Tibetan Monk Dies in Prison, and a Thousand Tibetans Take to the Streets

Having launched a massive ‘counter-terrorism’ campaign against Tibetans, the Chinese military is now confronting the backlash.

The Dalai Lama is the world’s greatest terrorist.

So says the government of China, which in the last year has rebranded its 56-year repression of Tibet as a “counter-terrorism” campaign. Linking Tibetans with the Uighurs, the Muslim minority in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, China’s new campaign, launched in May 2014, has led to a new wave of imprisonment, suppression, and silencing of Tibetan cultural voices.

The campaign may have hit a turning point this week, in the wake of the death last week of Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, in a Chinese jail. Tenzin Delek had served 12 years of a 20-year sentence for allegedly participating in a 2002 bomb attack. His trial was secret, however, with no evidence presented to the public, and he had steadfastly maintained his innocence.

Matteo Mecacci, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, told The Daily Beast that the news of his death in prison was “shocking” and is “a strong message to governments and international institutions of China’s intransigence.”

Adding insult to fatal injury, Chinese authorities have refused to release Rinpoche’s body, and have instead cremated it at a remote location. The act has been met with outrage.

Over 1,000 Tibetans marched in Sichuan province, where Delek had been imprisoned, to protest, until they were dispersed by gunfire and tear gas from Chinese police. Two dozen protesters were hospitalized.

Although the U.S. and European countries have called for Tenzin Delek’s body to be released, there is speculation that the Chinese authorities have refused to do so because it would reveal his mistreatment in prison, and perhaps the cause of his death.

Said Mecacci, “The refusal of the authorities to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body to his family and monastery, and the violence with which the authorities responded to that request, is deeply disturbing.”

The current unrest is a flashpoint of long-simmering tensions amid increasing crackdowns by China, which has occupied Tibet since 1959, shuttered hundreds of monasteries, transferred millions of Han Chinese into Tibet, and killed an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans.

According to report released last week by Human Rights Watch, China has effectively halted issuing passports to Tibetans (and Uighurs) and has greatly reduced their domestic travel as well. Chinese documents obtained by HRW show that the policy was implemented to prevent Tibetans and Uighurs from participating in religious pilgrimages to the Dalai Lama in India, or to Mecca.

And according to another report, released last month by the International Campaign for Tibet, China has stifled Tibetan cultural voices, imprisoning bloggers and pop singers for their “criminal” activities. The baby-faced and Bieber-coiffed singer Thinley Tsekar, for example, is serving a nine-year prison term on the basis of a single DVD.

The current wave of crackdowns really began in 2008, when China clamped down on Tibet in advance of the Olympics. The Olympics have never ended for Tibet: repressive measures said to be temporary have now been the law of the land for seven years.

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But the newest phase of repression really began in May 2014, when the Chinese “counter-terrorism” campaign began after Uigher-led violence in Xinjiang. Lumping together supporters of the Dalai Lama and oppressed Muslims of Turkish heritage with Islamic fundamentalists, Chinese authorities implemented an array of “counter-terrorism” measures, including heightened military monitoring, the training of police inside of Tibetan monasteries, and labeling the Dalai Lama’s spiritual teachings (which fill the New Age section of many American bookstores) as “incitements to hatred.”

Remarkably, even Tibetans’ shocking protest of choice—self-immolations—have been labeled as “terrorism” as well, although of course the only victim is the protester him- or herself. Since 2011, 111 Tibetans have burned themselves to death.

Labeling political opponents as terrorists is not new, of course. Russia has done it for many years, as has the Assad regime in Syria—and, some would say, the United States as well.

But associating nonviolent Tibetan political and cultural expression—blog posts, religious observances, songs—with “violent terrorism, religious extremism, and criminal activity” (in the words of one Chinese memo) is a canny bit of public relations by the Chinese regime. More substantively, it also has the effect of transferring primary responsibility for the Tibetan occupation from the police forces to the military, which answers directly to Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Of course, it is also counterfactual, since a photo of the Dalai Lama is not really the same as a bomb, and there have, in fact, been no instances of what we usually understand as “terrorism” in Tibet for many years. But that doesn’t seem to matter. After all, no one has ever been held accountable for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

In fact, the situation is about to get worse. China’s new National Security Law, which is expected to pass soon, further centralizes power with the CCP, while allowing military rulers wide discretion in cracking down on dissent. It also specifically calls out “the exploitation of religion,” and allows a wide range of “extra-judicial measures” to deal with it. Flying a flag, or lighting a candle, would provide ample pretext for arrest, torture, and execution.

Since 2008, Tibetan activists have been warning that the Chinese crackdowns are creating a tinderbox of resentment in Tibet, particularly among younger Tibetans who quietly disdain the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent approach as passive and ineffective. This is especially true given the toothless pronouncements of Western politicians who praise the Dalai Lama as a cuddly Buddhist leader but carefully avoid offending the Chinese leadership too much.

Case in point: After Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death, the United States and others called for China to release his body for a proper funeral and burial. It’s a seemingly anodyne request, but even it will almost certainly not be backed up by action. After all, the U.S. had called for him to be released (for health reasons) for years, and no one took that request seriously either. U.S.-China relations are just too fragile, complex, and important.

That’s understandable on paper, to a comfortable Westerner free to practice Tibetan Buddhism (as many do) protected by the rule of law. But with a revered religious leader dead in prison, and thousands taking to the streets, one wonders how long the patience of young Tibetans will hold out—and how many will die when it expires.