“I knew that by committing suicide the issue would die with me”

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Niece of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche follows in her uncles footsteps in the struggle for Tibet

Nyima Lhamo was still a teenager when she saw her uncle Tenzin Delek Rinpoche for the last time alive. With his arrest and conviction for alleged bomb attacks in 2002 her carefree youth ended abruptly. Through first hand experiences, she felt the weight of the Chinese occupation of Tibet on her shoulders. During the years of Tenzin Delek’s incarceration her family became victim of constant interrogation and harassment. More than a decade later Nyima Lhamo – now 26 years old – was brutally confronted with the suspicious death of her beloved uncle.  She decided to flee Tibet in order to tell the truth about his demise, leaving her daughter of six and family behind. We arranged a meeting with this courageous young woman and listened to her story. A story so fresh in her memory that her tears didn’t have a chance to dry yet – but that never the less needs to be told.

How do you remember your uncle when you were a child?

(Her face brightens) There is one thing that I remember very clearly until this day. During the summer months he visited our house often and sometimes he gave me a rare type of cream to protect my face. Until this day I still smell the aroma of that cream – I called it uncle cream. It brings back very fond memories. But most of the times he brought all sorts of gifts that I wasn’t allowed to touch. Back then I didn’t understand and even felt bad. He always stressed that our family had plenty, while others were in more need for it. Getting older I realised that Rinpoche was known for his philanthropic work in Kham, eastern Tibet. He built a lot of monasteries, clinics and schools and whenever he gave teachings, many people showed up. So I started to wonder why he would be rude to me and not give me those things if so many people came to see him. Over the years it dawned to me he never had any bad intention towards other human beings, even towards the Chinese. He told people to be kind to one another and to help each other.

It must have been quite surreal to hear the verdict of the Chinese court?

Of course. Nobody believed the accusations of the Chinese authorities – neither within the family nor within the community. It would have been understandable if there was any evidence that proved he committed those crimes. However, this wasn’t the case. We weren’t even allowed at his trial. Rinpoche’s uncle made the necessary arrangement in hiring two lawyers from Beijing (dissident and pro-democracy defenders Zhang Sizhi and Li Huigeng; editorial note). Eventually they were not granted to pursue his case and the court provided him with an attorney.

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The moment word got out of his arrest, international support started rallying for his release. Were you aware of this?

Not really but I heard that some organisations were working for his case. As you know there is no free press in Tibet. So it’s only since my escape into exile that I’m getting access to all this information. During the 13 years of his imprisonment my mother could visit him six times.  I was never allowed to see him in prison, although the Chinese law clearly states that family members can visit. Most of the time the visits took place at a secret location, outside the prison itself.

I assume that during these visits the walls had ears and they couldn’t speak freely?

(Sobbing) At certain occasions Rinpoche was able to tell my mother some details of his life in jail. The guards beat him and regularly made fun of him. They laughed that as a reincarnated lama his divine powers could save him from all this suffering. My mother also noticed that he was limping while walking. In spite of his maltreatment he kept on telling my mother not to feel any hatred towards the prison authorities. They were just poor human beings.

At the beginning of July 2015 your mother was summoned to Chengdu. Looking back, did you suspected anything out of the ordinary?

We were having dinner when a call from the Chinese authorities reached us saying we could meet my uncle. Initially there was no reason to be suspicious about the situation because we were constantly appealing to see him. In fact the authorities had promised us a visit every two years. Although my mother did ask if everything was alright with Rinpoche’s health, they assured us that all was just fine and that we should prepare ourselves. The next day my mother and aunt got permission to leave for Chengdu. But instead of an immediate visit the authorities kept on postponing for 10 days. Eventually my mother received the news that Rinpoche had passed away – this was on the 12th July. On the same day my mother called and told me the news. I was in shock and couldn’t believe it.

So you decided to go to Chengdu yourself to figure out what happened?

(Tears are welling up her eyes) After many difficulties, I arrived in Chengdu and, together with my mom and aunt, we started to protest in front of police station. We demanded to see Rinpoche’s body. My mother was hitting her head against the wall – very hard. At first I decided to hang myself with a scarf. During our protest a constant thought of suicide came to mind. But at the same time I knew that by committing suicide the issue would die with me. As we were attracting a lot of attention from passers-by, the policemen, who wanted to avoid this, eventually called us inside. They told us to write down our concerns, as we did. We requested a copy of the death certificate and a full investigation into his death before the cremation would take place. We also stated that if these demands were met, we wouldn’t carry out any further petitions for Rinpoche’s case.

frame6tdlThe authorities claimed Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died of natural causes. Did you receive any proof to substantiate this claim?

No, on the contrary. They never provided any medical records to collaborate this so-called fact. Only hours after we submitted our appeal, local authorities received orders from higher-up that his body must be burned the next day. There were many inconsistencies and to this day I’m convinced he had been poisoned. According to Chinese law the body should be kept for 15 days in order for the family to visit and pay their final respect. This was not the case. Also, the time of his death cited by the authorities kept on changing. First they told us he died at 4 pm, while others said it happened at 2 pm. Neither his body nor his ashes were returned to the family, which is in violation of Chinese law. Finally, prior to his cremation we had a brief moment to see his body. I noticed that his lips were unusually black. At first I thought this was normal because some body parts do get a sort of blueish discolouration after you die. But the monks who washed and prepared his body also noticed that his toe- and fingernails were exceptionally black.

Returning home to Lithang, you and your mother got arrested. On what grounds?

We were detained for 15 or 18 days – I’m not really sure – because we leaked information. I had contacted one of my uncles in exile, Geshe Nyima La, and briefed him on the course of events. I received a phone call from a person who claimed to be a Beijing based journalist and told him about the murder of my uncle. There also was a picture of my mother holding our appeal letter circulating around. In order to get released we were told to sign a document containing three points. Firstly, we couldn’t spread any information concerning Rinpoche’s death. Secondly, we shouldn’t appeal any further on this case. And finally, we weren’t allowed to send any information to the outside world. My mother, who was very sick and even vomited blood, refused bluntly. Even at gunpoint she wouldn’t do so. Eventually we were released without signing anything. Later on we were told that our village leader signed on our behalf.

How was the situation in Lithang after the death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche?

The Chinese authorities continued to discredit and dishonour him by sharing distorted information. They called him a threat to the social stability and a fake lama. Local villagers were not permitted to build a memorial stupa or to offer a traditional butter lamp as is done in honour of the deceased. His belongings, including his money, were confiscated and we were told that everything would be burnt. Protesters were beaten, arrested, again released and afterwards rearrested. I also heard that the authorities might try to manipulate his reincarnation process, as they did in the case of the Panchen Lama.

You decided to escape to India, knowing there will be no way back. What was your drive to take this life-changing decision?

In Tibet there are no means to appeal whatsoever. When I was growing up, I heard that in Western countries you have freedom of speech and people listen to you. So there is still a possibility that justice will prevail. I know it will be difficult for people to commit or to make promises, but it is my duty to speak out. Everybody, Tibetans and Chinese alike, is entitled to basic human rights. I never imagined that China was capable of such acts. Rinpoche was a good and well-respected person. He never committed any crimes and I hoped he would be released. I was proven wrong. So, as his niece, I find it my responsibility to tell the real story – not only that of my uncle, but that of many Tibetans.

If you could say one final thing to your uncle what would it be?

I miss you. (Silence)

Nyima Lhamo, I would like to thank you very much for this interview and your courage. You can count on our support!


Bronnen en achtergrondinformatie:

  1. A special thanks to Ms. Tenzin Sonam, EU-Human Rights Officer, DIIR for translating from Tibetan to English
  2. Text and photo’s © Han Vandenabeele, 2016
  3. Trials of a Tibetan monk: the case of Tenzin Delek – Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/02/08/trials-tibetan-monk/case-tenzin-delek 

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