Logo of IRFBA: International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance

IRFBA Chair’s Statement on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan religious prisoners of conscience the 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, writer Go Sherab Gyatso, and separation of Tibetan children from their heritage and language

As the Chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, I appreciate the contribution of Tibetan Buddhism to a deep understanding of seemingly self-evident concepts such as love, compassion and meditation. Tibetan Buddhism has played an important role in the history of the region and continues to have a transformative power in Tibetan society, as well as a positive influence on neighbouring countries and many individuals around the globe.

I express my grave concern for the ongoing enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, whose whereabouts and well-being in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been unknown for nearly 30 years.

PRC authorities abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995 when he was six years old and just days after His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized him as the 11th Panchen Lama. In response, the PRC installed its own Panchen Lama and continues attempts to compel Tibetan Buddhists to pledge allegiance to the government-selected individual.

I am concerned that PRC authorities have denied Gedhun Choekyi Nyima a lifetime of being able to freely practice his faith in a manner of his choosing. Further, I find the lack of independent access to his whereabouts, the seeming restrictions on his freedom of movement, and the limited information about him spanning nearly three decades highly troubling.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is one among many Tibetans whom PRC authorities have silenced or oppressed for expressions of their beliefs, culture, language, and traditions. This includes detaining Tibetans for possessing images of the Dalai Lama, such as Go Sherab Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, writer, educator and public intellectual currently sentenced to 10 years in prison for his peaceful advocacy and whom authorities previously detained for reportedly possessing and displaying a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

The PRC’s cultural erasure throughout Tibet, including efforts to “Sinicize” Tibetan Buddhism and interfere in the selection process of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, including the Dalai Lama, are alarmingly widespread. These policies prohibit Tibetans from offering prayers to the Dalai Lama in public, as well as images of the Dalai Lama himself. Authorities have also banned the display of highly symbolic Tibetan prayer flags and the celebration of many important Tibetan festivals.

As such, many monasteries and religious events have become subject to regular surveillance. According to monitors, of the roughly 6,000 monasteries that once existed in Tibet, only 13 have been left undamaged. For instance, the 2016 destruction of Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist academy in the world, resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of students, monks, and nuns living around it. Many were reportedly subjected to brutality and “political re-education.”

Last year, several UN experts expressed concern about credible reports that PRC authorities have coerced approximately one million Tibetan children in what they characterized as a “mandatory large-scale program intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to international human rights standards.” Separating a generation of Tibetan children from their heritage and language will do untold damage to their ability to shape and preserve their identity.

I urge the PRC to cease all human rights abuses against Tibetans, including by accounting for the whereabouts and well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima; ending the coercion of Tibetan children into government-run boarding schools; upholding freedom of religion or belief for all; and abandoning policies and practices aimed at erasing Tibet’s rich religious, cultural, and linguistic identity.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future