US, Tibetan and other officials called on China on May 17 to account for the status of a high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist leader 28 years after the Chinese government kidnapped him at age 6.

“Today, we mark the tragic 28-year anniversary of the [People’s Republic of China]’s abduction of the Panchen Lama as a six-year-old child, after his recognition by the Dalai Lama,” said Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, who serves as the US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. “He deserves to live freely, and we urge the PRC to account for his whereabouts and well-being.”

The Panchen Lama “remains a critical figure in Tibetan Buddhism,” added US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain. “Tibetans have the right to select, educate, and venerate their own religious leaders and we urge PRC authorities to immediately account for his whereabouts & wellbeing.”

Panchen Lama

The Panchen Lama is one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Adherents of the faith say the Dalai Lama is the sun and the Panchen Lama is the moon.

Following the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989, a search began for his reincarnation in line with the religion’s traditions.

In May 1995, the Dalai Lama—who has lived in India since Chinese troops forced him into exile from his native Tibet in 1959—recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a 6-year-old living in Chinese-occupied Tibet, as the reincarnated Panchen Lama.

Just three days later, Chinese authorities abducted the child and his parents. None of them have been seen in public since.

In place of the missing Panchen Lama, Chinese officials appointed another child, Gyaltsen Norbu, to the role. Gyaltsen Norbu now mainly serves as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party.

Dalai Lama’s succession

China’s long-term plan is to use its appointed Panchen Lama to appoint its own Dalai Lama.

Historically, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama have played a key role in identifying one another’s reincarnations.

With the Dalai Lama about to turn 88, China has already made clear it plans to appoint its own successor to the world-renowned Nobel Peace Laureate.

However, the US and other governments have already said they will never recognize a Dalai Lama selected by China.

Abduction anniversary

On the anniversary of the Panchen Lama’s abduction, officials around the globe called on China to free him.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the Chair and Co-Chair of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said the Panchen Lama and his parents are among the world’s longest-serving political prisoners and should be released unconditionally, according to a tweet from the Commission.

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission said, “China must provide proof of his well-being & release him immediately & without conditions.”

Outside the US, Canadian Member of Parliament Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe delivered a statement in Parliament on May 17 calling for Canada to support the Tibetan leader’s release.

According to the Canada Tibet Committee, Brunelle-Duceppe “not only emphasized the need for the Panchen Lama’s release, but also underscored the importance of preserving the Tibetan people’s language, religion, and culture.”


Tibetans themselves were among those who spoke up loudest during the anniversary.

Tibetans and Tibet supporters demonstrated for the Panchen Lama in Australia, Canada, India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere.

Penpa Tsering, the Sikyong (President) of the Central Tibetan Administration, which provides democratic governance for Tibetans in exile, tweeted: “Twenty-eight years ago, on this day, an unspeakable state-sponsored crime was committed in Tibet by the PRC when a six-year-old boy was kidnapped alongside his family. This happened just days after H.H the 14th Dalai Lama recognized the young boy as the 11th #PanchenLama.

“Twenty-eight years on, the 11th #PanchenLama’s whereabouts remain unknown. I call on international community to help us bring justice that has been long overdue & urge the PRC to end this unspeakable crime by releasing the 11th Panchen Lama, his family & Chadrel Rinpoche,” a senior monk who was disappeared after helping to identify and recognize Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama.

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, said on Facebook: “We are very concern[ed] about his wellbeing. We trust that God will hear our prayers and soon His Holiness the 11th Panchen Lama returns back to the seat of Panchen Lama, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.”

The Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration said in a statement that “China’s interference in the selection process of the Panchen Lama shows their disregard for the fundamental human rights and religious beliefs of Tibetans, which are deeply rooted in Tibetan culture.”

The statement makes two demands of Beijing: to reveal credible information about the whereabouts and well-being of the Panchen Lama and his parents, and to respect the basic human rights of Tibetans, including by immediately halting the forced disappearance of prominent religious figures, leaders and advocates.

“We will continue to hold them accountable for their severe violations against Tibetan people,” the statement says, “and demand that they adhere to international conventions.”