Where Is the Panchen Lama Now?

The following article is from the Winter, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


The sun sets, the moon begins its arc across the sky and a young boy spends another day in no man's land. Isolated from his people, his teachers, his birthright, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama is still trapped in apolitical game of cat and mouse.

And although the Chinese government would like the issue of the Panchen Lama to go away, this particularly nasty situation, like the plight of millions of Tibetans, refuses to be swept under the carpet.

The 10th Panchen Lama died in Shigatse, Tibet in 1989. Immediately following his death a search committee was formed to find his reincarnation. After a brief period of accommodation, the search committee became politicized when Beijing changed tack refusing the Dalai Lama any participation in the process. So, utilizing traditional Tibetan methods of identification and forced to rely on information secretly smuggled out of Tibet, the Dalai Lama began the process of confirming the identity of the next Panchen Lama. On May 14th 1995 the Dalai Lama did just that. He named a 6-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the 11th Panchen Lama. Within days of this announcement the Chinese government removed the boy and his parents from their home. They have not been seen since. Beijing went on to choose and enthrone another Tibetan boy, and continues to promote him as Tibet's legitimate Panchen Lama.

The reasons behind Gedhun Choekyi Nyima's detention are numerous. High lamas have enormous influence in Tibet. It appears that Beijing's long term goals are to control the Tibetan people by directing the selection and upbringing of the leadership.

Historically, the Panchen Lama has been instrumental in helping confirm the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and vice-versa Thus, by controlling the Panchen Lama, the Chinese government believes they have power over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama categorically denies that assumption.

While there is little news about the health, whereabouts or living conditions of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family, due to China denying any international access to him, there is much to be said about his steadfast supporters. The array of symbolic, grassroots and political expressions of support on behalf of this soon to be 12-year-old boy is significant. A group of French parachutists leapt out of planes to protest his imprisonment. Numerous walkers and bikers spent months trekking across nations raising awareness about the Panchen Lama. There have been mandalas, dance-a-thons and Jewish Seders in his honor. Hundreds of houses of worship have dedicated services to his well-being. Hundreds of thousands of postcards and letters have been mailed. Films, books, websites, news & magazine articles have proliferated around the world. He is the focus of numerous campaigns by international human rights organizations and Tibet Support Groups. Governments have asked and asked and asked about his health and whereabouts. All the while, these efforts are met with deafening silence from the boy's keepers in China.

In the Fall of 2000, the first glimmer of news appeared during human rights dialogues between the European Union and China, and again between Britain and China, when Chinese officials showed two photos that allegedly depicted the boy. One photo was of a young boy playing table tennis and the other a rear- view picture of a boy standing at a blackboard writing Chinese characters. The British officials were not allowed to keep or even hold the photos and were in no way able to confirm their authenticity. The Chinese officials claimed the boy is happy and growing up in China His parents, they say, do not want to be bothered with any international interference.

Several months later, December 14, 2000, two members of the Australia Tibet Council followed their Arts and Communications Minister to Beijing as he focused a visit on opening the Chinese market to Australian high technology. The two, Alex Butler and Paul Bourke (pictured here), unfurled a banner in front of the Australian Embassy demanding the Minister raise the issue of the Panchen Lama with the Chinese Government and ask them to hand over the photographs for independent evaluation. They were met with puzzled Chinese security police who neither read English nor knew the boy pictured on the banner. Their actions raised a landslide of press coverage and set a new precedent for international protests.

While the only officially recognized image is of the rosy cheeked 6 year old gazing at us so openly in his orange colored sweatshirt, we must not lose track of the fact that he will be a pre-adolescent 12 years old on April 25th, 2001. Time marches on. The Dalai Lama took over the leadership of his nation when he was only 4 years older than this young man. Indeed, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is growing up. He is growing up isolated under house arrest.

On-going international pressure is critical in the case of all political prisoners and the Panchen Lama is no exception. There is much one can do to support his cause and it needn't be jumping out of a plane!


The International Campaign for Tibet is championing a worldwide postcard campaign that targets individuals who can significantly influence the release of the Panchen Lama. Already over 65,000 of these Free the Panchen Lama packs have been distributed around the globe. Be part of this campaign! To receive a free pack for yourself (you can also order more to give to family, friends, co-workers): www.savetibet.org/panchenlama


Tibet's Stolen Child a film about the Panchen Lama is now available on video. It features Nobel Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Jose Ramos- Horta, John Hume, Mairead Maguire and others sharing compelling personal accounts. Narrated by long time Human Rights advocate Patrick Stewart.

Screen it at your home, place of worship, school or university, library, etc. Available in a 12 minute version ($ 19.95 plus s/h)great for meeting openers, classrooms etc. and a 60 minute version ($29.95 plus s/h) Produced by Garthwait & Griffin Films. Available through Snow Lion Publications.


Volunteer and join your local Tibet Support Group. They can inform you of upcoming local activities in which you can participate. These groups are often in the midst of several campaigns that involve activities such as candlelight vigils, petition signing, letter writing, etc. Supporting them financially and licking stamps help, too! To find the group closest to you, search the Tibet Resource Directory www.tibet.org

Bring Tibet education into your children's classrooms. Contact the Milarepa Fund for materials at www.milarepa.org. Students for a Free Tibet focuses on High school and University Students: www.tibet.org/sft

Be in touch with your political representatives. Write a letter to the editor.

Attend Tibetan cultural events. You can usually find these listed in your newspaper. Monks, nuns, musicians and artists often tour.

Take an Interfaith prayer ceremony to your house of worship. Examples are accessible through www.interfaithcall.com.

Important upcoming dates:

March 10Tibetan Uprising Day is a traditional day for large nonviolent demonstrations. Stomp the pavement!

The Panchen Lama's birthday on April 25 is a great opportunity to show your support for this young boy. Plan a party in his honorwonderful for young children.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be visiting 5 cities in the United States during May 2001. There will be plenty of opportunities to help in Minneapolis, MN, Salt Lake City, UT, Portland, OR, San Jose and Los Angeles, CA.


Top left: Rendering of how the Panchen Lama may look now. Top right: Photo of the Panchen Lama taken before he was imprisoned by the Chinese. Bottom: Protest in Beijing (photo by Stephen Shaver,; Agence France Press)


The International Campaign for Tibet along with Garthwait & Griffin Films are developing an Educational Companion Guide about Tibet and the Panchen Lama for Middle School students. Please drop us a note if you are interested in receiving more information: garthtibet@aol.com


The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton, published by W.W. Norton and Company

Available through Snow Lion Publications

A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama published by Tibet Information Network


The Panchen Lama Lineage: How Reincarnation is Being Reinvented as a Political Tool published by the Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration e-mail: tcrc@cta.unv.ernet.in


Check out the following Websites for more information on the Panchen Lama and how to help:

-International Campaign for Tibet www.savetibet.org/panchenlama

-Australia Tibet Council www.atc.org.au

-Canada Tibet Committee www.tibet.ca/panchenlama

-Free Tibet Campaign www.freetibet.org

-The Milarepa Fund www.milarepa.org

-Students for a Free Tibet www.tibet.org/sft

-Int'l Tibet Independence Movement www.rangzen.org

-Tibet Information Network www.tibetinfo.net

-Tibet Resource Directory www.tibet.org

-Tibetan Govemment-in-Exile www.tibet.com


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