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Gedhun Choekyi Niyima: Tibetan Buddhism’s ‘reincarnated’ leader who disappeared aged six

A woman holds a candle in front of a picture of the Panchen Lama to mark his 31st birthday in 2020Image copyright

There is only one photograph in circulation of the Tibetan Gedhun Choekyi Niyima, one of the world’s most famous “disappeared” persons.

It is little more than a snapshot, taken when he was just six years old. It shows a boy with rosy cheeks and an impassive look on his face.

That boy is now 31, and 17 May marks exactly 25 years since he and his family were disappeared by China, three days after he was identified as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

Since he was taken, there has been no independent news on his fate.

Tibetans outside China are using the anniversary to call for his release. But only Chinese officials know where he is and, having said little for a quarter of a century, there is little expectation that they will offer new information now.

“Our mood is gloomy,” admitted Sonam Tsering Frasi, the Tibetan government-in-exile’s representative in London.

For those who want the Panchen Lama freed, it is an understandable position. The case shows the power wielded by China’s leaders, who can make someone vanish completely with few consequences for either themselves or their country.

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Media captionWhat might the Panchen Lama look like today?

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has been trying to find out what has happened to Gedhun Choekyi Niyima since 1995, but it has discovered very little.

A few weeks before the 25th anniversary of his disappearance, it gave the BBC this statement about its efforts.

“The Government of China has responded several times, but the information provided was considered insufficient to clarify the case and it remains outstanding.”

In 2013, the working group asked the Chinese government to allow it to visit the country.

In its annual report last year – six years after that request – it said it was still waiting for an answer.

“The working group hopes that a positive reply will be received soon,” the report noted, perhaps a little optimistically.

Although Beijing is saying little, there are reasons why China might have wanted this particular six-year-old boy to disappear.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama is outranked only by the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 and became an alternative source of power for Tibetans who resented Beijing’s control of the Himalayan region.

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China chose its own Panchen Lama after the boy disappeared

It has been suggested, reasonably, that China did not want the Panchen Lama gaining the same authority and becoming a similar obstacle to its governance of Tibet.

After Gedhun Choekyi Niyima vanished, China chose its own Panchen Lama. Many believe it will also choose its own Dalai Lama when the current one dies.

China’s changing narrative

Down the years, the Chinese government has provided some information about the missing Panchen Lama, even if it was just to deny anything was wrong.

Immediately after his disappearance, it told the UN working group that “there has never been a case of disappearance and kidnapping of the family of the reincarnated child”.

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