April 25 marked the 33rd birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who remains missing 27 years after the Chinese government is believed to have kidnapped him.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama is the second highest figure of religious authority, second to only the Dalai Lama. As per tradition, the Dalai Lama began his search for the reincarnated Panchen Lama after the 10th Panchen Lama of Tibet died in 1989. He found him in 6-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom he anointed the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995.
The Chinese government rejected the Dalai Lama’s choice of successor and instead appointed Gyancain Norbu the 11th Panchen Lama. Chinese authorities also allegedly abducted Nyima and his family, all of whom have been missing for 27 years.
United States Department of State spokesperson Ned Price released a statement on Nyima’s birthday criticizing the Chinese government and expressing the U.S.’ full support for “Tibetans’ religious freedom” as well as their “right to select, educate, and venerate their own leaders” in accordance with “their own beliefs” and “without government interference.”
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The U.S. remains a strong ally of Tibet, with the Congressional Medal of Honor having been awarded to the Dalai Lama in 2007. Last year, the U.S. gave over $25 million for Tibet-related programs. Just last month in March, President Joe Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Acts of 2022, allocating another $21 million to preserve Tibetan language, religion and culture. Along with the U.S., the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) also petitioned on Monday that the Chinese government release the 11th Panchen Lama and his family. In its statement, it called on the Chinese government to “rightfully allow the Panchen Lama” to “live a free life [he] is entitled to under the international laws and treaties that China is obligated to.” China has been outspokenly critical of the U.S.’ involvement in tensions between China and Tibet, accusing the U.S. of “taking advantage” of Tibet-related issues by “using religious freedom as a cover” to interfere in “China’s domestic affairs.” China’s alleged treatment of Tibetans has been a source of extreme backlash. Some reported incidents include China forcing thousands of Tibetans to work in labor camps and Tibetan children being banned from learning the Tibetan language both in and outside of school. The East Asian country has also expressed disdain at celebrities who have spoken out about Tibetan rights, including actor Keanu Reeves and NBA player Enes Canter. In an interview with Politico, CTA Sikyong Penpa Tsering warned that “the policies adopted by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping today are aimed completely at the eradication of the Tibetan and other minority nationalities’ identities.” Today, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), a non-governmental human rights organization headquartered in India, released their 2021 annual report that also included a set of demands of the Chinese government:
- Allow the Tibetans to determine their own educational and cultural affairs as provided in the [People’s Republic of China’s] Constitution and Regional National Autonomy Law.
- Release all Tibetan political prisoners, including the 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who disappeared at the age of six in 1995.
- Guarantee fair trial rights to Tibetan detainees and provide them with immediate legal representation of their choice, including informing their family members about the reason and legality for detention.
TCHRD released a separate list for the United Nations, other “democratic governments” and human rights organizations, urging them to visit Tibet to assess and raise awareness of the human rights situation there. They also stated the need to “impose appropriate sanctions” against Chinese parties responsible for human rights abuses and crimes, including genocide.
China has also received backlash for its oppressive treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population, which allegedly includes genocide and crimes against humanity.