Authorities in western China’s Sichuan province last year seized a life-size statue of a revered Tibetan religious leader that was being taken into Tibet and arrested those involved in the statue’s manufacture and transport, RFA has learned.
The statue of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in 2015 in a Chinese prison under mysterious circumstances, was commissioned by the late monk’s students and was built by artists in Shenzhen, China, said Tenzin Yarphel, one of Tenzin Delek’s students now living in Europe.
“The initial plan was to bring Rinpoche’s statue to India, but there were too many restrictions against sending it there, so it had to be brought to Tibet and hidden away until the right opportunity to move it arose,” Yarphel said.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s statue was seized in June 2021 by police in Dartsedo in Sichuan’s Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture while being taken to Lithang, the religious leader’s home county, Yarphel said.
A Tibetan man named Kalsang Tsering who had arranged to pick up the statue and bring it to Lithang was then taken into custody along with an assistant, Yarphel said.
“There was no information about their whereabouts or well-being for a long time, so Tibetans living in the region began to distribute flyers asking for information about them. However, the Chinese police later said that both were in their custody.”
The two men were interrogated and beaten for about 20 days and ordered to avoid any contact with Rinpoche’s family in Lithang, Yarphel said. “And they were forced to promise not to involve themselves with any activity like this again in the future.”
Another Tibetan and a Chinese man who had brought the statue to Dartsedo were also taken into custody and held for almost 20 days, Yarphel said. “And Chinese authorities also arrested the Tibetan man who had first arranged for the statue’s construction in Shenzhen, releasing him after almost a month.”
Police in Lithang later stormed the house of Rinpoche’s younger sister Dolkar Lhamo, said a source living in Tibet.
“About 20 Public Security Bureau officers came in September to ransack the family shrine,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They took away all the photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other relics. They even took away a picture of Nyima Lhamo, Rinpoche’s niece who now lives in New York,” he said.
Dolkar Lhamo and two other family members were then detained for about 18 days and were beaten and tortured under questioning about the statue before being released, he said.
Family threatened by police
Nyima Lhamo told RFA that she is now unable to contact her family in Lithang.
“During my last conversation with my mother, Dolkar Lhamo, she asked me not to get in touch with her anymore as she had been threatened with severe consequences by the Chinese police if she talked with me,” she said.
“I would like to ask all human rights defenders and the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues to take up my family’s case with the Chinese authorities to safeguard their freedom of movement and freedom of speech.
“I would especially like to request the U.S. special coordinator to help my mother visit me here so she can get proper medical treatment in the United States,” she said.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, died in prison in Sichuan on July 12, 2015, 13 years into a 22-year sentence following what rights groups and supporters called a wrongful conviction on a charge of bombing a public square in Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu in April 2002.
Widely respected among Tibetans for his efforts to protect Tibetan culture and the environment, he was initially sentenced to death, but his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. An assistant, Lobsang Dondrub, was executed almost immediately, prompting an outcry from rights activists who questioned the fairness of the trial.
Chinese authorities are now banning public discussions of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche seven years after his death, removing him from official religious histories and shutting down an online chat group devoted to his memory, Tibetan sources say.
Translated by Dorjee Damdul and Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.