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The Panchen Lama controversy


The life of the Tenth Panchen Lama (1938–89) was a tragic one. Identified at 11 years of age by the Nationalists in 1949 in Xining, without approval from Lhasa, he fell into Communist hands and was for many years the highest-profile collaborator of the People’s Republic of China. His stance changed in 1959 when he openly referred to the Dalai Lama as the true ruler of Tibet. In 1961, in Beijing, the Panchen Lama informed Mao of the appalling conditions in Tibet and pleaded for aid, religious freedom and an end to the huge numbers of arrests. Mao assured the Panchen Lama these would be granted, but nothing changed. Instructed to give a speech condemning the Dalai Lama, he refused and was prevented from speaking in public until the 1964 Monlam Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa. With an audience of ten thousand people, he again ignored instructions and spoke in the Dalai Lama’s support, ending with the words, “Long live the Dalai Lama”. He was immediately placed under house arrest, and the Chinese instituted a campaign to “Thoroughly Smash the Panchen Reactionary Clique”. The Panchen Lama’s trial in August 1964 lasted seventeen days, following which he vanished into prison for fourteen years, where he was tortured and attempted suicide. He was released in 1978, two years after the death of Zhou Enlai, and the Chinese used him as evidence that there was a thawing of their hard-line attitude towards Tibet. He never again criticized the Chinese in public, and in private he argued that Tibetan culture must survive at all costs, even if it meant giving up claims for independence. Some Tibetans saw this as a sellout; others worshipped him as a hero when he returned on visits to Tibet. He died in 1989; the Chinese say from a heart attack, others say he was poisoned.

The search for the Eleventh Panchen Lama was always likely to be fraught. The central issue is whether the Dalai Lama or the Chinese government have the right to determine the identity of the next incarnation. Stuck in the middle was the abbot of Tashilunpo, Chadrel Rinpoche, who initially led the search according to the normal pattern, with reports of “unusual” children checked out by high-ranking monks. On January 25, 1995, the Dalai Lama decided that Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the son of a doctor, was the reincarnation, but – concerned for the child’s safety – he hesitated about a public announcement. The search committee headed by Chadrel Rinpoche supported the same child.

However, the Chinese decreed that the selection should take place by the drawing of lots from the Golden Urn, an eighteenth-century gold vase, one of a pair used by the Qing emperor Qianlong to resolve disputes in his lands. Chadrel Rinpoche argued against its use. In May, the Dalai Lama, concerned about the delay of an announcement from China, publicly recognized Gendun Choekyi Nyima, and the following day Chadrel Rinpoche was arrested while trying to return to Tibet from Beijing. Within days, Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his family were taken from their home by the authorities, put on a plane and disappeared. The Chinese will only admit they are holding them “for protection”. Fifty Communist Party officials then moved into Tashilunpo to identify monks still loyal to the Dalai Lama and his choice of Panchen Lama. In July, riot police quelled an open revolt by the monks. By the end of 1995, they had re-established enough control to hold the Golden Urn ceremony in the Jokhang in Lhasa, where an elderly monk drew out the name of a boy, Gyaincain Norbu. He was enthroned at Tashilunpo and taken to Beijing for publicity appearances. A decade and a half later, the whereabouts of Gendun Choekyi Nyima and his family are still unknown.

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