The Panchen Lama and Tibet's Future[Tuesday, February 20, 2007 16:27]
By Glenn Freeman*

Who is the Panchen Lama? where is he? what is his role in the future of Tibet? What is the role of the media in his story? Read on to find out this and much more...

What would happen if vice president Dick Cheney, Billy Graham, their families and supporters were kidnapped in Texas and detained in a secret bunker somewhere in the Mohavi desert; a place so remote and secure one might even find Osama Bin Laden hiding there! Such an auspicious ocurrance would certainly be embraced by a majority of US citizens and perhaps the rest of the world. No doubt international news services would not ignore such a major story. It would remain front page news until that Dick Cheney, along with the leader of his support base, were located dead or alive.

In Tibet, a land mass even larger than Texas, the Panchen Lama's role is equivalent to that of vice president. Yet, a similar, but real story is being largely ignored by the corporate-controlled world media. Tibet, as we know it, is largely dependent on the 11th Panchen Lama, a 17-year old boy named Gedun Choekyi Nyima (Panchens are reincarnations). How much of the world knows that this highly respected religious leader, (along with his family and supporters), was kidnapped on May 17th 1995 at age 6, by the Chinese government?

Since that day Gedun Choekyi Nyima has been referred to as the "world's youngest political prisoner." Surprisingly, after some initial coverage, the international media dropped this story like a hot potato. This makes no sense. Ongoing reports of such a story have inherent public interest. Remember Elián Gonzalez the young Cuban boy? That story simply would not go away. Comparatively, the world has not heard much about the Panchen Lama since the day he was kidnapped. Yet, the future of the Panchen Lama is also the future of Tibet. In order to understand the role of the Panchen Lama and Tibet, one must look at the history.

Though the 14th Dalai Lama is viewed worldwide as the legitimate leader of Tibet (don't tell the PRC!), few are aware of an acutely paramount relationship which exists between Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas. This historical relationship plays a vital role, in regard to the future of Tibet.

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries a great Buddhist master, Tsongkhapa, began to lay the groundwork for what would later be known as the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelugpa). In 1445/47 a student and nephew of Tsongkhapa, Gyalwa Gendun Drup (1391-1475) retroactively came to be called the 1st Dalai Lama when the third incarnation in his lineage, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), received the name "Dalai" from his Mongolian patron and follower Alton Khan in 1578.

Gyalwa Gendun Drup also received the name "Panchen" from an erudite Tibetan contemporary, Bodong Choklay Namgyel, when he answered all of the latter's questions. Panchen means "great scholar," from the Sanskrit word Pandita, meaning "scholar," and the Tibetan word Chen Po, meaning "great."

In the 17th century, the Fifth Dalai Lama gave Tashi Lhunpo Monastery to his teacher, Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen (1567-1662), the 15th abbot of the Monastery. As Abbot of the Monastery, he was called Panchen, but he came to receive the distinctive title "Panchen Lama" when the Fifth Dalai Lama announced at his teacher's death that his teacher would return as a recognizable child successor, i.e. a reincarnate. Since that time it has become convention for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama to participate in the recognition of each other's successor. This relationship has lasted for 100s of years. We now skip to 1949.

Tibet was an independent nation when Communist China invaded in 1949. Tibet possessed all conditions of statehood under international law. There was a defined territory, a population inhabiting that territory, and a functioning government exercising authority over that territory and possessing the ability to enter into international relations.

China contends that Tibet did not maintain international relations independently of China and that no country recognized Tibet's independence. This, in my opinion, is not true. Although Tibet chose not to develop extensive international relations, following an isolationist policy for much of its history, it did maintain bilateral relations with countries in the region by whom it was, indeed, recognized.

A study of Tibet's history reveals that, contrary to Chinese Communist claims, Tibet at no time became an integral part of China. It is not disputed that at different times Tibet exercised influence on or came under the influence of its neighbors. It would be hard to find any state in the world today that has not been subjected to foreign domination or influence for some part of its history. Tibet, however, was never colonized or annexed through the use of force until 1949. Thus today, despite about 50 years of occupation, Tibet is an independent country under illegal occupation. This fact has been recognized by many, including the US Congress and the Parliament of Australia in 1992. We now skip back to 1951.

In pursuance of its "divide and rule" policy, the communist government of China tried to cultivate a rivalry between the 10th Panchen Lama and the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1951 the Panchen Lama was invited to Beijing to coincide with the arrival of a Tibetan delegation. The delegation was eventually forced to sign the infamous "Seventeen-Point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet": an agreement which served to legitimize the acqisition of Tibet by China. While in Beijing, the Panchen Lama was forced to send a telegram to the Dalai Lama, stressing the importance of implementing the "Seventeen-Point Agreement under the leadership of the People's Government of China."

Unlike the Dalai Lama who escaped in March of 1959 and continues to live in exile in India, the Panchen Lama decided to stay in Tibet. He believed he could work with the Chinese to improve the lives of Tibetans. Instead, he was imprisoned shortly, after filing a report sharply critical of Chinese policies pursued in Tibet.

Soon after this, the Panchen Lama was appointed acting chairman of the "Tibetan Autonomous Region" Preparatory Committee. In 1960, the Chinese appointed him vice-chairman of the National People's Congress, hoping to use him as a puppet spokesman for their policies in Tibet. However, the Panchen Lama remained a steadfast Tibetan nationalist. He was deeply disturbed to discover China had jailed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans including government officials, high lamas and scholars, community leaders and citizens from many other walks of life. He protested to the Chinese authorities that they were terrorizing the whole populace of Tibet. The Chinese dismissed his protests saying that such mistakes were inevitable in all reform movements.

In his capacity as the vice-chairman of the National People's Congress, the Panchen Lama visited many parts of Tibet. In May 1962 he submitted a 70,000-character petition to Chairman Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, detailing the atrocities the Chinese army had inflicted on Tibetans. Amongst other things, the petition pointed out: "After the introduction of reforms, Buddhism has suffered a serious setback and is now on the verge of extinction. ... many prisoners died pitiable deaths when the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was being introduced. This has greatly reduced the population of Tibet over the past few years. ... with the exception of old people, women and children, most of the able-bodied men and intelligent people in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan were incarcerated."

The Panchen Lama further enraged the Chinese leadership in 1964 when he publicly declared that he considered His Holiness the Dalai Lama as his "refuge for this and the next life". His outspoken criticism about Communist Chinese policies in Tibet led to his imprisonment for nearly a decade during the Cultural Revolution. In a 20-page wall poster, dated March 3rd 1979, China's foremost dissident Wei Jingsheng said that life in Qin Cheng prison was so unbearable that the Panchen Lama, along with many other inmates, attempted suicide. He refused nourishment, declaring he did not want to go on living. "You can take my body to the Central Committee," Wei quoted him as having said.

The outside world first came to know about the Panchen Lama's reemergence on February 26th 1978 when the New China News Agency published a report that he had appeared at the 5th National Committee of the Chinese Political Consultative Conference meeting in plenary session in Beijing. Until then, even Tibetans in Tibet did not know whether the Panchen Lama was alive or dead. Immediately after his release from prison, the Panchen Lama asked the Chinese authorities for permission to visit Tibet.

On reaching Lhasa, he announced: "Tibet is my home and I have a special regard for this land. Although I have not lived here for the last eighteen years, my heart has always been beating with those of the people of Tibet. I have always missed Tibet and its people, and have been thinking about the welfare of Tibetans." He was to visit Lhasa seven more times before his death, and he also toured various parts of Kham and Amdo.

On January 9th 1989 the Panchen Lama arrived in Shigatse to consecrate the newly-renovated mausoleums of the 5th to the 9th Panchen Lamas. On January 24th 1989 the Panchen Lama stated in Shigatse that Chinese rule in Tibet had brought more destruction than benefit to the Tibetan people. On January 28th 1989, four days after delivering this historic condemnation, the Panchen Lama died, age 51, at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Due to his willingness to work within the Chinese system to try and affect change, he was one of the most misunderstood lamas in Tibetan culture, yet also one of the harshest and most courageous critics of Mao's regime.

The Dalai Lama informed the Chinese government through its Delhi embassy that he wished to assist in the search for the Panchen Lama's reincarnation by sending a delegation to Tibet. In June 1991, the Chinese government responded that there was no need for "interference." The head of the search party as constituted by the Chinese government, Chadral Rinpoche, sent a letter on July 17, 1993 to the Dalai Lama concerning the Panchen Lama reincarnation, along with offerings. He explained that a search party had received confirmation the Panchen Lama had reincarnated. The Dalai Lama sent a reply on August 5, 1993 to Chadral Rinpoche through the Chinese Embassy in Delhi inviting the delegation to visit India to discuss the search for a reincarnation. There was no response.

On May 14th 1995, after an extensive analysis of over thirty children was performed, four prophecies were consulted from oracles, and nine divinations were performed, the Dalai Lama formally recognized a 6-year-old boy, Gedun Choekyi Nyima, born on April 25, 1989, in the Lhari District of Nagchu, Tibet, as the 11th Panchen Lama. On May 17th the young Panchen Lama, his family, and two other children who were leading candidates, disappeared and were reported to have been relocated to Beijing. In Lhasa, all leading figures in the government and religious hierarchy were required to participate in meetings denouncing the Dalai Lama's statement.

Since that time, no one has seen the 11th Panchen Lama or his family. The Chinese government even appointed "their own" Panchen Lama. The United Nations dropped the case in 1996 and aside from the initial reports, the international media has pretty much continued to ignore this story.

What has happened in the last five years in the field you are writing about?

12 years have passed and there have only been a few items of potential interest. In 2000, PRC officials in bilateral human rights dialogues with the UK and the EU took the unusual step of showing photographs purported to be of Gedun Choekyi Nyima. The photos proved to be a different boy, i.e. a fake.

In 2005 a PRC official at a British Foreign office gathering told Free Tibet Campaign staff that - as of the Chinese New Year 2005 - "Nyima" was taller than she (she is approx 5 feet 4 inches), still liked table tennis but was very keen on computers. When asked what would happen when he reached his 18th birthday, the response was that he would be able to decide what he wanted to do, and she suggested "maybe he will show himself."

French senators visiting Beijing recently received a positive response to a request that Gedun Choekyi Nyima be allowed to make a public statement. It has not happened. In September 2006, an official religious delegation from China, touring Norway, including Abbot Khadi Lobsang Champa of Dargye Monastery in Garze County, vice chairman of Sichuan Province Bhuddhist Association, told Tibetans "Panchen Lama now lives in Nagchu, which is his birth place and doing his studies." To date, no one outside of PRC officials has seen or talked with the Panchen Lama and no photos have been released.

The only significant news since 2002, aside from the fact the Chinese government has continued to hide a kidnapped boy for 12 years, pertains to "the other" Panchen Lama. China has started to actively promote its own Panchen Lama, parading him in front of the world media at Buddhist conferences and religious ceremonies within China and Tibet. It hopes to control its choice of the next Dalai Lama. Efforts by the United Nations and world governments to gain access to the Dalai Lama's Panchen Lama have met with similar responses from the Chinese government. Some low-level spokesperson from within the government will inform the media that Gedun Choekyi Nyima is living a happy and normal life, and that his family does not want to be bothered.

On September 30th 2005 the 40th session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) called upon Chinese authorities to allow an independent body to verify the fate of Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the Panchen Lama of Tibet. The CRC asked the Chinese authorities to "allow an independent expert to visit and confirm the well-being of Gedun Choekyi Nyima while respecting his right to privacy, and that of his parents." The CRC made the request after reviewing China's Second Periodic Report from September 19th-20th 2005 at Palais Wilson, the UN human rights headquarters in Geneva. This latest call for action on the Panchen Lama from the CRC comes nine years after the UN child rights body last reviewed China's Initial Report in May 1996.

Again, the Chinese response to the United nations was similar to one issued a month earlier "We didn't detain him ... he is living happily in his home town (Lhari District of Nagchu in Tibet)." -- Wu Yingjie (Vice Chairman, People's Government of the Tibet Autonomous Region) as reported by AFX News on August 5th 2005.

As we can see, the United Nations has proved powerless to provide a solution. As the UN continues to drag its feet, the Panchen Lama will soon become an adult. It appears the strategy of requesting help from the United Nations, although well-intentioned, is useless if those problems lie within China. However, UN impotency is not just limited to China. During this same 5-year period the UN was unable to stop the USA from invading and occupying Iraq.

So it appears, for the time being, we cannot rely on the UN to help solve problems within China, as is the case with the Panchen Lama and Tibet. This is due to a lack of respect for the UN from both China and the USA. Both are undermining the UN's ability to broker peaceful agreements and solutions, especially when powerful nations are causing problems.

To sum up, the last 5 years has served to prove the UN no longer has much of an ability to affect peaceful change in our world, and the corporate media increasingly continues to ignore important stories. So in a way, this is a much larger issue than just the Panchen Lama. Although I am writing about the Panchen Lama, it appears the Panchen Lama, along with every other international injustice, is also affected by the US invasion of Iraq, and vice versa. The future is always near so we need to be ready for it. If we want to write about the future (the focus of this website, right?), it makes sense to try and understand how the future comes about and how we are responsible for it. If we accept that everything is really interconnected, what are the effects of our actions?

What is happening right now?

As chairman of ITSN's (International Tibet Support Network) Panchen Lama Action Group I think the most major event happening right now is an awareness of the fact that the Panchen Lama will soon no longer be a child; he turns 18 on April 25th. Thus, the Panchen Lama's status as the "world's youngest political prisoner" will soon be gone.

Therefore, we are planning several actions to coincide with this milestone. However, it is up to Tibet supporters worldwide, and the world media, whether to take meaningful action or simply forget about the Panchen Lama. Causing change in this world non-violently takes a commitment to action. Silence will not work in this case. If we really hope to affect a change, supporters can not remain silent. Below is a plan of action, and we encourage all Tibet supporters to take part.

(1) Meetings with Chinese officials at consulates or embassies worldwide and other government officials
(2) If meetings are not forthcoming, vigils and demonstrations at those consulates and embassies
(3) Internet-based letter writing campaign to Chinese officials and governments worldwide
(4) Outreach to world media encouraging stories on Panchen Lama from Lhari, Tibet
(5) Postcard/Petition campaign directed at the United Nations Secretary General

The most effective action you can take while the Panchen Lama is still a boy is to visit Tashi Lhunpo Monastery's "Amber Alert" campaign below.

What will happen in the next five years?

We most likely all agree (unless you're the clairvoyant type) it is nearly impossible to predict the future. At the same time, we know our actions of today will likely determine what happens tomorrow and the day after, etc. In terms of the Panchen Lama, if enough of the world cares enough to solve a problem, it will be solved. However, if we sit idle and do nothing the future also sits still. Our actions or non-actions determine the immediate future. We determine the nature of our future and others, whether Global Warming or the Panchen Lama. We all decide whether an issue is important, or not. Once we all believe something to be important, the future comes very fast. If money is our main concern, we take action and then we have lots of money in the future. So talking about the future is like remembering a dream ... it can usually be quite fuzzy until we are dreaming clearly ... the dream then comes to life when we realize we are controlling it ... then we wake up and forget. The point is that dreams determine the future when we act on bringing them about WHILE we are awake.

What will happen between 5 to 25 years from now?

As the Panchen Lama becomes an adult, the whole issue changes. Efforts to date have focused on the fact that Gedun Choekyi Nyima was the "world's youngest political prisoner," yet it is interesting how little coverage the world media has decided to provide. Due to the Panchen Lama's future status as an aging young man, the new focus will be on the rights of human beings who've committed no crime; that they be allowed access to the outside world.

Looking further ahead, the 14th Dalai Lama will most likely pass away sometime during the next 25 years. This event will mark a major change, in terms of the leadership of Tibet. If the Panchen Lama is still in Chinese custody, who will determine the next Dalai Lama? Will there even be a next Dalai Lama? These issues all relate to finding Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the current Panchen Lama. Even if the Chinese government is unable to legitimize its own Panchen Lama, the next Dalai Lama might still be chosen under the guidance of their Panchen Lama. How would Tibetans react to the choice?

What are the social implications of these changes?

To envision Tibet without a meaningful role for the Dalai Lama, is like envisioning Vatican City without a Pope and the UK without a king or queen. As a nation state, Tibet can still exist. However, such radical changes in the way a country is run, and who runs it, have severe implications in terms of Tibetan culture and identity. The Dalai Lama himself says he has no political interest and hopes someday the role will be that of a purely spiritual leader.

The problem with all of this is that most Tibetans simply will not accept such a change. Although a democratic system currently exists in the Tibetan exile community, Tibetans still elect the Dalai Lama's closest allies to positions of power, perhaps even against the Dalai Lama's own wishes. Tibetan identity rests on the Dalai Lama being their leader. Thus, if the Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas cease to exist in a meaningful way, the social implications are tragic for Tibetans. In a wonderfully Buddhist way, no matter what the Dalai Lama thinks of his own title and role, it really has nothing to do with the Dalai Lama himself, but with the wishes of Tibetans.

Ironically, the social implications of the Dalai Lama acting as a purely spiritual leader, without much power, are positions held by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama himself, but not Tibetans. The question then becomes a social one. Who really has the power to decide the role of the Dalai Lama when both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government are on the same page? The current Dalai Lama is aware of the social implications and his middle-way path is to allow Tibetans to pick the Dalai Lama, if they so choose, while at the same time acknowledging that the Dalai Lama will have no political power in Tibet. This is why the Panchen Lama plays such an important role. If he is able to decide whom is the next Dalai Lama, Tibetans will simply abide by the choice.

What are the business implications and opportunities you see in these changes?

It would appear human rights, religious and sovereignty issues; as is the case with the Panchen Lama and Tibet; have nothing to do with business. In reality, due to the current and prevailing worldwide economic culture of global corporations, and their ever-increasing link to governments, the relationship and responsibility of corporations in this matter is made more clear.

It is precisely due to an ever-increasing corporate reliance on cheap products Made in China that a simultaneously laissez-faire attitude towards putting pressure on China has started to permeate our political culture. Global corporations want things to run smoothly and thus lobby their politicians to go easy on China for the sake of their bottom line.

One illustrative example: In 1990, almost none of Apple's products were manufactured in China. Back then, one of Apple's promotional advertisements even feautured a photo of the Dalai Lama which read "Think Different." Several years ago Apple began shifting their production to China. Today, 100% of Apple products are manufactured in China (confirmed via a phone call to Apple customer support in 2006). In regard to its view of China, Apple Computer thinks only of profit.

The Apple scenario, even among so-called "responsible" corporations, is now the norm in terms of how the majority of CEOs view their relationship with China. They are willing to serve as prostitutes for a pimp named China as long as they are well compensated.

Thus world economics, and the clear relationship to cheaply manufactured-in-China products, plays a much larger role in this issue. This is one reason why governments and the United Nations are unwilling to make a big issue out of the Panchen Lama. It is also why the media chooses to ignore the story. Their advertisers do not want the public worrying about, or even being aware of where they choose to manufacture their products.

I have hope that one day a truly responsible and powerful global corporation will start to plaster images of the Panchen Lama all over its Made In China products. Google, for instance, could place links to information on the Panchen Lama on its search engines. Such types of innovative and responsible assistance from the same corporations who helped prolong the problem would also serve to enhance public image.

In reality, there are various means by which businesses could serve to help solve the Panchen Lama problem, without endangering connections in China. CEOs need to be made aware of the important role they play in this. Then it will be much more natural for their companies to take responsibility for correcting a problem they are largely responsible for prolonging. Corporations can choose to increase profit, while at the same time taking part in worthy social actions. The path of least resistance is not always the path to bringing benefit to many, including oneself. Social responsiblity on the global level, and profits, are not always mutually exclusive. With a positive public image, profit often grows.

Your comment and opinion on these issues

My opinion on this matter is quite subjective, based on the fact I maintain Tashi Lhunpo Monastery's official website and have donated nearly all my volunteer time since 1996 towards Tibet-related issues. That aside, I see the Panchen Lama as being the key to Tibet's future, which I believe must be linked with the Dalai Lama and his role as spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Once this relationship is severed, the identity of Tibetans disappears and Tibetan culture, as we know it, will change dramatically.

I also believe the Tibetan issue is one that must, and can, be solved non-violently; and that the role of global corporations can not be understated. We must educate the public to put pressure not only on politicians, but on big businesses to solve the problems they helped bring about or prolong. Global business can start to assume a more powerful role in politics, acting as peaceful conduits and assisting in mending certain types of disputes between nations. I feel this type of money-power can be used to great effect, in the case of the Panchen Lama.

I am extremely frustrated by the world media's ongoing lack of concern for filing reports on the Panchen Lama's kidnapping. I encourage everyone reading this article to inform others, especially international media contacts, about the Panchen Lama. Please take an active role in spreading word of this situation to your friends, the media, big business and politicians.

Once we learn to solve problems creatively through non-violent means, the Dick Cheneys, George Bushs and Osama Bin Ladens of the world will have no place in our future, except perhaps hiding somewhere in a bunker. I truly believe the future of non-violent political action lies closest to the Tibet issue at this time in our history, and the fate of the Panchen Lama largely determines whether Tibet moves forward towards peace, or backward towards violence. To misquote George W Bush, "we are the deciders".

* Since 1996, Glenn Freeman (working mainly with Dolma Tulotsang) has helped to organize several tours of Tibetan monks from various monasteries to North America. This includes the initial tour by monks from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in 2002. Glenn is webmaster for Tashi Lhunpo Monastery's official website.
By trade a percussionist, Glenn runs his own record label OgreOgress productions ( which has, to date, focused on producing first recordings of music by composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Alan Hovhaness, Arnold Schoenberg, and others. The label also takes part in projects of benefit to Tibetans in exile.
Glenn was encouraged to write an article for Trendirama by his good friend Andrea Fojtu, whom he met in 2003 at a Tibet Support Group conference in Prague. You can learn more abut Glenn in his bio


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Norbu, J. (2005). Buying the dragon's teeth. Bluejay Books
Van Grasdorff, G. (1999). Hostage of beijing: The abduction of the panchen lama. Boston: Element Books.