The democracy conundrum

The recent changes in the Tibetan government-in-exile have taken place so quickly that most in the diaspora have not had the time to digest the implications or the reasons for their provenance in the first place. A far-sighted and bold initiative by the Dalai Lama to decisively impose the responsibilities of democracy on the diaspora ended up demonstrating, once again, the inherent limitations to such a move in the Tibetan context.

Ever since coming into exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama has tirelessly promoted democracy, and the initiative to reorganise the government-in-exile along democratic principles was his. The Tibetan people in exile were essentially handed democracy on a plate when, in fact, most were quite content to continue the age-old tradition of theocratic rule. For years, the Dalai Lama stated that he believed religion and politics should be kept separate, that the best form of governance was secular democracy. It was only a matter of time that he would take this process to its logical conclusion. Earlier this year, on 14 March, he formally announced that he wished to devolve all political authority and asked the Tibetan Parliament to make the necessary amendments to the Charter of the Tibetan People in Exile.

In his statement to the Parliament, the Dalai Lama made a strong case for the desirability of a democratic society, stating, 'One-man rule is both anachronistic and undesirable.' He further noted: 'If we have to remain in exile for several more decades, a time will inevitably come when I will no longer be able to provide leadership. Therefore, it is necessary that we establish a sound system of governance while I remain able and healthy, in order that the exile Tibetan administration can become self-reliant rather than being dependent on the Dalai Lama.' This was visionary thinking, a clear recognition of the very real possibility that the Tibet issue might not be resolved in his lifetime – and the need to prepare. It was also a confirmation of the Dalai Lama's belief that, in the long term, a strong and functioning democracy in exile would provide the most effective means of continuing the Tibet struggle.

The Parliament's immediate response was an emotional one, to request the Dalai Lama to reconsider and continue in his current capacity. But he was firm in his position, and so a five-member Charter Redrafting Committee, which included Speaker Penpa Tsering and current kalon tripa (prime minister) Samdhong Rinpoche, was formed to come up with a draft proposal to incorporate the relevant amendments. When the draft proposal was released, in May, it began by stating that the Dalai Lama, as the 'human manifestation of Avalokitesvara', was the 'guardian and protector', the 'supreme leader' and the 'symbol of the Tibetan identity and unity'. This in itself was confusing. Was there room in a democratic charter for such an expression of religious faith, even if it did broadly mirror the people's sentiments?

One proposed amendment also immediately stood out. It suggested that the Tibetan name for the exile administration be changed from 'Tibetan government-in-exile' to 'Organisation of the Government of Tibetan People in Exile'. Evidently this was in order to re-categorise the exile setup as a kind of de-politicised entity, but the suggestion raised obvious questions: Was there pressure from the Indian government to make this change? Or was it to make the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach more palatable to China? Samdhong Rinpoche was adamant that there was no pressure from either India or China. Interestingly, at this point there was no clear indication of the Dalai Lama's own views on the issue.


In late May, a National General Meeting of Tibetans in Exile convened to discuss the proposed amendments, the third such meeting since the 2008 uprising within Tibet. This was an historic occasion, as participants would debate the nearly 400-year-old political authority of the institution of the Dalai Lamas and the very existence of an official Tibetan government-in-exile. More than 400 Tibetans from around the world gathered in Dharamsala, constituting as representative a body of exile Tibetans as could be quickly mustered. After four days of intense discussions, the meeting unanimously requested the Dalai Lama to maintain a symbolic presence in the government as a ceremonial head of state, much like the system of constitutional monarchy in the UK. In the minds of the participants, there was no apparent contradiction in requesting this of the Dalai Lama as it did not impinge on his wishes to give up political authority. The name-change amendment was overwhelmingly rejected in favour of retaining 'Tibetan Government-in-exile'.

To the surprise of many, however, the subsequent parliamentary session failed to take into consideration either of these two recommendations. Although the majority of the members had voted to keep the old name of the government during the General Meeting, it now went forward in amending it to 'Tibetan People's Administration'. It appeared that a democratic process had been subverted, but those who voiced concern were chided by Samdhong Rinpoche as having missed the larger picture. In a speech to Parliament, he reiterated that the name-change decision was taken in the best interests of safeguarding the survival of the exile setup in a post-Dalai Lama future. He gave no specific examples of this threat, though he did mention that there were certain cases against the exile government pending in the Himachal Pradesh courts, which would be difficult to deal with without the Dalai Lama's good name as protection. The thrust of his argument was that nothing had fundamentally changed, that there was no pressure from India or China, or from the Dalai Lama.

Nowhere in Samdhong Rinpoche's speech did he address why the clear mandate of the General Meeting had been ignored. Indeed, there had not even been a discussion in Parliament on the matter of the name change. Instead, his speech boiled down to a single point, to assert the correctness of the decision. And to drive this home, he raised the old bogey of implying that those who had reservations on this matter were actually questioning the infinite wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

In a recent article, Kelsang Gyaltsen, one of the key interlocutors in the stalled Sino-Tibetan talks, made another attempt to explain the amendments to the Charter. He was even more scathing in his dismissal of those who had expressed doubts on the matter, characterising them as being 'agonising, bitter and self-lacerative, reflecting the self-pitying and self-dramatising psyche of some of the debating Tibetans.' What should be seen as the sign of a healthy democracy engaged in critical discourse was put down as being 'rather self-defeating and demoralising'. According to Gyaltsen, 'The changes demonstrate the political will and determination of the Tibetan leadership to continue the Tibetan freedom struggle as long as it takes by laying the ground and positioning itself in a way that allows it to function and operate in future in spite of any vicissitude in the international political environment.'

Gyaltsen's arguments support Samdhong Rinpoche's position that the change in the name of the government was made in the interests of continuing the struggle, that it had been taken by the Tibetan leadership, and that it was the correct decision. And again, Gyaltsen made no attempt to explain why the proceedings of the General Meeting, of which he was also a participant, were completely overlooked in this regard.

In fact, everyone who was a part of the General Meeting knows what happened. When the participants had an audience with the Dalai Lama to present their conclusions, their first surprise was his firm refusal to even consider their recommendation that he remain as ceremonial head of state. But it was his response to their second point, the retention of 'Tibetan Government-in-exile' as the official name, that really shook them. He made a strong and emotional case against this proposal, saying that if the name was retained leading to a problem in the future, he would not be able to help them. He also suggested that the new name could be changed to something like 'Tibetan People's Administration'. Every Tibetan knows that when the Dalai Lama makes clear his position on any matter, there is very little chance of opposition.

It seems clear that the Dalai Lama had already decided, when he made his official statement to devolve his political powers, that the name of the Tibetan government-in-exile had to be changed to something less obviously political. And if a government-in-exile did not officially exist, then there was no question of his remaining a ceremonial head of state. We can speculate on the reasons that might have impelled this decision, and discuss its merits and demerits, but more important is what this means for the development of Tibetan democracy. Samdhong Rinpoche and the Charter Redrafting Committee must have been aware of the importance of this amendment for the Dalai Lama, which is why a name change was inserted into the draft proposal. What they did not foresee, perhaps, was the depth of the people's attachment to the symbolism of the name that manifested itself during the General Meeting.

This raises an interesting question. If it had been clear from the start that the Dalai Lama strongly favoured changing the name of the government, would the General Meeting have so conclusively decided against it? I have no doubt that the outcome would have been different – a majority would certainly have supported his position, as has happened in similar situations in the past. So it is revealing that on this occasion, when the Tibetan people had the freedom to debate a matter of national importance in the absence of clear guidelines from their leader, they ended up by arriving at a decision that was contrary to his wishes. Paradoxically, then, it is the position of the Dalai Lama that is both Tibetan democracy's greatest champion and its biggest impediment.

Standing with the guru

As the human manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is omniscient. This belief is not symbolic; for the majority, it is real. Add to this the fact that in Tibetan Buddhism, one's root guru is supreme, even more important than the Buddha himself, and requires absolute devotion and loyalty, then there can be no demarcation between the Dalai Lama's political and spiritual roles. His every pronouncement is necessarily of a spiritual nature, even when he himself says that it is not. This is even more binding for someone such as Samdhong Rinpoche, who is himself a religious practitioner; the chances that he would articulate a position contrary to his guru's is non-existent, even as he professes total faith in democracy. Democracy in the Tibetan context, at least until now, necessarily requires a consonance between the Dalai Lama's wishes and the actions of his followers. The moment this diverges, confusion sets in. And this is exactly what happened during the recent deliberations.

Can this conflict ever be resolved? Can Tibetans in exile ever achieve the genuine democracy that the Dalai Lama envisions? In my opinion, there is no option but to do so. Presently, the exile community's complete faith and devotion is vested within the current Dalai Lama; his absence will force many to confront an immense spiritual vacuum. The exile political establishment, if it retains its current quasi-democratic form, would suddenly be rudderless. Thus, the only hope during that calamitous period will be the existence of a strong and genuinely democratic government, one that can represent the aspirations of all Tibetans and have the strength to ensure unity.

It is clear that the Dalai Lama understands this, that he genuinely wants the community to shoulder the responsibilities of democracy. But now that he has willingly given up his official role as political leader in order to facilitate this, it is crucial that he is not seen to be continuing to control the Tibet movement from behind the scene. This would weaken the credibility of Tibetan democracy and bolster China's accusation that the Tibet issue is simply one about the Dalai Lama. As can be seen from recent events, the move towards true democracy is a learning process and can only happen if Tibetans accept the limitations of the exile community's unique situation – and then confront the difficult choices that arise as a result.

There are some signs of hope that this could yet be possible. During the recently concluded parliamentary session, when the members, in spite of their own doubts, closed ranks and voted in unison to ratify the name change without taking into consideration the results of the General Meeting, a lone dissenting voice stood firm. Tenzing Chonden, the representative from North America, was the only member to vote with his conscience. There is no question that Chonden is a devoted follower of the Dalai Lama, yet when it came to discharging his duties as an elected representative, he did what his leader has repeatedly asked Tibetans to do – he shouldered the responsibility, even though it meant opposing the rest of his colleagues and being seen to publicly disagree with the Dalai Lama's wishes. In so doing, he showed that it is possible to separate politics and religion, and that this need not mean disloyalty to the spiritual leader.

And in August this year, a new Kalon Tripa will take control of the exile administration. Lobsang Sangay was overwhelmingly voted in on the back of a youthful electorate looking for change and fresh ideas. The 43-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, the first Tibetan born in exile to hold such a high office, represents a change of guard. Will he have the courage to lead Tibetans to fulfil the Dalai Lama's vision of evolving a truly secular Tibetan democracy, one that can stand on its own even when he is no longer there to offer guidance? For the sake of the long-term survival of the Tibetan struggle, we must hope that he will.

Tenzing Sonam is a writer and filmmaker in Delhi.

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