalai Lama among Tibetans and globally, and in 2012 he made his first trip outside mainland China when he visited Hong Kong.
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950. After the Dalai Lama fled, the 10th Panchen Lama stayed on and was initially seen as a collaborator, but it later emerged that he spent more than a decade either in prison or under house arrest for criticizing Beijing.
He was freed in 1977 and politically rehabilitated the following year. He died in 1989.
Activists say China has violently tried to stamp out religious freedom and culture in Tibet. China rejects the criticism, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
Tibet remains under heavy security and in recent years foreign media has been all but banned from visiting.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)
The Tibetan Candidate from Free Tibet
In May 1995, Chinese occupying forces abducted six year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima from his home in Tibet. He 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.