Panchen Lama photo charade

Wednesday, 25 October 2000

Panchen Lama photo charade, as Chinese officials show pictures claimed to be of missing spiritual leader

The mystery surrounding the missing Panchen Lama intensified today as Robin Cook confirmed that a Chinese human rights delegation last week showed British Government officials two photographs alleged to be of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, now eleven years old, who disappeared with his family in 1995. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Foreign Secretary admitted that UK officials had not demanded to keep the photographs, which were shown during the UK/China human rights dialogue on 17 October. The Chinese officials did not hand the photographs over and continue to refuse independent access to the Panchen Lama and his family.

"If China thinks this charade will appease the concerns of the international community, then it is deeply mistaken." said Alison Reynolds, Director of Free Tibet Campaign. "These photographs offer no proof of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima's well-being or whereabouts, and it is insulting to Foreign Governments to be fobbed off in this way. Whilst there are clearly difficulties in establishing the authenticity of such pictures, the UK Government should have insisted on keeping them as a point of principle and they must continue to demand access to the Panchen Lama, who is believed to be the world's youngest political prisoner." (see notes)

The two pictures, which were also shown to EU officials during the EU/China dialogue in September, show a young boy who apparently resembles the photograph of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima aged 6. In one picture, the boy is playing table tennis, with his face almost full on to the camera. The second photograph is a rear view of the back of the boy's head, as he writes Chinese characters on a blackboard. Both photographs were taken indoors and offer no clues as to the boy's whereabouts. Robin Cook told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that he would seek to obtain the photographs.

For more information contact Alison Reynolds: 020 7833 9958, Mobile 07711 843884

Notes for Editors:
1. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family disappeared from their home in Lhari (Nagchu Prefecture, north of Lhasa), in May 1995, following the Dalai Lama's recognition of the boy as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Since then, the Chinese Government has refused repeated requests for independent access to establish his health and well-being, claiming he was leading a normal life and did not wish to be disturbed. China justified his disappearance on the grounds that it was for his own protection against "splittist" forces. China selected Gyaltsen Norbu, a boy of similar age from the same area of Tibet, and enthroned him as Panchen Lama in June 1996 in Shigatse.

2. In November 1999 a report emerged that a boy said to resemble Gedhun Choekyi Nyima had died in a Lanzhou prison in Gansu Province. The China Freedom News Association posted on its website a second-hand eyewitness report that a body taken from the prison to a crematorium resembled the photograph of the 6 year old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. UK Foreign Minister John Battle visited China the same month and raised concerns about the Panchen Lama in response to the rumour. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yingfan replied that the Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was well, adding that the West "will never be satisfied until the boy is freed or allowed to go abroad," thus giving credence to the belief that he is under some form of house arrest.

3. Chinese Government officials have made three statements concerning his whereabouts, the most plausible being that he is either in the vicinity of Beijing, or in a remote area of Gansu Province. In February 1998 a group of American religious leaders who visited Tibet were told that the Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was in Beijing, as previous reports had indicated. A few weeks later, in March, a TAR official told an Austrian delegation that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was living in Lhari, his birthplace. In April 1998, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, a senior Tibetan official based in Beijing (formerly Governor of Chamdo) told a British journalist that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was studying, possibly in Gansu Province - a remote area bordering the Tibet Autonomous Region, with a relatively small Tibetan population.

4. The production of these photographs is an interesting response by the Chinese Government to continued concern about the Panchen Lama, when seen in the context of other recent developments in Tibet. There is currently a crackdown on freedom of religion in Tibet, possibly as a backlash to the flight of the 17th Karmapa to India. The crackdown has been manifested in late night house to house searches for religious artefacts and photographs of the Dalai Lama. On 16 October it was announced that a decision had been taken sometime earlier to remove Chen Kiuyuan, the hard-line top official of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It remains to be seen how this will impact on local interpretation of hard-line policies in Tibet, imposed by Beijing.

5. The authenticity of the photographs shown to foreign governments by the Chinese cannot be verified and are no substitute for access to and freedom for Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Earlier this year, a leading US forensic artist "aged" the widely used photograph of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to give an idea of what he might look like today. Both the original photograph of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima aged six and this image are available as jpegs. Contact the Free Tibet Campaign office for copies.