Carl Gershman’s Introductory Remarks at “Hope and Democracy” Event with the Dalai Lama

It’s my great pleasure to welcome everyone to this important event.  I want to begin by saying what a great joy it is for us to welcome His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the National Endowment for Democracy.  Our theme today is “Hope and  Democracy,” which is our way of saying that in the struggle for human freedom and dignity, there is always hope, even in the most difficult times.  His Holiness’s good friend, the late Vaclav Havel, once said that hope is not a prognostication but “a dimension of the soul,” “an orientation of the heart.” We have hope because we are human beings with dignity, something that no oppressor can take away.

Havel is one of many people who lived for freedom and whose spirit fills this room.  His friend, the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, is another such person, and we’re pleased that  his daughter Rosa Maria is with us today.  And  the spirit of Tenzin Delek Ripoche is also with us today. 

Among the people whose presence here today is also a source of joy is Svetlana Alexievich,  the Belarusan writer who is the Nobel Laureate for Literature and who will be speaking here at the NED on Friday, and Cheng Guangcheng, the “barefoot lawyer” who fled China in 2012 but who remains an important defender of human and civil rights in his native land.

Introduction of Nancy Pelosi

Introduction of Peter Roskam

Introduction of Cory Gardner

Introduction of Richard Gere

I said earlier that the spirit of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is with us today, and we now want to honor his memory.  I first learned about the death of Tenzin Delek when Sikyong Lobsang Sangay reported the news at a luncheon last July in New York honoring His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his 80th birthday.  The Sikyong said that they had literally just received word of what had happened in the car on the way to the hotel, a remarkable coincidence of events.

The death of Tenzin Delek after 13 years in prison was a shock, but what happened immediately after his death was even more shocking.  In violation of the family’s wishes to carry out traditional Buddhist funeral rites, the police secretly cremated Tenzin Delek’s body, presumably to destroy the evidence of how he died.  His ashes were subsequently seized at gunpoint and disposed of as they were being transported back to his hometown.  His relatives were detained, demonstrators protesting his death were beaten, and security measures throughout Tibetan communities were harshly intensified.

At a memorial service for Tenzin Delek at the conclusion of the 49-day period of mourning, I asked a question that still cries out for an answer: What kind of a government would commit such despicable and inhuman acts?  It is a government that – in violation of the most basic international norms of human rights – considers the mere expression of Tibetan cultural and religious identity to be a criminal act.  “Since I am a Tibetan,” Tenzin Delek said after he was arrested, “I have always been sincere and devoted to the interests and well-being of Tibetan people.  That is the real reason why the Chinese do not like me and framed me.  That is why they are going to take my precious life even though I am innocent.”  And so they did take his life, his precious life.  But they could not take his courage, or his dignity, or his devotion to the Tibetan people.

The Chinese government, which aspires to be a stakeholder in the international system but which violates its fundamental rules, needs to know that Tenzin Delek will not be forgotten.  He symbolizes the indomitable spirit of the Tibetan people inside Tibet and especially of the 2,081 known Tibetan political prisoners in China.  It is in remembering Tenzin Delek, and in expressing our solidarity with those political prisoners and with the Tibetan people, that I now call upon Geshe Jamyang Nyima, Tenzin Delek’s cousin, and Tenzin Palkyi of the NED staff who will translate for him, to join me as I read the tribute to Tenzin Delek and present him posthumously with the NED’s Democracy Service Medal.

Tribute to Tenzin Delek Rinpoche (1950-2015)

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a beloved community leader and spiritual teacher who devoted his life to the defense of the well-being and identity of the people of Tibet.  He worked to improve their health and education, establishing clinics and schools and homes for orphans and the elderly in eastern Tibet.  He fought to prevent the destruction of Tibet’s fragile environment.  He vehemently opposed mining that polluted rivers and poisoned the soil, condemned deforestation that led to flooding and soil erosion, and protested against indiscriminate hunting that led to the extinction of species. He was a leader and a role model in the struggle to preserve the unique culture and religion of Tibetan Buddhism.

Because of his leadership and his popularity among the Tibetan people, Tenzin Delek was arrested in April 2002 and sentenced to death, a sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment following protests by thousands of people around the world.  Regarding the grotesquely false charge that he had engaged in bombings, he said, “I have always taught people that one should not harm any life, not even that of an ant.  How could I possibly then be responsible for such an action.”

Yet this peaceful and compassionate man, this revered leader, was repeatedly beaten and tortured in prison.  His health deteriorated, but he was denied medical attention.  He died on July 12, 2015, and his family members who viewed the body before it was secretly cremated believe that he did not die a natural death.

In life, Tenzin Delek was an inspiration to Tibetans, “a living breathing presence in our lives,” in the words of one young Tibetan who was drawn to a life of human-rights activism by the example of this brave, martyred man.  In death, Tenzin Delek remains a moral force, a living symbol of Tibetans’ indomitable spirit and their deeply rooted, invincible faith and identity.

It is the obligation of civil-society movements and people around the world committed to justice to remember Tenzin Delek and to stand in moral and political solidarity with the cause for which he gave his life. 

For his courage and devotion, for his service to his people, and for the goodness that he brought into this world and left as a legacy to the Tibetan people and to all mankind, the National Endowment for Democracy is proud to present its Democracy Service Medal posthumously to Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.