NZ students on hunger strike for Tibet's Panchen Lama

DUNEDIN, New Zealand, April 25 (AFP) -

A group of New Zealand students went on hunger strike Wednesday to publicise the plight of the 12-year-old Panchen Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist leader being held by the Chinese authorities.

The 30 members of Students for a Free Tibet at Dunedin's Otago University launched a 25-hour hunger strike in the hope of drawing attention to the fate of Gedhun Choeki Nyima.

"A lot of people have never heard of Tibet and they don't know the role of the Panchen Lama or Dalai Lama, so this strike is aimed at raising awareness," student activist Peter Begley said.

The group gave out Tibetan hand stamps, painted rocks and collected signatures petitioning the New Zealand government to exert pressure on the Chinese authorities to release the boy.

Wednesday marked the 12th birthday of Gedhun Choeki Nyima, who was recognised aged six in 1995 by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama -- the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

He has been kept incognito ever since by the Chinese authorities, who appointed their own choice for Panchen Lama in his place.

China insists that the boy is studying in school and living with his family, but many Tibetans believe he is at best under house arrest and, at worst, dead.

The Panchen Lama has a crucial role in Tibetan religion -- he is charged with selecting the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

"Without him there is no future for Tibet. That's their religious leadership gone," said the New Zealand campaign co-ordinator, Angela Dempster-Passang.

"We want to raise awareness that a six-year-old boy was such a threat to the Chinese government that they locked him up for half of his life."

The Dunedin protest coincided with Anzac Day, when New Zealand and Australia remember their war dead.

"People went to World War II so there would be no more oppression, and nations wouldn't over-ride and demolish other civilisations," Begley said.

"I think it's good we are doing this today because that's what is happening in Tibet."