On Tuesday, just three days before the missing Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama, would turn 30 somewhere in China, Tibetan youths – some perhaps his contemporaries – began a long bike rally to the Indian capital to raise awareness about his plight.
The whereabouts of Nyima have remained shrouded in mystery after China had abducted him in 1995, three days after the six-year-old was chosen as the incarnation of the Panchen Lama, and replaced him with their own Panchen Lama, whom the Tibetan Buddhists do not accept.
At 9 am on Tuesday, the sound of motorcycles revving up their engines filled the calm air of McLeodGanj – a pristine, small hill station, a suburb of Dharamshala in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile – as a rally of 30 motorbikes began their almost 500 km journey toward the Indian capital to demand China free him.
“We believe in him as the real Panchen Lama and we demand that the Chinese government release him immediately,” Tenzing Jigme, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, told EFE.
“The Chinese government has no role in matters of Tibetan tradition and spirituality. We reject such interference,” the 40-year-old added.
The rally has been jointly organized by the Tibetan Youth Congress and Students for a Free Tibet “to raise awareness on the Panchen Lama and raise collective voice against China's brutal rule in Tibet and imprisoning hundreds and thousands of innocent Tibetans,” a statement said.
The Panchen Lama's disappearance had led to a global outcry as China has consistently refused to divulge his whereabouts.
"The disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima by the Chinese authorities constitutes an ‘enforced disappearance’ in violation of the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” said Rinzin Choedon, the National Director of Students for a Free Tibet.
According to a report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance (WGEID) in 2012, China continues to maintain, nearly 17 years after his enforced disappearance, that Nyima is not “under house arrest.”
“He and his family are currently leading normal lives in Tibet, and he is receiving an excellent education. They have on numerous occasions said that they do not wish to have their normal lives disrupted in any way, and we should fully respect their wishes,” China had told the Expert Group in 2009.
In 2011, the Working Group had said in a statement that while China has “admitted taking him, they have continually refused to divulge any information about him or his whereabouts, making his case an enforced disappearance. A number of human rights mechanisms including the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, have all called for his whereabouts to be revealed, to no avail.”
“In the more than 20 years since Gedhun’s abduction, Chinese authorities have provided little information about his whereabouts, alleging that they need to protect him from being ‘kidnapped by separatists’,” the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said on its website.
On his last birthday in 2018, USCIRF commissioner Tenzin Dorjee had written an open letter to the Panchen Lama.
“As much as the Chinese government wants us to forget you, please know that we remember you every day. As each year passes by, our resolve to find you and restore you to your rightful role becomes stronger,” he had written in the letter.
“May we, or at least you, celebrate your 30th birthday in freedom,” he had said.
But as the bike rally will reach the Indian capital on Apr. 25, the Panchen Lama will be celebrating another birthday away from his people, his whereabouts still unknown.