Since this column was written the situation around the Panchen Lama has not substantially changed. He remains in Chinese custody. The rumour of his murder is now generally discounted and it is thought more likely that the Chinese authorities are brainwashing him for their own ends.
The machinations of international power politics are often cruel and hypocritical. But even by the low standards of the field, it would be hard to find an example of more appalling cynicism than the case of the world's youngest political prisoner, little Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama.
The Panchen Lama is the second highest figure in the Tibetan religious hierarchy. When the current Dalai Lama fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion, the 10th Panchen Lama took a different course and remained in his homeland and attempted to work with the occupation regime on behalf of his people. His courageous statements advocating religious freedom earned him ten years in a Chinese prison. He died in 1989.
In 1995 many observers were surprised when the Dalai Lama and other religious authorities in exile recognized a child living within Tibet, and therefore subject to Chinese rule. This decision was made after a traditional search, using visions and oracles, with the sole purpose of locating that individual who was the genuinely reincarnated Panchen Lama. It is clear that political considerations were overruled by religious ones and it may be that the Panchen Lama deliberately chose rebirth in Tibet out of a deep love for his long-suffering homeland.
Be that as it may, the Communist Chinese were guided by no such principles. They acted swiftly to arrest the six-year old boy, his family and the circle of monks who had installed him in his office. None of these people have been seen by outsiders since that day. The Chinese authorities claim they are held in "protective custody" to keep them from harm by "Tibetan terrorists."
In a comic-opera travesty of breathtaking cynicism the officially atheist government of the People's Republic of China then held a ceremony to locate a Panchen Lama more to their liking. They used a lottery, drawing a name out of a silver urn, a ritual hitherto unknown to Tibetan Buddhism. To no one's surprise, the winner was a boy from a loyal Communist family. Needless to say, this "Panchen Lama" has not met with acceptance anywhere outside Communist Party rhetoric and his installation was greeted in Tibet with angry demonstrations which were ruthlessly put down.
The latest twist in this tragic story originated with a report on the internet. The website of the China Freedom News Association (http://www.chinesenews.com), which claims to represent the democratic underground in China, states that according to sources within China, the now ten-year old Panchen Lama has been murdered. Their sources claim to have seen his emaciated body being removed from a prison near Lazhou.
The story may be groundless, but it is not reassuring that Chinese officials have consistently refused all requests by foreign dignitaries, including the Secretary General of the United Nations, Khofi Anaan to visit the young Lama. This treatment of a young child is contrary to all civilized norms and tragic as it is for young Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family, it has grave implications for the future of Tibet. One of the duties of the Panchen Lama is to recognize the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama and it is obvious that the Chinese want to get control of this process before the current Dalai Lama passes on..
The People's Republic is presently seeking entry into the World Trade Organization and western countries have a rare opportunity to exert leverage on the regime there. They are anxious to present a good face to the world. We must not allow the greed for trade blind us to the egregious human rights record of this government. Voters and citizens of the western democracies should insist that their foreign delegations take China to task for these abuses before signing any deals. In this case, they should demand that the Panchen Lama be released from custody, or at the very least be allowed access to a foreign delegation which can ascertain his well-being.