China’s Appointed Panchen Lama Fails To Gain Legitimacy With Tibetans

The institution of Panchen Lama is amongst the most important and revered in Tibetan Buddhism. The Panchen Lama is the second-highest spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama, and is responsible for finding and recognizing the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Panchen Lamas share a special spiritual bond with Dalai Lamas, the relationship often termed akin to the “Sun and the Moon” in the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual firmament. The Panchen Lama makes significant contributions to social, economic, cultural, and political life for the Tibetans. With regard to the 11th Panchen Lama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama called him an “important person with a special responsibility, who must carry on the Dalai Lama’s work.”[1]

The current Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu, the 11th one, is the one imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) on the Tibetans. On 14th May 1995, the 14th Dalai Lama announced the six-year-old Gedhun Chokyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. However, merely three days later on 17th May, the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was kidnapped and forcibly disappeared by the Chinese government after the CPC failed to install its own stooge on the revered seat. Soon after, the CPC declared Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama, claiming that he was selected by the traditional methods that involve the golden urn practice and the lottery system amongst the suitable candidates. 28 years since the abduction of Gedhun Chokyi Nyima, the real 11th Panchen Lama, the Chinese government refuses either to release him or even to disclose his whereabouts.

However, China’s measures led to a fiasco created by itself. Gyaltsen Norbu since being declared as the 11th Panchen Lama by the CPC has failed to gain any legitimacy by the Tibetan Buddhists. He is considered an official agent of the CPC imposed by the Chinese government to further its agenda of Sinicization of Tibetans, and fails to draw either respect or recognition by the local populace. Since being declared the Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu has been kept under tight vigil, in an isolated place by the Chinese authorities. Moreover, the forced upon Panchen Lama has not been allowed to receive proper education and training from other Lamas or Monks which is a necessary prerequisite for the Panchen Lama to grow spiritually and gain credibility.[2]

The current Panchen Lama clearly acts as the puppet of the CPC who delves into furthering China’s propaganda rather than indulging in spiritual activities. His speeches at various religious conferences and meetings in Tibet and elsewhere reflect this travesty. Gyaltsen Norbu is often found propagating the Sinicization of Tibetans, urging people to be absorbed into Chinese culture (which basically means Han Chinese culture) and adapt to communist society. In his talks, he is often found endorsing “socialism with Chinese characteristics and comrade Xi as the core of the Communist party.” At the meeting of the 11th council of the Tibet branch of the Chinese Buddhist Association in August last year, Panchen Lama’s grovelling of Xi Jinping was conspicuous. He expressed gratitude to the leadership of the CCP, especially Xi Jinping, for his remarkable work in Tibet.

Moreover, he consistently urges Tibetans to continue fighting against the 14th Dalai Lama and the Dalai’s faction. He keeps drawing ridicule from Tibetans for his continuous plea for the adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to a socialist society. It is therefore not surprising that non-acceptance of the fake Panchen Lama by Tibetans has emerged as the failure of the CPC to claim the legitimacy of its rule over Tibet. Kai Muller, an international jurist and Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet in Berlin, posits that though China has been trying hard to establish the legitimacy of its rule over Tibet by making high claims like ‘liberation’ and ‘development’ of Tibet, in effect their efforts have miserably failed and are viewed as China’s colonial rule over Tibet at local as well as international stage.[3]

Geshe Lhakdor, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar of international repute and Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala, argues that China’s attempts to establish itself as the leader of the Buddhist world by organizing a series of what it calls ‘World Buddhist Conferences’ since 2006. Through these conferences, the CPC is also trying to establish Gyaltsen Norbu, their puppet Panchen Lama, as the most senior world Buddhist leader. However, these repeated attempts have met with failure only. The world recognises that this imposed Panchen Lama is nothing more than a prisoner of China who parrots CPC’s words at regional and international fora.

China’s determination to present its stooge Panchen Lama as the legitimate authority of Tibetan Buddhism derives from its obsession to legitimise its forceful occupation of Tibet. It is not the first time that the Panchen Lama has been forcefully disappeared or abducted by China. The Chinese authorities imprisoned the 10th Panchen Lama for 13 long years 1964 to 1977 during which time he endured immense torture and suffering at the hands of the Chinese state.[4]

Since its incursion into Tibet in 1950, China has persistently engaged in the grievous practices of torment and subjugation against the Tibetan people. It is an outlier to international law and customs, especially with regard to human rights, political freedom, and civil rights, despite being a P-5 member and projecting itself as a responsible global power. It has invariably failed to report to the UN treaty bodies on implementing the human rights treaties it had ratified, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a glaring testament to its deliberate evasion of accountability.

China’s refusal to endorse the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, or to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, underscores a resolute agenda to perpetuate the oppression of minority populations, whether they be Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolian or other non-Han ethnic communities. This recalcitrance speaks volumes about its stance on basic human dignity and the global consensus on fundamental rights.[5]

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The fact that the current Panchen Lama is derided by Tibetans as a puppet, stooge and prisoner of China hollows out any attempt by China to establish him as the legitimate Tibetan Buddhist authority. China fails to realise that the world can clearly see through its nefarious design of oppressing innocent minority groups in its attempt to create a Chinese nation of monolithic characteristics through the Sinicization of all ethnic and cultural groups. In conclusion, the plight of the Panchen Lama, particularly the 11th Panchen Lama, serves as a profound illustration of China’s determined oppression in Tibet and its broader disdain for human rights and international norms. The Tibetan spiritual and cultural heritage is intricately linked to the Panchen Lama’s role that faces an existential threat under Chinese rule. Gyaltsen Norbu, the imposed Panchen Lama, symbolizes China’s futile endeavour to assert control over Tibetan Buddhism and culture. His subservience to the CPC and propagation of ideologies antithetical to Tibetan values underscore the hollowness of his role. China’s calculated actions, from abductions to evading international scrutiny paint a bleak picture of its commitment to universal rights and freedoms. The global community must remain vigilant, recognizing the Panchen Lama controversy as emblematic of a wider struggle for human dignity and cultural preservation. Tibetans’ unwavering resistance and international solidarity remain critical in the ongoing quest for justice and self-determination.

[1] IANS, China’s Panchen Lama Ignored by Tibetans, The Statesman, accessed on September 26, 2023.

[2] Sehgal, S., The Panchen Lama Mystery, The Diplomat, accessed on September 27, 2023.

[3] Richardson, S., 25 Years after disappearing Tibetan Panchen Lama, China is no nearer to its goal, Human Rights Watch, accessed on September 27, 2023.

[4] Web Desk, DIIR Statement on 34th Birth Anniversary of the 11th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s Stolen Child, April 25, 2023, Central Tibetan Administration, accessed on September 28, 2023.

[5] Web Desk, 28 Years Since the Enforced Disappearance of Tibet’s Panchen Lama by the Chinese Government, May 17, 2023, Central Tibetan Administration, accessed on September 28, 2023.

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