Copyright © 2019 Senator Dennis Patterson.

Speech – State of Political Prisoners in Tibet

State of Political Prisoners in Tibet

Inquiry—Debate Concluded

November 23, 2017

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Patterson, calling the attention of the Senate to the state of political prisoners in Tibet.

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to my inquiry on the state of political prisoners in Tibet.

As you know, it’s our privilege as senators to meet with delegations from time to time. Last June I met with a delegation of Tibetans in Canada from the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto and Students for a Free Tibet. They were escorted by my friend, former Senate colleague and champion of human rights in Tibet, Con Di Nino.

I was moved by the stories told by these young Tibetans of cultural and religious repression being suffered by Tibetans by under the Chinese majority in that province, how the Tibetan language has been removed from school classrooms since 2000 and how Tibetans cannot gain employment unless they speak, read and write Mandarin. They told me how difficult the process has become for obtaining visas and how that has reduced tourism, which had been a source of income and reinforcing cultural values for Tibetans. They said that Tibetan nomadic yak herding people have been removed from their ancestral lands and housed in concrete ghetto-style housing, and that this drastic change in living circumstances has led to suicide, alcoholism and prostitution.

I have seen examples of this with my own eyes in neighbouring Qinghai Province, where I participated in an exchange with Northern Canadians in 2008. We shared with Chinese authorities there that our experience in Canada of dispossessing Native people of their traditional lands and lifestyles and repressing Native languages has had dire intergenerational consequences for many.

These stories resonated with me, since I represent a region which is striving to preserve and enhance the first language of the vast majority of its citizens, Inuktitut. In a region where, even with the protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a benevolent federal government, it is an ongoing struggle for Inuit to preserve their language and culture, and negative health and social indicators still greatly exceed the norms elsewhere in our country.

These young Tibetans told me that in their opinion, the Chinese Han majority are anxious to control and exploit Tibet’s rich natural resources, its water, gold, copper and zinc, and are fearful of the return of their revered spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, lest he leads them to a revolution.

But they told me that the Dalai Lama, who was recognized by Canada as an honorary citizen, is only wanting to restart a dialogue with the Chinese government toward making Tibet a truly autonomous province as provided for in the Chinese Constitution. This is known as the Middle-Way Approach, which seeks to find a peaceful solution to these issues within the confines of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. They emphasized that Tibetan culture and Buddhist religion is based on peace and compassion.

This position was reiterated by the president of Tibet’s government in exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who visited Ottawa earlier this week. Dr. Sangay, who holds a doctorate in law from Harvard University, maintains that the most prudent course of action is to seek recognition as a genuinely autonomous region in China that has full control over important portfolios such as education, language and other tools of cultural preservation.

They encouraged me to initiate this inquiry to shine a light on the situation of Tibetans as repressed peoples in their homelands and suggested that a focus on the active suppression of basic rights and freedoms in Tibet can best be expressed by telling the stories of political prisoners: those who, in many cases, have dared to advocate for human rights and have paid a terrible price for doing so.

Today I wish to tell the story of one prisoner I consider a political prisoner.


In Tibetan culture, the Panchen Lama is a great spiritual adviser who is second only to the Dalai Lama. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama would hold control over the Tsang region, which is independent of the Ganden Podrang authority led by the Dalai Lama.

On May 15, 1995, the Dalai Lama announced that six-year-old Gendhun Choekyi Nyima had been recognized as the eleventh Panchen Lama. The Government of China rejected the Dalai Lama’s statement as “illegal and invalid,” and on May 17, 1995, authorities abducted the child and his family. Later, Chinese authorities installed Gyaincain Norbu as the Panchen Lama instead. Neither Gendhun Nyima nor his parents have been seen or heard from since.

In May of 1996, China acknowledged it was holding Gendhun Choekyi Nyima and his family at a secret location. China’s ambassador to the UN claimed that “(Gendhun) has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents.” It was confirmed again in September 1996, when delegates of the Chinese “Ethnic Affairs Commission” in Montreal responded to inquiries on the subject that Gendhun Nyima was “healthy and studying to become a monk” under the protection of Chinese authorities.

In February 1998, American clerics visiting Tibet were told that Gendhun Choekyi Nyima was in Beijing, but in March 1998 the vice governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Yang Chuantang, told Austrian delegates that he was actually living in Lhari, the place of his birth. In April 1998, a third location was put forward when a British journalist was told that the child was studying, possibly in Gansu Province.

In 2000, during a session of the EU-China bilateral human rights dialogue, European Union and British officials were shown two photographs of a young boy whom Chinese delegates said was the Panchen Lama. However, forensic analysis later confirmed that the photographs were not of Gendhun Choekyi Nyima.

In August 2001, Chinese authorities promised photographs to a Polish delegation visiting Tibet, but the delegation was later told that the boy was “far away” from Lhasa and so the pictures could not be obtained immediately. They were never produced.

In October 2001, an Australian delegation was told that the parents of Gendhun Choekyi Nyima were insisting that no foreign delegations be allowed to meet with him.

In a statement made on September 6, 2015, Chinese officials again acknowledged that the Panchen Lama, now 26 years old, was living under China’s control. “The reincarnated child Panchen Lama you mentioned is being educated, living a normal life, growing up healthily and does not wish to be disturbed,” said Norbu Dunzhub, a member of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s United Front Work Department.

UN special procedures have raised this case in numerous examples without result. Most recently, on September 27, 2013, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child inquired about the location of the Panchen Lama during China’s periodic review. China refused to respond to the question which pursued a 2005 query regarding the Panchen Lama’s education while in detention.

Honourable senators, I am concerned and disturbed to learn that a child was abducted by the state and that his whereabouts and current condition remain unknown.

In closing, honourable senators, I do hope that this inquiry will serve, as our government reaches out to engage with China, to emphasize that in doing so we must also reinforce and advocate for the basic human rights and freedoms that we cherish and protect in Canada.

I look forward to the participation of other honourable senators in this inquiry and the sharing of their experiences and viewpoints.