For some reason the latest of many stories I keep up with from Tibet, where I have travelled, prompts me to share it with you. Maybe it’s the contrast with the case of wrongfully convicted Steven Avery, the subject of ‘Making a Murderer’ (did you hear that Brendan Dassey’s conviction has just been overturned?). Maybe it’s that I too have a 6-ish year old, whose school is forever receiving delegations of kids from China who, and their parents before them, have likely been fed exclusively propaganda about Tibet which they no doubt consider to be a fractious and backward, quaintly religious outpost of neo-feudalists, a wild west. Maybe it’s the people smuggler angle. Maybe it’s the amazement at finding a story which causes the Don Dale saga to pale into comparative insignificance. Maybe it’s a frustration with the self-censorship about China which is so pervasive, and the near-complete control by the Communist Party of China of even Australian media (Chinese language media, to be precise). Maybe it’s that this case has been thoroughly investigated by New York’s Human Rights Watch, whom I trust absolutely, and whose 108 page report forms the basis of much of what follows.
Who knows? But here goes with the short version (I’m going to assume the Tibetans’ suspicions are correct, which seems fair to me, given the Chinese authorities’ lack of enthusiasm for sharing and enthusiasm for repeatedly cremating details of the case). The Chinese framed one of the most senior supporters of the Dalai Lama still in Tibet, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, himself a venerated lama with a philanthropic flair. They charged him with financing a terrorist bombing, sentenced him to death in a mockery of a trial along with a co-accused whom they probably procured to implicate Tenzin Delek by torturing him. Delek’s, but not the co-accused’s, sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
The Chinese tortured Delek for 13 years, beating him, starving him, throwing boiling or freezing water over him, all the while sarcastically suggesting he use some of his magic lama powers. They hurriedly cremated him inside the prison without an autopsy after his death in jail, locked his grieving sister and her daughter up without charge for weeks and released them only after trying to have them promise they would not publicly suggest he was poisoned, and harassed or detained 60-80 supporters at around the same time 100 human rights lawyers and activists were thrown into jail. All of which prompted the super-cool looking niece Nyima Lhamo, pictured, to pay people smugglers $10,000 to trudge her across the Himalaya to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s place of exile in the Indian Himalayas, to tell the story, leaving to the depravities of infuriated Chinese officials her ailing mother and 6 year old daughter.
And guess what? Since I started this post, news has reached me that the mother and daughter have gone missing after being detained by Chinese police. And news has also come to my attention of the propaganda video with a purported confession of a prominent lawyer arrested in the 2015 arrests. As the Washington Post put it, ‘Wang rips apart her entire career of human rights law. Speaking in mellifluous tones while sitting underneath a tree, she denounces her former colleagues and refuses to accept a prestigious human rights prize awarded to her by the American Bar Association.’ The op ed explains how this is achieved: ‘… the authorities might move to physical torture, including chaining detainees to a “tiger bench” in excruciating positions for days and sometimes weeks, applying electric shocks to their genitals, jolting and beating them with electric police batons, or placing them in long solitary confinement, to name a few. Some activists have been so traumatized as to be unable to speak after being released from detention …’.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a charismatic Buddhist leader in Tibet. Between 1982 and 1987 he studied with the Dalai Lama in India. The Dalai Lama recognised him as a reincarnated lama. Now I can tell you, the Tibetans take the Dalai Lama and other reincarnated lamas very seriously. Back in Tibet, Delek worked creating orphanages, clinics, schools and monasteries. The Chinese were upset by his support of that old ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and ‘dangerous splittist’, his old teacher. If you’re a Tibetan monk in a monastery in Tibet, you are liable to be forced by Chinese work teams to engage in ‘patriotic re-education’ which involves denouncing the Dalai Lama. The fate of monks who refuse to denounce the Dalai Lama to godless communist cadres is revealed by this article about another death, on Wednesday.
In 2002, some people were injured by a bomb in Chengdu, the Chinese gateway to Tibet. A handwritten pamphlet advocating the re-instatement of Tibetan independence fluttered in the breeze of the aftermath. There are conflicting reports about a series of bombings over many years of which this was said to be the culmination, but nothing to link them apart from confessions. Police raided Delek’s monastery in the middle of the night and snatched him and others away, violently, leaving trails of blood. They closed the monastery. Delek was held incommunicado for 8 months, throughout his trial and appeal. He was tried for terrorism on 29 November 2002, a patently absurd charge for a key supporter of the world’s most prominent living proponent of non-violence. The court met secretly but worked with astonishing efficiency.
Delek was not allowed his choice of lawyer, though top lawyers were prepared to represent him. The relative who tried to facilitate their representation was interrogated and warned not to ‘interfere’. The Chinese have refused to disclose any of the evidence against Delek, including any details of the co-accused’s confession. State security, you know. Operational matters. Nothing like a Buddhist monk to threaten the power of the Chinese State. Not much scope there for independent film makers to swan in with Harvard innocence project interns and do a Chinese version of ‘Making a Murderer‘, or for Sarah Koenig doing a Season 3 of ‘Serial‘, even if they were prepared to risk life in a Chinese work camp in order to make it. Not even the possibility of Helen Garner sitting through the trial and writing a book about it. (Great article about this new documentary form here.) And a big fat leak doesn’t look too likely either.
Three days after his trial commenced, he was sentenced to death, along with his alleged associate, Lobsang Dondrup. Dondrup apparently refused to appeal, perhaps not wanting to dignify the sordidness of the ghastly twilight of his impoverished life with further baubles of due process, but the Chinese may have appointed lawyers and appealed for him, which is bizarre. Both men’s appeals were disposed of by Australia Day 2003. And then, Bang! Dondrup was within hours executed without further ado, quite likely shot in the back of the head at point blank range with a high calibre bullet, nevertheless probably having been afforded a last meal of his choice just to show that the Chinese conducting the occupation of Tibet are not entirely barbarian. Ridiculously, the Chinese later assured the Americans that the Supreme Court of China had reviewed the case (no representation or argument, and not in Dondrup’s presence of course), as required by law, presumably in the hours between appeal orders and the poor fellow’s head being being blown off by the barrel of a gun, though there are some reports which suggest the State did not bother awaiting the verdict, exploding his brains hours before the decision.
It is suspected that the Chinese tortured Dondrup and obtained a false confession implicating Delek, to whom he was distantly related and at whose monastery he had for a time been an acolyte before throwing in the towel. Dondrup was an illiterate, un-educated, desperately poor single childless young man from a remote place with few connections. No English, no internet, no electricity, no road, very likely little knowledge of the next but one village, no gun. Both men maintained their innocence, and Dondrup was brave enough to recant or deny his confession.
Delek’s supporters — 60 to 80 of them — were rounded up, detained and interrogated following his arrest. Three monks ‘served one-year reeducation through labor sentences administratively imposed by the Ganzi Prefecture Reeducation Through Labor Bureau’ for speaking about restoring independence for Tibet following China’s illegal invasion and occupation. This in 2002! Two local residents were incarcerated and bashed for attempting to raise funds for Delek’s appeal. One old man was thrown into a dungeon and said to have been left in the dark, without heating (in case you’re in any doubt, I can tell you, it’s ball-breakingly cold in Tibet), and was released babbling incoherently, a different man, utterly enfeebled by his incarceration and whatever were its sick-puppy characteristics.
Human Rights Watch’s report concludes:
‘At no time during the legal proceedings did the Sichuan judiciary and local Kardze Tibet Autonomous Prefecture courts act independently. At no time was evidence–instead of official reiterations of the charges against all the defendants––made public. The trial was not open to the public or observers. There was no presumption of innocence, no independent counsel, no meaningful appeal process. Because both Tenzin Delek and Lobsang Dondrup were held incommunicado, there is no way of knowing whether they had access to meaningful legal counsel at any time during the trial and appeals process. With information obtained under torture still regularly introduced as evidence in China, suspicions that “confessions” were coerced and then entered into evidence remain plausible.
The account of how officials responded to Tenzin Delek’s religious and social activities in the years preceding his arrest appears to exemplify more widespread efforts on the part of the Chinese leadership to undermine religious leadership in all Tibetan areas. Until 1995, no senior Tibetan lamas had been accused of political dissent. In some respects, the Kardze TAP, where monastic influence remained strong during the post-Cultural Revolution period and into the 1990s, was late to experience a crackdown; the events documented here strongly suggest that it is in the midst of one. It would not be surprising in coming months and years if government officials targeted other influential religious leaders in western Sichuan. Monastic leaders who still refuse to renounce the Dalai Lama, refuse to curb efforts to expand their Buddhist communities, and continue to fill social and cultural communal needs, might yet be targeted for “patriotic education.”‘
Man, I’m so glad there is little prospect of me being forced to engage in patriotic re-education. All this is old news though. The new news is Delek’s death and its sequelae.
Delek died in prison on 12 July 2015 and had been reduced to ashes by the Chinese by the 16th. The day after the news emerged, 1000 super-brave Tibetans gathered peacefully to protest and demand the return of his ashes. The police fired shots into the air, beat the protesters up, and tear-gassed them. 23 were hospitalised.
Delek’s sister and her daughter were allowed briefly to see the body only for a couple of minutes, covered to the neck, watched over by policemen. That concession was made only after the niece tied one of those white scarves the Dalai Lama gives to wide-eyed Westerners to the fence of the prison and tried to hang herself, and her mother bashed her head against the wall.
Nyima Lhamo’s mother had actually arrived at the prison long before Delek’s death, advised all of a sudden that they could visit him. As the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reports it:
‘On 2 July 2015, [Delek’s] sister Dolkar Lhamo (Nyima’s mother) and one of Nyima’s aunts immediately left for Chengdu after being informed that they could visit Rinpoche. But the prison authorities kept postponing the visit for 10 days. At around 10 pm on 12 July, they were informed of Rinpoche’s death. Relatives of Rinpoche met him last in November 2013. Prison authorities had rejected requests for another visit throughout 2014 without explanation. Since his imprisonment in 2002, Rinpoche’s relatives were only allowed seven prison visits, each lasting approximately 30 minutes under the close supervision of prison guards.’
Lhamo and her mother noticed that his lips were black. Monks who had dressed the body told them his toenails and fingernails were too. There was a hollowness to the back of his head. Does not sound like a good death, whatever the true circumstances.
The godless Communists kept the ashes, to the immense distress of family and followers. Some dumbo actually let the ashes out of the jail and the stipes had to send a squadron in the night out into the countryside to wrestle them back into custody. The scene doesn’t bear thinking about.
Lhamo was telling people who enquired that her uncle had been murdered by the Chinese. Chinese police escorted 300 protesters who had turned up at the jail back to their homes and detained Lhamo and her mother for 18 days without trial or explanation. Lhamo’s mother was unwell, vomiting blood. The Communist media itself was also unwell, vomiting denunciations of the ‘fake lama and criminal’. The government turned off the internet for a couple of months in the local area. The Chinese respectfully requested their two captives to sign a little promise not to speak about Tenzin Delek, not to join gatherings to speak about his death, and definitely not to suggest to anyone that he had been poisoned. Lhamo’s mother told them she wouldn’t sign it if they put a gun to her head which suggests to me that spunk runs in the family. The Chinese released them anyway, explaining that the village leader had signed the little promises as their agent, and they would do well to do what he said henceforth.
Instead, Lhamo paid a people smuggler $10,000 and entered India without a visa where she was not turned back, not given a number and exported to a tented camp in the permafrost of Turkmenistan, not vilified as an illegal, and it was not suggested that her mother had been vomiting blood in order to get to Australia. Rather, she was taken to a guest house for the reception of new refugees, where she promptly held a press conference to allege that her uncle had been poisoned.
(A couple of thousand Tibetans used to cross the Himalayas to seek refuge in India a year. That’s all changed. China’s got all ‘We will choose who leaves these shores and the circumstances under which they leave’ again and only a couple of hundred people succeed in making the risky journey annually.)
To Lhamo, I say: go girl! Of course I do not mean to be flippant. The woman has made a choice between speaking truth to power and her mother and daughter which I cannot possibly contemplate.
I’m not holding my breath for the Hollywood version of this terrible and yet amazing story, which all sounds on the one hand so last-century, so Soviet Russia, so Kampuchea, so characterised by gross oppression and such comically dreadful propaganda. Nor do I have any confidence that Australia will join England and the USA in expressing their concern about these developments.
You can see an interview with Lhamo here, but it will be most informative if your Tibetan is fairly fluent.