A political prisoner is someone who is out fighting for his or her people’s rights and freedom and is imprisoned for that alone. – Leonard Peltier
To say it upfront, the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is unknown. The interpretation of the available records (which must be taken with a considerable grain of salt) can lead to multiple conclusions. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is either dead or he lives a good life in Communist China. He lives in Tibet or China. He lives with his parents or apart from them. The Chinese government knows about his whereabouts, or they do not but need to keep face.
In the Western world, Nyima is widely considered the youngest political prisoner in the world, a view that spawned many inquiries to Chinese government officials. However, there are no records, official or unofficial, that prove he ever actively fought for his people’s rights and freedom or that he is imprisoned. After all, he was only six years old when he was abducted, and chances are those Chinese statements of his living well are merely the truth.
Nevertheless, Nyima’s abduction serves as a chilling example of the brutality of Chinese repression in Tibet. Since his disappearance, the Chinese government has changed its position on Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s whereabouts many times. The general response was (and still is) that he is alive and well and should not be disturbed. To this day, no foreign party has ever been allowed to visit him.
Beyond a single photograph that can be found on a myriad of websites and book covers, there are only very few and conflicting records of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The photo taken in 1995, when he was six years old, remains the only unofficial record available of him outside of China.
According to Isabel Hilton [B1], in 1995 the Dalai Lama received a packaged smuggled from Tibet to his residence in Dharamsala and containing a list of boys the Tibetan search committee had under consideration as the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Besides further search records, there were also more than twenty photographs, including that of Nyima. “I looked at the photograph of the child. He stared at the camera, his head slightly tilted back, his lips parted. He seemed to be sitting in one of those large, heavy brown-leather armchairs that used to be universal official furniture in China. He wore a dark blue shirt with an orange tunic over it. His eyes, widely spaced, betrayed nothing of whatever emotions he felt as that photograph was taken.”
Another photograph shows the same boy dressed in golden robes and a yellow silk hat, supposedly showing him being installed as the 11th Panchen Lama. However, the picture is a crude fabrication as the boy’s face was copied from the only existing photograph.
It is an unfortunate fact that a high number of so-called records of Nyima are either copied or derived from others, and the more reputable ones are, due to the restrictive information policy of the Chinese Government, vague at best.
Adding to the obscurity is a rendering of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as a 30-year-old man, created by a forensic artist. It was commissioned by the International Tibet Network’s Political Prisoners Campaign Working Group for a film titled “Where is Panchen Lama?” [A99]
Note: Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was born on April 25, which explains why numerous articles and online posts were (and still are) published around that particular date. For example, the Tibetan Review post (What the China-disappeared 11th Panchen Lama might look like today), referencing the rendering, was published on April 26, 2019.
The only official record of a Chinese response to an inquiry regarding Gendhun’s whereabouts is a document created by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, dated May 31, 1996 [M1].
The following represents a long, but by any means incomplete list of available records. They demonstrate, however, the conflicting statements by Chinese officials and the superficiality of multiple articles published by pro-Tibetan sources.
1996 (No specific date):
China has admitted for the first time that it is holding the missing Tibetan child, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, regarded by most Tibetans as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The UN has asked that a delegation be allowed to visit the seven-year old boy, whom Beijing says is being held to prevent him from being kidnapped by Tibetan nationalists.
“He has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents,” China’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Wu Jianmin, told UN experts who asked China on Tuesday 28 May to allow a UN representative to visit Gendun Choekyi Nyima. Ambassador Wu did not say where the child is being held.
“The Chinese ambassador said the boy, who has not been seen in public for more than a year, was in good condition and was living with his parents,” the official Chinese news agency reported in its account of the meeting in Geneva. “The boy was at risk of being kidnapped by Tibetan separatists and his security had been threatened,” it said.
The admission comes just over one year after the child and his family disappeared, and follows twelve months of denials by Beijing. Chinese officials “have no idea of the whereabouts of the soul boy designated by the Dalai Lama,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman told journalists last November.
Gendun Choekyi Nyima is believed to have been escorted to Beijing by Chinese security forces from his home in northern Tibet within days of the Dalai Lama’s announcement on 14 May last year that he had recognised the child as the 11th Panchen Lama, one of Tibet’s most senior religious leaders. [W7]
Note: The use of the term “11th reincarnation” is wrong within this context. The current Panchen Lama is the 11th incarnation and thus the 10th reincarnation.
May 31, 1996:
Mr. Wu Jianmin, the Permanent Representative of China to the U.N. between 1996 and 1998, provided answers to questions on the list of issues drawn up by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as recorded on May 31, 1996. [M1]
With regard to reports concerning the controversy surrounding recognition of the Panchen Lama, he said that the Tenth Panchen Lama had passed away on 28 January 1989. Three days later, the State council had made a decision concerning the funeral and reincarnation of the Tenth Panchen Lama. He stressed that his Government respected the religious beliefs and sentiments of the broad masses of believers in Tibet.
A member of the committee, Mr. Hammarberg, asked for information on the whereabouts and situation of the Panchen Lama. Some people in Tibet felt that their religious freedom was not being respected. He asked if the Chinese Government would accept a fact-finding visit from outsiders with a view to making constructive suggestions on the problems in Tibet.
Mrs. Santos Pais echoed the concerns expressed by Mr. Hammarberg on the fate of the Panchen Lama. She emphasized that the Convention was directed at the rights of the individual child, and thus applied also to that particular six-year-old child, whose best interests, fundamental rights and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religious belief it was intended to protect.
Mr. Wu, referring to the question of the boy appointed by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, said that in May 1995, a statement had been issued declaring that the Dalai Lama had violated traditional practice by appointing the boy abroad. Since separatists were seeking to kidnap the boy, the parents had become fearful for his safety and requested Government protection, which had been provided. The boy was living with his parents in good conditions.
“We know that he is studying now and living in quite good conditions,” he said. “His family members and him do not want to be disrupted in their normal life. We have to respect their wishes, so that’s why we don’t arrange visits with the young man. [A66]
June 29, 1999
The genuine article is 10-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who, like his younger rival, lives in Beijing–but under house arrest. The 10-year-old, along with the rest of his family, has lived the life of a virtual prisoner since the Dalai Lama infuriated China’s leaders by naming him as the reincarnated Panchen Lama without their consent in May 1995. [A25]
November 12, 2002
A boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism and then placed under house arrest by China is “very happy”, a Chinese Government official has said. … The Beijing-appointed head of Tibet’s parliament said the boy was living with his family in Tibet. “He is living a very happy life,” said Raidi, who uses only one name. “He studies at school. His parents and entire family are happy.” … “He is 1.6 meters (5 ft 3 in) tall and weighs 65 kilos (144 pounds).” [A18]
February 13, 2006
In October 2000, during a round of the UK-PRC bilateral human rights dialogue in London, British officials raised the issue of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. In a written report to the British Parliament, Foreign Office Minister John Battle stated that: “We pressed the Chinese to allow access to the boy by an independent figure acceptable to the Chinese government and Tibetans to verify his health and living conditions. The Chinese stated that the boy was well and attending school. They said that his parents did not want international figures and the media intruding into his life. Two photographs claimed to be of the Panchen Lama were shown to us but not handed over.”
During the meeting, Chinese officials displayed two photos from across the conference table: one of a boy writing in Chinese on a blackboard, and another of a boy playing table tennis. There was no means to positively identify the child, the photos merely showed a boy of approximately the correct age. There was also no means to determine his location. [W15]
April 23, 2006
The whereabouts of Gendun Choekyi Nyima — who human rights watchdogs say has been living under house arrest since Tibet’s exiled god-king, the Dalai Lama, appointed him the 11th Panchen Lama — is one of China’s most zealously guarded state secrets.
A senior Canadian official pressed for access to Nyima during a visit to Tibet this month, but it fell on deaf ears.
Chinese officials parroted their assertion that Nyima was “safe and comfortable and wishes to maintain his privacy,” said the Canadian, who requested anonymity. [A39]
April 25, 2009
On 15 May, 1996, the Chinese government admitted to holding the 11th Panchen Lama and his parents in their “protective custody”.
Tibetan Government-in-Exile claims that he and his family continue to be political prisoners, and have called him the “youngest Political prisoner in the world”. Others have referred to him as “Tibet’s Stolen Child”. [A65]
March 7, 2010
“As far as I know, his family and he are now living a very good life in Tibet… he and his family are reluctant to be disturbed… and they want to live an ordinary life,” Padma Choling, chairman of the Tibet autonomous regional government, told media at the National People’s Congress meet in Beijing. [A91]
July 1, 2010
According to Hao Peng, a deputy party secretary and vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region:
“We know that he is studying now and living in quite good conditions,” he said. “His family members and him do not want to be disrupted in their normal life. We have to respect their wishes, so that’s why we don’t arrange visits with the young man.” [A66]
Note: This statement is very similar in content to that of Padma Choling, chairman of the Tibet autonomous regional government (See March 7, 2010 and July 11, 2010 entry).
July 11, 2010
And there remains the question of the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, still the choice of Panchen Lama for many exiled Tibetans. China denies he’s in detention, with the recently appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, reportedly telling AP on the sidelines of China’s annual legislative session: ‘As far as I know, his family and he are now living a very good life in Tibet… He and his family are reluctant to be disturbed, they want to live an ordinary life.’ [A15]
April 25, 2012
Speaking to Phayul over phone, an official in the Press Section of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi today said that the XIth Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is in “mainland China along with his family.”
“He is currently in mainland China along with his family and he doesn’t want to be disturbed,” the press officer, who declined from giving his name told Phayul.
When asked why the XIth Panchen Lama doesn’t want to be disturbed, the Chinese official, instead of giving a straight answer, blamed the Dalai Lama for “fabricating the truth.” [A1]
Note: Phayul.com (Tibetan for Fatherland) is a pro-Tibetan independence website that publishes news and opinions about Tibet and Tibet-in-exile. (Source: Wikipedia)
April 24, 2013
According to information received by Ven. Ngawang Woebar, the former President of Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet said, “His parents are currently placed under house arrest in their home town; they are not allowed to make any outside contact. Police officials are reportedly escorting and monitoring all their movements. Panchen Lama’s mother seem to have sadly expressed that she is the most unfortunate mother who has to live in constant fear and worry not knowing if her son is still alive or not.” [A16]
Note: A similar reference was made in another article on phayul.com published on the same date. [A13]
Any similar records on the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in the years after 2013 are nothing more than empathic demands directed at the Chinese Government by means of online articles posted on Tibet-sympathetic websites.
April 27, 2018
The Dalai Lama has, on Apr 25, confirmed what Chinese leaders have been saying, most recently in 2014, that the 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima recognized by him in 1995, is alive and pursuing normal education. The 11th Panchen Lama, “according to reliable source, is alive and carrying normal education,” he was quoted as saying, speaking to reporters on his return from New Delhi at Gaggal Airport.
He has also indicated that the existence of two 11th Panchen Lamas may not be all that unusual in Tibetan Buddhism. He was cited as having commented that there were instances in Tibetan Buddhist tradition where a reincarnate lama appeared as more than one person. [A100]