A Tibetan carries a portrait of the Panchen Lama, who has not been seen in public since his detention aged six in 1995
The Panchen Lama, who vanished 20 years ago at the age of six after being named by the Dalai Lama as the next-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, is “growing up healthily and does not wish to be disturbed”, an official in charge of relations between Beijing and Tibet said on Sunday.
Gendun Choekyi Nyima was taken into custody in 1995 by Chinese authorities after Tibetan religious leaders recognised him as the latest reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. He has not been seen in public since. Norbu Dunzhub, a member of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s United Front Work Department, told reporters he was “living a normal life” but did not specify where.
The Panchen and Dalai Lamas have historically vied with each other for religious and political power in Tibet. Control over the arcane procedure for choosing their reincarnations is a key to political legitimacy on the strategic and ethnically distinct Tibetan plateau, location of the headwaters of most of China’s major rivers.
The struggle over the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation is viewed as a prelude to the much bigger battle over who will control that of the Dalai Lama, now 80, given the stature he holds in the Tibetan and international communities. He has said he might rule out reincarnation to prevent Beijing from usurping the process.
In 1995 Chinese-appointed authorities chose a different boy, Gyaincain Norbu, as the Panchen Lama, on the grounds that a ceremony dating from the Qing dynasty gives the officially atheist Chinese state the right to select reincarnations of Tibetan religious leaders. That young man, now 25, was raised in Beijing and has appeared occasionally in public, including delivering a speech in English in 2009 at a World Buddhist Conference organised in the eastern city of Wuxi.
When the Chinese Communist party took power in mainland China in 1949, both the Panchen and the Dalai Lamas were teenagers. The Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayas in 1959 after the People’s Liberation Army took control of Tibet following an uprising against forced collectivisation and land reform during the Great Leap Forward.
The previous Panchen Lama was imprisoned in 1962 for “organising a rebellion” after writing a report criticising the starvation of Tibetans due to collectivisation and disastrous crop policies during the Great Leap Forward. He was released in the 1980s and died in Tibet in 1989.
A rail connection to the Tibetan capital Lhasa completed in 2006 has accelerated Chinese state-backed investment in the region, particularly in mining and hydropower projects, bottled water and tourism. A white paper released on Sunday said all officially recognised villages in the region gained access to electricity by the end of 2012.
The increased state presence has been accompanied by the relocation of Tibetan villages and resettlement of nomadic herders. The white paper said 2.3m farmers and herdsmen, or 70 per cent of the region’s registered population, had been rehoused between 2006 and 2013.
Thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned amid increased restrictions on civil organisation, religious activity and even music and songwriting following a Tibetan uprising that swept the plateau in 2008. Since 2011, at least 140 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypeople of all classes have set themselves on fire in towns across the plateau in grisly public protest.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.