Where is the Panchen Lama?

A young monk holds a portrait of the 11th Panchen LamaA few days ago was the 21st birthday of the Panchen Lama, Gendün Chökyi Nyima, wherever he is. I was thinking about comments made by Padma Choling, the governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region, a few weeks ago, claiming that the Panchen Lama and his family are living somewhere in Tibet. Padma Choling: “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.” Now, it strains credulity to believe that Gendün Chökyi Nyima or his relatives are simply living quietly somewhere with no special security arrangements; they wouldn’t want him just suddenly slipping out of the country, now would they? You might also notice the slightly evasive tone he starts with, “As far as I know” (granted, the original Chinese, 据我了解, is maybe a little less vague sounding — more like, “To my understanding”); could this be sort of a tell that he slips in inadvertently before a lie?

But, I started wondering … if they do have the Panchen Lama under house arrest somewhere, where can they put him? If they were keeping him in any Tibetan area, and if he (or his family even) had any contact with the outside world, how could you keep rumours from spreading that, hey, the Panchen Lama is being held here? On the other hand, if they kept him in a Chinese area, there would be less attention on the one hand because people don’t care that much about lamas; but, on the other hand, there would be more attention because a young Tibetan and his family under close security supervision would really stand out. How could you keep people from talking about these things? No, I’m afraid the claim that the Panchen Lama is living peacefully somewhere in Tibet — or anywhere in the PRC — is very implausible. That means that the government, not too surprisingly, is blatantly lying when asked about him (notice also, that they don’t even claim that Gendün Chökyi Nyima himself is working or in college. He’s 21 years old now; shouldn’t he be doing one or the other? But I think that would make the unlikeliness of the claim too obvious. Who are his classmates or coworkers?) Naturally, this train of thought would tend to make us worry about the Panchen Lama’s physical safety. Is he living anywhere at all? Hopefully (the least bad possibility) he and his family are still being held somewhere, hopefully a comfortable house arrest, but they are totally incommunicado from the outside world. That seems to be how the Chinese government likes to handle problems — they seem to prefer imprisonment to simple murder. Remember that the previous Panchen Lama was in prison for something like 13 years, and for long periods nothing was heard from him; a lot of people thought he was dead, and then suddenly he was free.

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