Thanks to the favourable impact of movements for democracy in Nepal and Eastern Europe last year, the Dalai Lama was compelled to announce some democratic measures in Dharamsala, seat of the Tibetan exile government.
While such measures are steps in the right direction, I see some dangers in the misuse of the word “democracy”, which can be used to perpetuate existing patrimonialism in the exile government and to launch ideological offensives against Beijing unless the existing institutions are genuinely democratised.
Under such circumstances, a skeptic does not see any real possibility of the Yabshi-dominated, semi-educated coterie which constitutes the Dalai Lama’s power elite sharing its power either with the people directly or with their representatives. That coterie, with the Dalai Lama’s implicit approval, will continue to dominate the crucial sectors of the Tibetan decision-making process through “democratic” manipulation. For whatever the pontiff’s religious piety might be, he has shown over the years a human weakness in the exercise of power. It is either the male members of his immediate family (“Yabshi”) or his clansmen who are entrusted with top political authority. This is obvious, for example, from the assignment of his men in Hong Kong, London, Tokyo and Washington. It is this same group that has been entrusted with the task of maintaining contact with the Chinese and others ‘since 1978.
Unless the Dalai Lama ensures that the proposed democratic measures provide adequate scope for popular participation in the crucial political decisions that could affect the Tibetan people’s future, Tibetan democracy will remain a farce that perpetuates patrimonialism. Given the temptations of power, I do not see much possibility of power-sharing with the people’s representatives, far less with the people themselves. If the future of Tibetan democracy is to be safeguarded, the Tibetan public must press for genuine democratisation of existing institutions.
Dharamsala has a misconception about the word democracy. For the most part, it takes democracy to mean populism and demagoguery in which the demagogue’s manipulation of religious symbols is enough to ensure popular support. But democracy without the institutionalisation of democratic values is meaningless. No democracy worth the name can meaningfully function without some necessary institutions to implement democratic values. And history suggests that it is dangerous to entrust men with power without institutional checks and balances. If, therefore, one is really committed to democracy, the critical question is this: how much of the essence of democracy can we implement under the given limitations which the Tibetan diaspora finds itself?
FACADES AND IMITATIONS
It is true that Dharamsala cannot fully emulate the Western democratic model or for that matter the Indian one because the Dalai Lama does not control a piece of territory. The implication of this limitation is that even the creation of an autonomous judiciary, though essential for democratic functioning, is really problematic because the Dalai Lama’s administration cannot legally enforce court decisions, as in criminal cases. Thus, Dharamsala should not attempt to set up facades of democracy in imitation of mature democracies that do not fit the Tibetan exile situation. Rather, they should endeavour to establish certain publicly-controlled mechanisms by which public accountability on the part of the administration is established and the Tibetan people’s voice is heard on political decisions that affect their future.
The essence of any functioning democracy is to encourage public participation in the political decision-making process through public or popular representation. So far, the practice in Dharamsala has been for a few Yabshi-dominated hands to monopolise decision-making power on the crucially important issues and to mobilize popular involvement only cosmetically. In this sense, the Tibetan power elite have more in common with Leninist regimes. The practical issue on the Tibetan democratic agenda ought to be how to democratise the existing institutions so that the authorities are made accountable to the public and the public feels that some sort of due process is at work in their “government.”
Democracy without a critical press is practically meaningless. The Tibetan refugee press, including the Tibetan Review, which used to be independent and neutral at one time, is now completely controlled by the semi-educated power clique. If the Dalai Lama genuinely desires democracy for his people, he first has to liberate the Tibetan press.
Even then, direct democracy is not a possibility for even the small Tibetan community because the refugees are scattered all over India and Nepal. The refugees can at best be represented. But ever since the inception of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, the honourable members have been systematically co-opted by the Dharamsala administration. The deputies have been admirable yes-men and heve defeated the very idea of public representation.
The exile administration has four or five autonomous Tibetan institutions which have substantial funds and which carry more prestige and power than even the Kashag. These institutions are reserved for certain tribesmen. This monopoly has to be broken if public prestige and power are to be shared with all the sub-ethnic groups, and especially the educated younger generation, regardless of sect or region. The functioning of such institutions must be regularised and a due process set in motion so that democracy is practised where it matters.
As regards the administration Dharamsala, the tradition is that power-holders remain in their seats for decades while their subordinates are frequently shifted from one posting to another. This contradicts the functioning of democratic government. Even in pre-1911 China, commissioners were transferred every three years to prevent corruption, but subordinates remained in their postings for long enough to lend practical continuity in the administration.
Given the Tibetans’ political immaturity, the best investment at this stage would be to set up appropriate mechanisms to ensure that at least the Dalai Lama’s power structure operates democratically and legally, even if at this stage it cannot be made accountable to the Tibetan public at large. Men may come and go but institutions stay. The best way to ensure a democratic political life is to institutionalise democratic values. And this should begin at home, not in the streets.
Norbu, author of Red Star Over Tibet, is professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.