Agence France Presse

Beijing, May 27:

China today said a boy picked by the Dalai Lama as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism and missing since 1995 was free, but refused to reveal his whereabouts.

In a rare comment about the boy chosen to be the next Panchen Lama — and since dubbed the world’s youngest political prisoner by rights groups — the State Council, or China’s cabinet, told AFP he was leading a happy life.

“The boy is not the Panchen Lama reincarnated soul boy,” the State Council said in response to questions as to the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has not been seen since he was put under house arrest by China as a six-year-old.

“He is only an ordinary Chinese child, the same as other children.

“His health condition is good and he is living a normal and happy life and receiving a good education. He is now a student and studies well.”

Asked whether he was being held against his will, the State Council said: “As the reply said, he is studying which means he is free.

“His parents don’t want to disclose where he is for his sake, so that the normal life for him and his parents is not disturbed.”

The boy was chosen in 1995 according to ancient tradition by the exiled Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the former Panchen Lama who died in 1989. Chinese police swiftly seized him, and Beijing selected its own candidate and has since then trumpeted that child’s legitimacy.

The Beijing Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, himself rarely seen, surfaced last week, visiting a sacred Chinese Buddhist temple region.

The Tibetan boy’s disappearance sparked angry scenes in Tibet and even today protests are held by activists across the world demanding to know where he is.

The Panchen Lama, considered a living god, is of great importance in Tibetan Buddhism — and in Chinese-Tibetan relations — because he is charged with leading the search for a reincarnated Dalai Lama.

The State Council defended its removal of the boy, saying the Dalai Lama’s choice was “illegal and invalid”.

“On May 14 1995 the Dalai Lama disregarded the historic tradition and violated religious rights and arbitrarily announced the Panchen Lama reincarnated soul boy,” it said.

“The exiled overseas Tibetan splittists have been making use of this to incite public opinion and attempt to create disorder in Tibet and split the motherland and violate the unity of the nationality.”