The life of Choekyi Gyaltsen, the Tenth Panchen Lama (1938–89), was a tragic one. Identified without approval from Lhasa by the Nationalist authorities in 1949, he fell into Communist hands and was for years China’s highest-profile Tibetan collaborator. In 1959, however, his role changed when he openly referred to the Dalai Lama as the true ruler of Tibet. Ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama, Gyaltsen refused and was barred from speaking in public until 1964, when, to an audience of ten thousand people, he again proclaimed support for the exiled leader. He spent the following fourteen years in jail. Released in 1978, Gyaltsen never again criticized the Chinese in public, arguing for the protection of Tibetan culture at all costs, even if it meant abandoning independence. Some saw him as a sellout; others still worship him as a hero. He died in 1989, officially from a heart attack, though rumours of poisoning persist.

The search for a successor was always likely to be fraught, with the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government both claiming authority to choose the next incarnation. The search was initially led according to tradition by checking on reports of “unusual” children, and in January 1995 the Dalai Lama identified the Eleventh Panchen Lama but – concerned for the child’s safety – delayed a public announcement. The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, decreed selection should take place by drawing of lots from a golden urn.

In May, the Dalai Lama publicly identified his choice, and within days the boy and his family had disappeared. Fifty Communist Party officials moved into Tashilunpo to root out monks loyal to the Dalai Lama and his choice of Panchen Lama. In July, riot police quelled an open revolt by the monks, but by the end of 1995 dissent was suppressed enough for the drawing of lots to take place. The lucky winner, Gyaincain Norbu, was enthroned at Tashilunpo and taken to Beijing for publicity appearances, where he has since stayed to complete his studies. Two decades later, the fate of the Dalai Lama’s choice and his family remains unknown, though Beijing claims they are free and voluntarily opting to remain anonymous.

As for Gyaincain Norbu, despite Beijing’s best efforts, his returns home are lacklustre affairs, and it is overwhelmingly his predecessor, the rotund Choekyi Gyaltsen, who you’ll see smiling beatifically down from Tibetan living-room walls.

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