Tibetan exiles held demonstrations in front of Chinese embassies in several countries Monday to mark the 22nd birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist religious figure whose whereabouts remain unknown after Chinese authorities took him into custody 16 years ago.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was six years old when he was taken into custody in 1995, shortly after Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, recognized him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Since then, the boy and his family have not been seen in public. Tibetan activists are calling for his release.
China has said several times over the years that the young man is safe and in Tibet, and does not want to be disturbed.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said that China's detention of the Panchen Lama is one of the oldest involuntary disappearance cases in the country.
Tibetan rights groups say Monday's rallies also were to protest what they say is Chinese police crackdown near the Kirti monastery in an ethnically Tibetan area of Sichuan province. The area has seen several protests since last month, when a young monk set himself on fire to protest Beijing's Tibet policies. Activists say at least two Tibetans have died since then after being beaten by the police.
China's Communist Party government says conditions around the monastery are normal, but foreign journalists are rarely allowed to enter Tibetan areas, so the situation can not be independently verified.
The crackdown at the Kirti monastery comes as China increasingly suppresses dissent. Security officials have detained scores of rights activists, lawyers, writers and artists in recent months. Political analysts say the government wants to make sure the so-called Jasmine Revolution sweeping the Middle East this year does spread to China and lead to efforts to oust the government.
Beijing says the Dalai Lama is seeking to create an independent Tibet, and in 1995 Chinese authorities named their own Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, to counter the Dalai Lama's influence. Gyaltsen Norbu has been made a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, one of the country's highest political bodies.
Most exiled Tibetans do not recognize him. Many Tibetans are angry about Chinese rule and what they say are Beijing's efforts to suppress their traditions and religion. In 2008, Tibet was rocked by violent protests, and the government ramped up security in the region.
China has repeatedly denied any discrimination and points to laws it says help ethnic minorities, such as allowing families to have more than one child. Beijing also says its development projects have improved Tibetan living standards in recent decades.