25th April 2023, marked the 34th birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama Gedun Choekyi Nyima, who has remained till now, missing for 28 years, after the Chinese government kidnapped him and took him to an undisclosed location.
Like the current Panchen Lama, who is the world's youngest political prisoner at age 7, the previous Panchen was no stranger to his times in jail. Previous Panchen Lama spent his entire life in the interest of Tibet. Patriotic, fearless, with unflinching faith in the Dalai Lama, honest, and committed to the cause of Tibet, he did unprecedented work in the preservation of Tibetan culture and religion.
The Tenth Panchen Lama, Panchen Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyaltsen, was born in 1938 in the village of Karang Bidho in Amdo. Almost from the time of his birth, he was caught in the politics of China’s ambitions toward Tibet and Tibet’s stubborn resistance to the Chinese political game aimed at undermining the authority of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government.
Panchen Lama is the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet, second only to the Dalai Lama. His political authority and influence, from the Qing Dynasty to the current Communist government have used divide and rule policy in Tibet, much like the British government to create dissent and disharmony, they have used his authority to rubber-stamp its illegal occupation of Tibet and undermine the influence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, only to prove futile in their pursuit.
The first major criticism of China’s repressive policy from Panchen Lama came in the form of the 70,000-Character petition, submitted to the Chinese government in 1962 to China’s Premier Zhou Enlai, denouncing China’s failed policy, the prevalence of mass starvation, imprisonment of Tibetan and large cultural and religious destruction. Mao Zedong called his petition ‘A poisoned arrow’. During a politburo meeting, Mao Zedong criticized his petition and denounced leaders who were supportive of the changes Panchen Lama wrote in his petition. Mao's criticism and Panchen Lama's outright disapproval of the policy of the Chinese communist government in Tibet subjected him to Thamzing (struggle session) and he was ousted from the Preparatory Committee of the TAR. Subsequently, he was placed under house arrest in Beijing. His plight under house arrest deteriorated during the cultural revolution. In August 1966, the cultural revolution Red Guard tortured and humiliated him. In 1968, he was formally imprisoned and released only in October 1977.
Panchen Lama's commitment to work within the Chinese communist government framework to uplift the plight of the Tibetans earned him a mixed reputation among a few Tibetans. His work in a period of limited information, and China’s heavy curtailment of the free flow of information from Tibet had made him a man of an enigma. It was only after his unfortunate, mysterious, and unceremonious end to life in the Tashi Lhunpo monastery that people became more sympathetic and earned him the tallest Tibetan Lama in Tibet to work for Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s speech at the 20th death anniversary of the Panchen Lama validly sums up the true character of the man. Dalai Lama during the event said “In person, the 10th Panchen Lama is an extraordinarily fearless Tibetan who showed unwavering courage to work for the general cause of Tibet and its people,” the Dalai Lama said. “Panchen Lama was someone who held firm conviction to fight for the truth”.
There is little doubt that he spent all his life improving the dignity and success of Tibetans, improving their lives by enhancing their access to religious freedom, and modern education, and reforming Buddhism through authority bestowed on him by the Chinese communist government.
6th Gungthang Rinpoche, another high Tibetan lama who spent considerable years in Chinese jail and compatriot of Panchen lama in prison wrote in his biography, seeing Panchen Rinpoche's scars and wounds from beating in prison, moved him to tears.
It was only in 1978, two years after the end of Mao’s failed cultural revolution that he was freed. When he was reinstated as Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, he traveled extensively in Tibet to preserve the Tibetan language, culture, and religion. He did everything in his political capacity to improve the lives of the Tibetan people. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “If the 10th Panchen Lama was still alive, he would have certainly made far more contributions to the cause of Tibet”.
Panchen Lama had unflinching faith in Dalai Lama. China’s years of indoctrination, during early years and years of imprisonment and torture failed to daunt his faith in Dalai Lama. Speaking to a gathering of Tibetans during the Monlam festival in Lhasa in 1985, the Panchen Lama said, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I are spiritual friends. There are no differences between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and me. Some people are trying to create discord between us. This will not succeed”.
Panchen Lama's untimely and suspicious death can be attributed to the rise of hardline groups within the Chinese communist party. The rise of liberal leaders like Hu Yaobang, and Xi Zhongxun posed a serious threat to hardline factions, who thought Chinese leaders are conceding too much to the redressal of the ‘Dalai Clique. Many reactionary elements campaigned viciously to undermine reform under Hu Yaobang and Panchen Lama by echoing the danger posed by Dalai Lama from the outside, Panchen Lama from the inside of Tibet. They left no stone unturned to bring down the Panchen Lama to the days of the cultural revolution.
There will never be any Tibetan leader like him with Tibet under Chinese occupation. Panchen Lama's lifelong dedication to the cause of Tibet, perhaps he is the most important Tibetan Buddhist leader to stay back in Tibet after 87,000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile. And he has risen to the occasion when Tibetan language learning among Tibetan children was at its lowest. In his report, Panchen Lama said the Tibetan language and culture were on the verge of extinction. He did all within his capacity as a preparatory committee to continuously refresh and sustain Tibet’s Buddhist civilization.
His greatest legacy will be the revitalization of Tibetan Buddhism, Language, and Culture. He has risen to the popular opinion of the moon (the sun being the Dalai Lama). There has never been any Tibetan leader in Tibet since the Chinese occupation. He had carried the weight of Tibet on his back, shouldering responsibility akin to the Dalai Lama in exile. Had he been still alive, Tibet would surely look different.
On 28 January 1989, four days after delivering this historic condemnation, the Panchen Lama died at Tashilhunpo Monastery under mysterious circumstances. He was 51.
In May 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a six-year-old boy in Tibet, Gedun Chokyi Nyima, as the authentic reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. He was hastily abducted and taken to an undisclosed location. In his place, they have installed an illegitimate boy named Gyaltsen Norbu. A pawn enthroned to make dance at their tune and snatch another authority prize: to control the recognition of the 15th Dalai Lama.