World & Nation

Chinese authorities cremate Tibetan lama against family wishes, relative says

Tenzin Delek vigil

Tibetans in Dharamsala, India, participate July 13  in a candlelit vigil to remember Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. Tenzin Delek died in a Chinese prison over the weekend. 

(Ashwini Bhatia / AP)

Supporters of the prominent Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in prison in Chengdu, China, after 12 years of incarceration, said Thursday that authorities had cremated him against their wishes.

Geshe Nyima, a cousin of Tenzin Delek’s who lives in Dharamsala, India, said the monk’s body was cremated around 7 a.m. at a county police facility about three miles from the prison where he had been incarcerated since 2002. Family members had wanted the body released to them to perform the last Buddhist rites in the monk’s hometown, Lithang.

Around 30 immediate family members, students and other monks were allowed inside the facility to see the body before the cremation and perform a short prayer, Geshe Nyima said. No cameras or phones were allowed inside, and all of his belongings were burned. The family and mourning crowd were not permitted to hold on to any personal items, the New York-based advocacy group Students for a Free Tibet said.

Chinese authorities sentenced Tenzin Delek, a respected monk with ties to the Dalai Lama, to death for “crimes of terror and incitement of separatism” in 2002, alleging that he was involved in a bombing at a public park. In 2005, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Sichuan authorities confirmed his death over the weekend, without giving further details. He was 65.


Family members said the body bore no signs of injury, though his fingernails and lips were unusually dark in color, Geshe Nyima said. The ashes were later given to family members, who were en route to his hometown with them late Thursday, he said.

Earlier this week, a group of about 100 people had staged a sit-in outside the prison where Tenzen Delek died in an effort to recover his body, according to Geshe Nyima as well as Padma Dolma, Europe and campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet. There was no confrontation with authorities, Geshe Nyima said.

On Wednesday, Chinese authorities had offered two sisters of Tenzin Delek the opportunity to hear an official read aloud a doctor’s report on the monk’s health condition and cause of death, Geshe Nyima said. However, they refused when authorities rejected their request to photograph or copy the document.

“We still want to look for answers about his cause of death,” he said.


Family members were told that authorities of the central government ordered the monk to be cremated by 7 a.m. Thursday.

Beijing regards the Dalai Lama as a Tibetan separatist, although the Buddhist leader has repeatedly said that he seeks only greater autonomy for the Himalayan region.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed “deepest condolences” over the monk’s death in a statement Monday.

“The United States had consistently urged China to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, most recently out of concern for his health,” he said. “We hope Chinese authorities will investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding his death.”

Tenzin Dolkar, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said an injustice was committed against Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his family by the Chinese government.

 “With his death, Tibetans in Tibet lost their beloved leader and teacher. Today, their right to perform the last Buddhist rites for Tenzin Delek was taken away. Chinese authorities cremated his body with complete disregard to the family’s wishes,” he said. “It is a failure of world governments to allow the Chinese government to get away with committing such violence against Tibetans.”

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Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.