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Birthday of Imprisoned Panchen Lama: The World’s Youngest Political Prisoner Turns 16

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On May 17th, 1995 the Chinese government abducted Gendun Choekyi Nyima who was then six years old and had just been recognized by the Dali Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama–which is the second most prominent holy man in Tibetan Buddhism. He turns 16 today. We speak with Robert Thurman of Columbia University. [includes rush transcript]

Today is the 16th birthday of a boy considered to be the youngest political prisoner in the world. On May 17th, 1995 the Chinese government abducted Gendun Choekyi Nyima who was then six years old and had just been recognized by the Dali Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama–which is the second most prominent holy man in Tibetan Buddhism. And despite repeated requests, no international observer has ever been allowed access to the boy.

Today a group of cyclists will be completing a five day ride that began in Washington D.C. They will be delivering a letter to U.N Secretary General Kofi Anan asking him to pressure the Chinese government to release Gendun Choekyi Nyima.

  • Robert Thurman, Chair of Religious Studies at Columbia University, where he is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On the phone with us to talk more about the situation in Tibet is scholar and author Dr. Robert Thurman, Professor at Columbia University. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Thurman.

ROBERT THURMAN: Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. We’re also joined by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. Can you talk about who this boy is?

ROBERT THURMAN: The Panchen Lama is the reincarnation in the Tibetan belief of the second highest Lama in their sort of Lama government that they had, and a very beloved figure. He was — his previous life had stayed in Tibet under the communists, was imprisoned for 15 years for not collaborating with them, and then, only in the '80s after Mao was gone and the Gang of Four was gone, when there was a brief opening in Tibet under Hu Yaobang, he sort of came back out and he did cooperate with the communist government in order to rebuild things in Tibet, during this brief moment, about five-year period, before they cracked down again. And there was a moment where they were letting the Tibetans do what they wanted. So, he was very, very beloved, and he prevented also the draining of the central lake, what they called the Soul Lake of Tibet, in the middle of the country, which they have drained for electric power. Nowadays they're draining. And as long as he lived, he prevented them from doing that. And then he died very suddenly in 1989. And this young boy was his reincarnation.

It was a very sad thing because they asked the Dalai Lama at first to help discover the reincarnation, because it was during a more liberal period. Then, but once he had announced who it was, according to the traditional way of finding him, they suddenly turned around on that policy and they arrested this boy with his family and have kept him completely out of communication. Nobody has ever seen him since then. He has been under — imprisoned since he was six years old, and he — nobody knows where he is. And then they appointed — the communists, to the height of cynicism — the communists, who don’t believe in reincarnation in any way, they appointed a reincarnation, and they have their own puppet on there. But the Tibetans don’t believe him at all, and it’s a big distress for all of the Tibetans.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you think he is right now?

ROBERT THURMAN: There’s a rumor that he and his parents and his tutors have been kept on a military base somewhere near Beijing, taken right out of Tibet and right out of their home and their town and community and monastery, and supposedly, he is well and this and that, but no one knows because they have never allowed anyone to see him, and I’ve heard rumors that he has been unwell from sort of psychics and things, but nobody really knows. The Dalai Lama was afraid they would try to brainwash him or something, or at one time he was. But nobody can say. He might be passed on again, or he might be fine. You just can’t tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Thurman, for those who are not familiar with the story of Tibet, if, in just a thumbnail sketch, you can give us a brief history.

ROBERT THURMAN: All right, Amy. I will do it. Tibet has always been a separate country. It’s a separate culture. The Tibetan language is different from Chinese. The people are different. And they live in especially rugged high-altitude territory over two miles in height, average altitude actually 14,000 feet, almost three miles. So they’re very, very different.

However, during two periods of history, one was when the Mongol Empire controlled all of East Asia and actually much of Central Asia, and the second was where the Manchurians, which are non-Chinese people also, they controlled a large amount of Eastern and Central Asia. In those two periods, the Tibetans were under the protection of them, although those two people, the Mongols and Manchus, never directly inhabited Tibet, and no Chinese people inhabited Tibet.

Then in 1950 Mao Tse-Tung decided they wanted to turn what had been an imperial protectorate into their own national territory. So they invaded Tibet, and they occupied it. And the West couldn’t defend — although even the West was resisting the Chinese in Korea at the time, in South Korea, but they couldn’t do anything in Tibet, because Nehru wanted to get along with Mao. He naively thought Mao was going to be his biggest pal. So, he wouldn’t allow any resistance against the Chinese invasion in 1950, 1951 or 1952, and wouldn’t sort of speak out at the U.N. about it. So, although there were some resolutions deploring the Chinese invasion, basically everybody got all confused ever since then.

And the Chinese have been pretending, trying to pretend — the sad thing is that because the Chinese have been trying to pretend all along that they have been in Tibet for thousands of years and that Tibet is just a province of China, they have had a genocidal imperative to destroy Tibetan culture and also, if possible, replace Tibetan people by Chinese colonists, so that they can make it look in the future someday as if China always was in Tibet, you know, and change the language, make the Tibetans all speak Chinese, etc., basically culturecidal and genocidal, just in order to be able to claim a sort of beginningless ownership of the territory, which is rewriting and distorting history, in fact, since they never did live there. And that’s a very tragic thing.

This has caused the Tibetans to be a kind of like a Cambodian holocaust really, where they lost over a million people and over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, and it’s really been terrible. And it still is. Then they relented a little bit in the 1980s, realizing they were not succeeding, even though they killed so many people. And they couldn’t really colonize such a high altitude place very economically.

But then, unfortunately, after the Soviet Union deconstructed its empire and let go of Kazakhstan and the Ukraine and all these countries, China got afraid, Deng Xiaoping was afraid they would have to give up Tibet and then they have a domino-theory paranoia that they would have to give up Xinjiang, which is actually Turkistan, they would have to give up Inner Mongolia, which is actually Mongolia, so they got really paranoid and they’ve redoubled and tripled their efforts to crush Tibetan culture and replace the Tibetan people with Chinese colonists. And so it’s still a very, very tragic, very, very stressful situation.

One reason the world is so confused about it is because the Dalai Lama is such an extraordinary person, he has pledged to fight for liberation only through nonviolent measures. And he has even offered to accept membership in a Chinese union as long as Tibet has a kind of “one country, two systems” situation like Hong Kong supposedly does, and like Taiwan would be offered, supposedly. Although they, you know, they don’t really expect that to happen. The Chinese wouldn’t have done it in the way they have behaved in the past, but the Dalai Lama always remains hopeful and always remains gentle, and he always maintains nonviolence as his policy. So people are confused because people are only used to liberation struggles where people do terrorism and blow things up, you know what I mean? And he has always refused do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody, let me just end with you. How does this fit in with China’s plans for its future?

REED BRODY: This is part of the attempt to control the future of Tibet. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama has led the search for the new Dalai Lama. The Chinese are playing for time and hoping that at a certain point, obviously, the Dalai Lama will die. The Dalai Lama has said that if he dies while Tibet is still part of — enslaved in China, that his reincarnation would be found outside of China. But obviously the Chinese are looking at this differently. They want to control the Lama line and therefore control the future of Tibet.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, Dr. Robert Thurman of Columbia University, I want to thank you both for being with us.

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