Tibetans across the world were devastated by the news of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death in a Chinese prison on July 12 this year.
The news opened fresh wounds for Tibetans who called his death a protracted political murder. Tibetans in Tibet braved gunshot wounds to protest against his death. A series of actions continue to take place across the globe with exile Tibetan activists shutting down numerous Chinese consulates, hanging giant banners in front of Chinese embassies and holding candle-light vigils and rallies — urging an ‘international investigation’ into his death and the release of his family. Global leaders and lawmakers have echoed these demands.
Tenzin Delek, 65, is a Buddhist religious leader and a social worker. He first came under Chinese government’s scrutiny in 1987 when he returned from India after meeting with the Dalai Lama. As a spiritual leader, Tenzin Delek’s influence extended far beyond. But it was his strong advocacy for Tibetan cultural identity and Tibet’s environment that posed serious threat to China’s legitimacy in Tibet. His efforts in conserving Tibet’s environment by speaking against slapdash logging and mining projects, construction of old people’s home and setting up of schools for orphans made him not just a spiritual leader but an environmental advocate, social activist and a visionary.
In 2002, Tenzin Delek was arrested along with his distant relative Lobsang Dhondup on trumped up charges of their alleged involvement in bombings in Chengdu. Dhondup was immediately executed and Tenzin Delek was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. However, following international pressure, in 2005, his sentence was later commuted to life sentence. During the appeal hearing in 2003, he said, “I have neither distributed letters or pamphlets nor planted bombs secretly. I have never even thought of such things.”
Tenzin Delek’s innocence was reinforced when in 2004, Human Rights Watch stated that the legal proceedings against Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had been “procedurally flawed” and he had been charged to “curb his efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism and his work to develop Tibetan social and cultural institutions.”
Tibetans in Tenzin Delek’s home county of Lithang, in eastern Tibet have fearlessly made steadfast efforts to secure his release. In 2009, 40,000 people risking arrests and even death, signed with red ink thumb impression, a petition calling for his release.
While demanding the release of his body, many local Tibetans sustained injuries from gunshot. His sister Dolkar Lhamo made a five-point appeal letter to the Chinese authorities citing a provision in its law that allows families to plea against cremations of prisoners. Lhamo also questioned her suspicion that her brother’s death may not have been natural.
Within a matter of days, the authorities secretly cremated his body in a remote high-security prison facility with the attendance of his family members, who noticed the deceased had black lips and nails — heightening their suspicion surrounding his death.
After his followers were handed over the ashes by prison authorities, the police confiscated the ashes from them at a hotel in Lunding at gunpoint and threatened to throw it in a nearby river. A few days later, his sister and niece went missing.
Months before his death, Tibetans across the globe marked the 13th year of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s imprisonment and demanded that he be released on medical grounds. His family members in Tibet sought medical parole in accordance with the Chinese law, particularly the Prison Law of People’s Republic of China that provides for a ‘commutation from punishment and release on parole’. This effort gained considerable support from the international community, including the U.S. Congressmen Jim McGovern who called on the U.S. State Department to make his release on medical parole a priority. Tibetans were hopeful but this again was short-lived.
Tenzin Delek’s death points to China’s gross violation of the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also reflects on China’s violation of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders stipulating, “sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.”
This sad tragedy also mirrors the failure of the United Nations Human Rights Council, who despite objection from millions of people inducted China – considered to have the worst human rights violation record– into its membership fold in November 2013.
Tenzin Delek’s arbitrary imprisonment and his death under suspicious circumstances illustrate China’s definition of justice pandered to its own premeditated conclusions. His case is strikingly similar to the detention and eventual deaths of two other Tibetan religious leaders – the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989 and Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok in 2004.
The 10th Panchen Lama, a spiritual leader and a strong advocate of Tibetan culture, and author of 70,000-Character Petition, died under mysterious circumstances a few days after his trenchant criticism of China’s policies in a speech at his monastery Tashi Lhunpo in central Tibet. Similarly, Jigme Phuntsok, the head of Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, died unexpectedly at a Chinese military hospital in Chengdu in early 2004.
These prominent Tibetans, who were more than just spiritual masters, played varied roles such as social worker, educator and advocate of Tibetan cultural identity. They were also a binding force that brought unity among Tibetans and mobilized confidence in Tibetans to assert their rights in the face of China’s hardline policies. They hence became targets of China’s increasing surveillance, intimidation that possibly led to their deaths.
China’s rule in Tibet clearly constitutes sentiments of fear, suspicion and frustration, clearly reinforced by their policies of discrimination and oppression that dictates to their moral agencies based on fear, resentment and retaliation.
For 13 years, Tibetans have been vested in the fight for Tenzin Delek’s release. A new generation of Tibetans with unanswered questions stand witness to the most disparaging treatment of a Tibetan hero’s death by the Chinese government.
In these tragic spates of events, what comes to light is China’s persistent fear of Tenzin Delek, even in his death.
China feared Tenzin Delek’s growing influence and they feared him while he was in prison. His life has inspired a generation of Tibetans to continue to struggle for their rights.
China now fears him in his death. They fear realizing that his death has actually emboldened a million others to carry forward his work, legacy and spirit.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is no more, but his mission lives on.
China’s fear remains even after his death.
Contributors: Tenzin Jigdal and Dhardon Sharling
Tenzin Jigdal is the International Coordinator for International Tibet Network, a global coalition of Tibet-related non-governmental organizations.
Dhardon Sharling is a member of Tibetan Parliament in Exile and Co-chair of Steering Committee, International Tibet Network
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