Tibetans Call on Chinese Government to Free The Panchen Lama

Tibet's highest-ranking spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is urging the Chinese government to release another high-ranking Tibetan spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama, who turns 18-years-old Wednesday. The young man has not been seen in public for 12 years, and is believed to be under house arrest in China. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

For Tibetan Buddhists, the Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama in religious importance.

In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized six-year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Beijing rejected him and made its own selection for the 11th Panchen Lama. Meanwhile, the boy named by the Dalai Lama disappeared from public sight. Human rights groups claim he is under house arrest.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy, told the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Wednesday the Chinese government should allow the world see and talk to the boy, who has officially passed into adulthood.

"He today becomes 18-years-old, and adult," said Lodi Gyari. "This gives them an opportunity - all right, maybe they were taking care of him, as they said, this little child. But now, it's no more child [a child no longer]. So, this gives the opportunity for them to free him so that people can have access to him. And such act will definitely contribute in building some measure of confidence in our ongoing dialogue process."

Gyari said representatives for the Dalai Lama have been holding talks with the Chinese government for six years.

Chinese officials say the young man is not being held against his will, but they refuse to say where he is. In Beijing Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao gave no details, but said the young man is growing up like other teenagers in China.

He added that Gendun Choekyi Nyima does not want to be disturbed and is living what he described as a "free life."

Back in Washington, Felice Gaer, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, urged the world to pay more attention to the issue of the Panchen Lama. The commission is an independent body that advises the White House, the Secretary of State and Congress.

"The United States and its allies must insist again that China allow the Panchen Lama to meet freely with independent international observers," said Felice Gaer.

She expressed her hope that the international community will use the opportunity of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to shine a spotlight on China's human rights record.

Exiled Tibetans marked the birthday by participating in what they called a "Run for the Panchen Lama" in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in Dharmsala since he fled Tibet in 1959, following an unsuccessful uprising against Chinese rule.