In A Nutshell
In 1995, the Chinese government abducted the six-year-old Panchen Lama, an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of his predecessors. China then installed their own puppet figurehead in his place. Over 18 years later, the fate of the “youngest political prisoner in the world” remains unknown.
The Whole Bushel
After the Dalai Lama, the highest-ranking lama (high priest) in Tibetan Buddhism is the Panchen Lama. He is said to be the reincarnation of Amitabha, an ancient monk. Some Tibetans even believe the Panchen Lama, who symbolizes Buddha’s mind, is superior to the Dalai Lama, who symbolizes Buddha’s body. Lamas are said to have delayed the last step in the enlightenment called nirvana to continue to be of assistance to mankind. In 1989, the 10th Panchen Lama, Choeyki Gyaltsen, died at age 51 under suspicious circumstances. The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and other high-ranking Buddhist leaders named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (who was born just under three months later) as his reincarnation in 1995.
In response, the Chinese government, which controls Tibet, abducted the six-year-old boy and immediately installed their own Panchen Lama, another child named Gyaltsen Norbu. With the elderly Dalai Lama living in exile, China soon hopes to install Norbu as the head of Buddhism in Tibet, a role which can have heavy political and religious influence. Most traditional Tibetan Buddhists see the boy as a puppet of the Chinese government, a pretender to the role.
But then where is Gedhun Nyima, the Dalai Lama’s recognized Panchen? Described as the “youngest political prisoner in the world,” the boy hasn’t been seen in over 18 years. By now, he would be 24. Continued pressure from human rights organizations around the globe, including those helmed by the United Nations, obligated the traditionally mum Chinese government to give the following statement regarding Nyima’s whereabouts in 2007: “Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is a perfectly ordinary Tibetan boy, in an excellent state of health, leading a normal, happy life and receiving a good education and cultural upbringing. He is currently in upper secondary school, he measures 1 m 65 cm in height and is easy-going by nature. He studies hard and his school results are very good. He likes Chinese traditional culture and has recently taken up calligraphy. His parents are both State employees, and his brothers and sisters are either already working or at university. The allegation that he disappeared together with his parents and that his whereabouts remain unknown is simply not true.”
If that statement sounds bogus to you, you’re not alone. The true fate of Gedhun Nyima remains one of China’s most closely guarded state secrets. Whether the boy was outfitted with an adoptive family, imprisoned, or simply executed is a mystery that may never be solved.