Russia lists Dalai Lama’s envoy on foreign-agent list after he criticizes Ukraine war

Telo Tulku Rinpoche condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during an October 2022 interview.
By Lobsang Gelek and Yangdon Demo for RFA Tibetan
2023.01.31
Russia lists Dalai Lama’s envoy on foreign-agent list after he criticizes Ukraine war Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and the Dalai Lama’s envoy to Moscow, Telo Tulku Rinpoche (L), visit the Buddhist temple Syakyusn-Syume in Elista, capital of the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia, June 17, in a file photo.
AFP

Russia’s Justice Ministry has included the spiritual head of Russia’s Kalmyk Buddhists and envoy of the Dalai Lama to Russia on a list of foreign agents after he criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The move comes as Moscow cracks down on dissent over the war in Ukraine by using a new law to impose increasing civic restrictions on individuals or entities that publicly oppose the country’s invasion of its neighbor, regardless of their nationality or location.

The Justice Ministry explained its decision, by noting that Telo Tulku Rinpoche “spoke against the Special Military Operation, openly supported Ukraine, is a U.S. citizen, and lives outside of Russia,” according to an online article by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta

In response, Telo Tulku Rinpoche said he was resigning his post as spiritual head of Russia’s Kalmyk Buddhuists and requested that all duties be transferred to Tendzin Choidak, the leader of the religious organization  — called the Kalmyk Central Buddhist Monastery of Geden Sheddup Choi Korling — and administrator Yonten Lodoi. He will retain his title as the Dalai Lama's envoy to Russia, however.

“My name as the head lama of Kalmykia is listed in that statement and not as a representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Russia,” Telo Tulku Rinpoche told Radio Free Asia. “So, as far as the responsibilities as the representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama are concerned, nothing has changed, and we are carrying out our duties as usual.” 

The Kalmyks are a Mongolic ethnic group primarily of Buddhist faith whose ancestors migrated from Dzungaria, a geographical subregion in northwest China that corresponds to the northern half of the present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  

Some Kalmyks, including Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s family, migrated to the United States or to Western European countries, such as France, Germany and the Czech Republic.

The new law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in July 2022 and which took effect in December, broadens the definition of foreign agents to include those who engage in activism or express opinions about Moscow’s policies or the conduct of officials, if authorities can indicate they are “under foreign influence.”  

Among those included on the foreign-agent registry are Russian journalists, popular singers, religious figures and human rights activists.

Russian authorities have detained many people listed on the registry, while others have fled the country or have remained inside but live as fugitives, said Telo Tulku Rinpoche, who is now in India where he plans to stay for the time being. 

“I am sure if I return to Russia, I will be prosecuted and detained for at least 10 to 15 years,” he told RFA.

Following his inclusion on the registry, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, whose given name is Erdne Ombadykow, stepped down as Supreme Lama of Kalmykia, a position he has held since 1992, serving as spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists in the region on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. 

Moscow added Telo Tulku Rinpoche to the list after he said during an interview in October 2022 on the YouTube channel “Alchemy of the Soul” that Russia’s war against Ukraine was wrong and that the Ukrainians had the right to defend country.

“It is the people of Ukraine’s rightful sovereignty and human rights to protect their freedom and country and also fight back against Russia,” Telo Tulku Rinpoche told RFA. “I said this loud and clear to an online media interview earlier in October, so this is the reaction of the Russian government.” 

Telo Tulku Rinpoche went on to say that his U.S. citizenship, the current tense relationship between the U.S. and Russia over the war, and the fact that he is a public and influential figure in Russia may have been other reasons for his listing on the registry. 

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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