Why Doesn’t the China-Appointed Panchen Lama Speak Out?

I wrote the following for the International Campaign for Tibet’s blog and am reproducing it here. Some may think we know the answer to the question that is the headline but I would suggest that we think deeper.

Why Doesn’t the China-Appointed Panchen Lama Speak Out?

Bhuchung K. Tsering

Today is the 22nd birthday of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has continued to remain under virtual detention somewhere in China since 1995. He disappeared when he was a six year old child and if and when he is released he will be a man denied of his normal childhood upbringing.

As a way of recalling the role of this institution in modern Tibetan history, I read some of the published public talks given by the previous Panchen Lama this morning. As is well known he was vocal and openly critical of both Tibetans as well as the Chinese government on matters of preservation of Tibetan religious and cultural identity. He may have voiced the Chinese official rhetoric but he has also shown that being a “good citizen” of the People’s Republic of China does not mean one should deny one’s Tibetan heritage or be denied of the same by the Chinese authorities.

I also thought of the other 22 year old individual who is part of this matrix. He is of course Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese Government appointed Panchen Lama. In 2010 his position was formally politicized by the Chinese authorities when they appointed him to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Continuous efforts are being made by various organs of the Chinese Government to project Gyaltsen Norbu as the face of the contented Tibetans in today’s China. But as I wrote on March 4, 2010, “Truth be told, as of now he does not enjoy the confidence nor the reverence of the Tibetan people (the Chinese government knows this and so is constantly trying to find ways to impress the Tibetan people, including highlighting his tri-lingual capabilities) no matter how many photos and videos that the authorities may show of Tibetan people revering him. Spiritual faith comes from the heart and not through arranged photo ops. Therefore, the jury is out on which direction he is heading. This is also a challenge to Beijing.”

As I re-read this piece, I had this thought: if Gyaltsen Norbu is a Tibetan Buddhist leader and has been provided with the necessary spiritual upbringing for the past nearly two decades or so, instead of mouthing political rhetoric, why is he not addressing the issue of Tibetan religion, culture and way of life, as the previous Panchen Lama used to do? In fact, leaving aside Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s spiritual identity, why is Gyaltsen Norbu not reprimanding the authorities for denying an innocent Tibetan Buddhist a normal upbringing? I am quite sure that the 10th Panchen Lama would have done it.

The International Campaign for Tibet’s press statement today has rightly pointed out that the “enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, is a continuous crime being committed by the People’s Republic of China” as defined in the UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and that this “is a continuous crime until the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person becomes known.” This is a challenge that China will continue to face.

But this is also a challenge to Gyaltsen Norbu, too. The fundamental reason why a Tibetan Buddhist leader chooses to be reborn is to work for his spiritual community and to further the work of the previous incarnation. Is Gyaltsen Norbu able to live up to the expectation of the institution to which he has been thrust by the Chinese political system?


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