Birthday of Imprisoned Panchen Lama: The World’s Youngest Political Prisoner Turns 16: 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 is considered to be the youngest political prisoner in the world. He turns 16 today.
Interview with Robert Thurman (Chair of Religious Studies at Columbia University, where he is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies): Tibet has always been a separate country and a separate culture. The Tibetan language is different from Chinese. The people are different. They live in especially rugged high-altitude territory over two miles in height, average altitude actually 14,000 feet, almost three miles. So they are 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.
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.