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Dalai Lama fears for Panchen Lama's safety

Sunday, November 08, 1998

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The most urgent issue the Dalai Lama wants to resolve involves the whereabouts of a 9-year-old boy that he identified as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995.

The Tibetan government-in-exile believes that the child and his parents are being held as political prisoners in Beijing.

Traditionally, the Panchen Lama was Tibet's second-highest spiritual leader, but had no role in government.

The 10th Panchen Lama was slightly younger than the Dalai Lama. Although he had been selected in 1950 by the Chinese authorities themselves, he would make several heroic stands for Tibetan rights and the Buddhist faith before his death in 1989 at the age of 53.

In 1964, under pressure from the Chinese authorities to make a speech supporting the communist regime, he stood in the center of Lhasa and cried, "Long live the Dalai Lama!"

He spent the next 14 years in prison, enduring torture so severe that he attempted suicide. Released in 1978, he lived quietly in Beijing but could visit Tibet.

On such a visit to his home monastery in 1989, he gave a speech criticizing the "many mistakes" of the Chinese government in Tibet. He was found dead two days later from a reported heart attack.

The Dalai Lama notes only that the 10th Panchen Lama's death in his own monastery was "symbolic, the deliberate gesture of a true spiritual leader."

The Dalai Lama and the Chinese administration began separate searches for a new Panchen Lama. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama have a role in choosing each other's successors, but China also claims to have a traditional role in the process.

On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama announced that he had identified the Panchen Lama's new incarnation as Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, 6, who lived in Tibet. The Chinese promptly arrested a Tibetan monk who had worked on their own search party, accusing him of having slipped information to the Dalai Lama.

The 6-year-old boy and his parents disappeared, and have not been heard from since.

On Nov. 29, 1995, the Chinese government announced its selection of another 6-year-old as the Panchen Lama. He was enthroned 10 days later and moved to Beijing.

The Tibetan government in exile called the second boy's enthronement "invalid and illegal." According to the Chinese government, it was the Dalai Lama who broke the traditions.

Ollie Fleet, 43, a Tibetan activist from Bellevue, is appalled that Americans have not rallied to the cause of an innocent child who has been imprisoned. No matter what you think of Buddhism or reincarnation, it is clear that the Dalai Lama chose this boy because he believed that all the religious signs pointed to him, Fleet said.

"If it was simply a political issue, the Dalai Lama would probably have picked a Tibetan out of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in India, Nepal and other countries," Fleet said.

A bogus Panchen Lama could be disastrous for both the faith and the future of Tibet, he said.

"The Dalai Lama is now 63, and no one knows how long he will continue to live in this incarnation. When he passes on, it is the responsibility of the Panchen Lama to carry out the search that will identify his reincarnation."

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