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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Trouble With Tibet

February 22, 2011

The Dalai Lama’s democratization project poses a challenge to the United
States

* Ellen Bork
* February 19, 2011 | 12:00 am

Dharamsala, India—Flying from Delhi to Dharamsala, the seat of the
Tibetan government-in-exile in northern India, takes about 90 minutes.
The plane lands in the valley below the Dhauladar range of the
Himalayas, a massive barrier between India and Tibet. From the airport,
the road leads up to the former British hill station that Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru made available in 1960 to the Dalai Lama, who had
escaped from Chinese-occupied Tibet the year before. The Dalai Lama
lives on one ridge, in the settlement of McLeod Ganj, while on a nearby
ridge sit the buildings of the Central Tibet Administration (CTA), which
oversees many affairs of the approximately 150,000 Tibetans in exile.

Nehru’s gift of Dharamsala to the Tibetans was both generous and shrewd.
Indian sympathy for the Tibetans and hostile posture toward Beijing
necessitated hospitality, but isolating the Tibetans in a remote area
avoided complicating India’s non-aligned stance by making it harder for
the Dalai Lama to pursue an international agenda. As it has turned out,
however, Dharamsala’s location has not been a problem for the Dalai Lama.

Despite an initial hesitation about the remote location, the Dalai Lama
and his officials embraced Dharamsala, which has been nicknamed Little
Lhasa, after the capital of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has become a global
figure with nearly universal appeal and one of the world’s most
well-traveled men. What’s more, from his perch, he has been able to
pursue his twin missions—preserving Tibet’s religion and culture and,
more ambitiously, building a Tibetan democracy in exile. These missions
pose a challenge not only to China’s communist government, which has
long opposed the Dalai Lama. But, increasingly, they also pose a
challenge to the United States.

The Dalai Lama’s democracy-building effort is not nearly as well-known
as his moral and religious teachings. However, by the time he arrived in
India, he had already begun trying to overhaul the existing Tibetan
government, which was dominated by aristocratic and monastic elites. He
had launched a commission to address land reform, as well as other
social and political issues. In India, the Dalai Lama only accelerated
his democracy work. Under his direction, a new Tibetan constitution was
drafted in 1963. At his insistence, it included a provision authorizing
his impeachment. For Tibetans, the idea of removing the Dalai Lama, who
is regarded as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, was unthinkable. To the
Dalai Lama, however, it was a natural step in his plan to delineate
separate political and spiritual roles for himself and eventually turn
over responsibility for day-to-day governance to an elected leader, or
Kalon Tripa—which he did officially in 2001.

The democratization of Tibetan authority has thus proceeded—and
relatively smoothly—over the past several decades. In 1991, there was
the creation of an expanded Tibetan parliament, which took
responsibility for drafting a new charter to replace the constitution.
The charter gave the parliament, or Chiteue, more powers, including
approving members of the cabinet, or Kashag, and greater responsibility
to legislate in matters over which it has jurisdiction. The Chitue has
actively legislated in areas such as finance and administration; the
CTA, subject to Indian law, has maintained authority over exile affairs.
The constituency of this growing democracy is scattered around the
world; Tibetans in exile are eligible to vote for the CTA in the various
countries in which they live.

The current Kalon Tripa is Samdhong Rinpoche, a monk whom the Dalai Lama
has addressed as his political “boss.” In November, the CTA announced
the results of the first phase of elections both for his
successor—Samdhong’s second term ends this August—and for the
parliament. In a darkened upstairs room at the CTA complex, election
officials and observers tallied votes with the aid of an overhead
projector. Nearly 48,000 Tibetans, or 60 percent of those registered,
voted in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Europe, the United States, and Canada.
The leading candidate to replace Samdhong Rinpoche is a Tibetan-American
affiliated with Harvard University.

Of course, Tibetan democracy is anathema to China’s communist
government, which reacts quickly to squelch democratic activism, as it
did with the China Democracy Party in the 1990s and, more recently, with
Charter 08, a democracy manifesto inspired by Charter 77, the
Czechoslovakian civic movement to end communism in Eastern and Central
Europe. Although conducted in communities outside Chinese territory, the
recent Tibetan elections weren’t safe from Chinese interference. Under
pressure from Beijing, Nepalese authorities seized about 1,000 ballots
in Kathmandu. Neighboring Bhutan also prevented approximately 600
ballots from being forwarded to Dharamsala for counting.

The United States protested the Nepalese action, but, in fact, Tibetan
democracy is an uncomfortable development for Washington, just as it is
for China. The Unites States supports programs for Tibetan refugees, the
CTA’s health and education budget, democracy and human rights
organizations, and scholarships for Tibetans, many of whom have returned
to Dharamsala to serve in the government. And yet, despite this support
for democracy in general and the government-in-exile in particular, the
United States does not endorse Tibetan self-determination. Its policy
focuses instead on preserving Tibet’s “unique cultural, religious and
linguistic heritage” and promoting “dialogue” between the Dalai Lama and
Beijing. In the 1960s, Washington took a markedly different position,
even supporting and training Tibetans fighting the Chinese occupation.
But, once Washington restored ties with China in order to use it as a
cold war counterweight to Moscow, this approach changed.

For its part, Beijing is pressing its advantage, building infrastructure
to enable the rapid growth of the migrant Han Chinese population in
Tibet, in an effort to degrade the region’s culture, religion, and
environment. Beijing is also waging a campaign to weaken international
support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama. It has designated Tibet a “core
interest” and insists that other countries, including the United States,
adopt a “correct understanding” of the issue. And Washington, it seems,
has retreated. Whereas Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made unusually
public shows of support for the Dalai Lama (Clinton even created a
senior position in the State Department to deal with Tibet), out of
deference to Beijing, President Obama delayed meeting the Dalai Lama at
the White House until after he had visited China. Last August, a State
Department report to Congress subtly diminished the importance of Tibet
in U.S.-China relations and implied that the Dalai Lama might lack
support within Tibetan society. Moreover, U.S. officials publicly
mention Tibet less and less in the context of China policy.

Compare America’s approach to Tibet to its history with Taiwan. Thirty
years ago, Beijing was optimistic Taiwan could be coerced into uniting
with mainland China, and that the United States would back that action.
Instead, Congress shored up Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense
and created a system of quasi-diplomatic relations with its authorities.
As Taiwan has transitioned into a democracy, American policy has adapted
to the idea that the Taiwanese people must have a role in determining
their future. Just last year, the United States sold $6 billion worth of
arms to Taiwan. Why, then, has it taken such a different tack with
Tibet? Why has appeasing China mattered more than supporting democracy?

Chinese leaders undoubtedly hope they can exploit America’s weak
position at the moment of Tibet’s greatest vulnerability: when the Dalai
Lama dies. Beijing will attempt to control the selection of the Dalai
Lama’s successor, a process in which senior Tibetan monks identify the
incarnation in a young boy. The Chinese government has issued
“guidelines for reincarnation” that stress “patriotism” and loyalty to
the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing might even resort to force, as it
has before: In 1995, Chinese authorities seized the Panchen Lama, the
second-most prominent religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism, then just
six years old, and substituted an imposter in his place. The authentic
Panchen Lama has not been seen in public since.

The Dalai Lama has said that future generations will regard the creation
of Tibetan democracy as one of the greatest achievements of his exile.
Whether that project succeeds, however, depends in part on whether the
United States, so often a key partner in international democratic
transitions, brings its Tibet policy into line with its democratic
ideals. When the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet, no one could have predicted
that the United States would be challenged to face up to its
foreign-policy contradictions by refuges on a remote hilltop in northern
India. But it certainly has.

Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy
Initiative, writes frequently about U.S. policy toward Tibet and China.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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