Tibetans Defy Crackdown to Honor Monk Who Died in Police Custody

tenzindelek-305.jpg A photo of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche taken by his monastery in Tibet in the 1990s.
Photo appears courtesy of Wikipedia

Residents of Tibetan-populated areas of China’s Sichuan province over the weekend marked the passing of a popular Tibetan monk who died in July under unexplained circumstances in a Chinese prison, despite a crackdown on discussion of the incident.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, died on July 12 in the 13th year of a life sentence imposed for what rights groups and supporters have described as a wrongful conviction on a bombing charge. He was widely respected among Tibetans for his efforts to protect Tibetan culture and the environment.

In recent weeks, authorities in Rinpoche’s Nyagchuka (in Chinese, Yajiang) county in the Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture have ordered residents to stop discussing the circumstances surrounding his death, and had deployed security personnel and restricted communications there.

But despite the clampdown, Tibetans in Nyagchuka, as well as in Kardze’s Lithang (in Chinese, Litang) and Bathang (in Chinese, Batang) counties, held prayer ceremonies and celebrated the life of Rinpoche Sunday to mark the seventh week of his passing, sources told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

“In Lithang, Bathang and Nyagchuka, the local Tibetans invited the portrait of [exiled spiritual leader] His Holiness the Dalai Lama into the monasteries and conducted extensive prayer services on the 49th day after the death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche,” said Tenzin Sangpo, a Tibetan based in Sichuan who helped organize the events.

“During the Rukyil festival in Lithang, Tibetans gather for annual horse races and indulge in celebrations. But this year, the festival coincided with 49th day after the death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, so the Tibetans mourned and prayed for him, abandoning the festivities.”

Sangpo said that in another area of Lithang, lamas and monks traditionally holding religious events followed by horse races to mark the seventh Tibetan lunar month “also abandoned the festivities and devoted prayers” for Rinpoche.

“In many monasteries in Nyagchuka too, many Tibetans mourned and prayed for Rinpoche, while in Bathang, where many monks in several monasteries had never even met Rinpoche, they organized similar events,” he said.

Sangpo noted that in Nyagchuka, monasteries conducted continuous prayer ceremonies for Rinpoche, “despite official restrictions.”

“Rinpoche’s work helping others has really been recognized by the members of the community, who came out to express their support for him,” he said.

Respected monk

Recognized by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnated lama in the 1980s, Rinpoche had been a community leader and a staunch advocate for the protection and preservation of Tibetan culture, religion, and way of life for decades, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) had said.

Rinpoche was charged with involvement in an April 3, 2002 bombing in the central square of Chengdu and initially sentenced to death in December that year along with an assistant, Lobsang Dondrub.

His death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, but Lobsang Dondrub was executed almost immediately, prompting an outcry from rights activists who questioned the fairness of the trial.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, authorities had begun to perceive Rinpoche as a threat as his “local status rose and he successfully challenged official policies on a number of issues.”

In July this year, Chinese police informed his relatives that he was seriously ill, but when they rushed to visit him, they were told he was already dead, sources told RFA at the time. Despite protests from his family, prison authorities cremated Rinpoche’s remains on July 16.

Following his death, authorities began conducting political re-education activities in Nyagchuka and instructing residents not to talk about it, sources said, adding that young men in the county had been “forced to engage in military training and exercises” or risk detention.

In mid-August, sources told RFA that “a large contingent of security forces” had been deployed to the area and had surrounded Rinpoche’s Kham Nalanda Thekchen Jangchub Choling monastery, requiring special permission from residents to go near the site.

It was unclear whether authorities attempted to interfere with weekend events honoring the late monk.

Reported by Kunsang Tenzin and Lumbum Tashi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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