China says Panchen Lama missing for 20 years is living normally

BEIJING (AFP) - One of the most senior figures in Tibetan Buddhism is living a normal life, Chinese government officials said, 20 years after he was detained following his appointment by the Dalai Lama.

Gendun Choekyi Nyima was named by the Nobel laureate as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most senior figure in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, at the age of six in 1995. The boy was then detained by the Chinese authorities and has not been seen since.

He "is receiving education, living normally and growing healthily. He does not want to be disturbed by anyone", the official Xinhua news agency on late Sunday (Sept 6) quoted Norbu Dondup, an official at Tibet's United Front Work Department, as saying.

Beijing appointed Gyaincain Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama, who is now a deputy to the Chinese People's Consultative Congress, a national debating chamber, but many Tibetans do not recognise him.

He has made numerous tightly scripted public appearances since he turned 18, and visited Hong Kong, his first trip outside the Chinese mainland, in 2012.

The 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989 after a tumultuous relationship with China's communist leaders which saw him lauded and later imprisoned.

The officially atheist Communist Party reiterated its right to control the process of reincarnation in a white paper issued at the weekend.

"Reincarnation is a succession system unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and is respected by the state and governments at different levels of the autonomous region, the state having issued the Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism," the paper said.

The method includes "historical conventions like drawing lots from a golden urn", it insisted - but the Tibetan government in exile says senior lamas should make the choice.

The issue of the selection is becoming increasingly important as the Dalai Lama ages - he turns 80 this year - raising the prospect of Beijing seeking to name its own successor to the exiled spiritual leader.

He has suggested in recent months that he may not be reincarnated after he dies, infuriating the Chinese authorities.