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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Tibetan democratic experiment

September 15, 2008

By Denis Burke
Asia Times, September 13, 2008

ZURICH, Switzerland - Last week, the executive branch of the Tibetan 
government in exile (The Kashag) issued a statement pressing all 
Tibetans to place their democratic duty before their democratic 
rights. Such statements are typical punctuation points in the passages 
of Tibetan-style democracy.

The statement came on "Democracy Day", September 2. The Tibetan 
government in exile instituted this day to encourage Tibetans living 
outside Tibet to take an interest in the process of democratization 
that the Dalai Lama has been championing for much of his life in 
exile. He considers it an essential component of a modern nation that 
was sorely lacking in Tibet before occupation by the People's Republic 
of China in the 1950s.

"The Kashag would like to emphatically state that all Tibetans should 
- at this very critical and crucial period - give more importance to 
their democratic duties than rights; that they should give more 
importance to the national and community's benefits than individual's 
and organization's; and that they should, in order to challenge the 
forces of division, strive towards combining their collective 
energies," The Kashag said.

The rationale behind the Kashag's statement matches the underlying 
reason of many of the oddities of the Tibetan mode of democracy: unity 
above all. Unity first has meant that the government in exile has 
remained a non-party system. The deputies of the Kashag are elected on 
a regional, geographical and religious basis.

Efforts to foster a civil society have been instigated almost entirely 
by the Dalai Lama. The first sprouting of a political party was set up 
when he encouraged it. Constitutional reforms peeling back his 
personal (even divine) powers were pushed through at his insistence. 
The reform that would allow for the impeachment of a Dalai Lama went 
through only at his insistence. Democratization has, until very 
recently, been coming almost exclusively from above.

Tibet's often romanticized image as an idyllic land of Buddhist 
brotherhood belies the regional, religious and political rifts that 
exist among its populace and, consequently, the populace in exile. The 
diaspora today is scattered across the world with vague concentrations 
in North America and Europe. Even the majority in India and Nepal are 
quite geographically removed from each other.

Nation-states all over the world have shouldered internal differences 
and lived to tell the tale as multi-party democracies. The government 
of Spain would, no doubt, provoke some strange reactions by 
instructing its voters to put their duty to the nation-state above 
their democratic rights. Tibet is unique because its nation-building 
has taken place largely in exile. The governing systems in pre-1950 
Tibet were neither pervasive nor particularly effective and a sense of 
Tibetan national identity was, by all accounts, noticeably lacking.

Of course accusations have sprung up from China and the rest of the 
world that the democratization process is a means of seeking Western 
sympathy and making out like the good guys. Yet this explanation 
hardly accounts for how pervasive and successful the process has been.

Tibet was largely feudal and apolitical in 1950. Today, the absence of 
political parties has seen the rise of grassroots pressure groups such 
as Youth for Better MPs. There is a greater desire for multi-party 
democracy among the community in exile than is evident in many well-
established democracies, as evidenced by the comments of many Kashag 

The government in exile provides as much of the infrastructure of 
government as possible. There are limits to what an exile judiciary 
can do, for example, but within those limits the judiciary looks 
remarkably democratic. The departments of education and international 
relations have been notably successful in their missions. And Prime 
Minister Samdhong Rinpoche's 2007 Democracy Day response to 
accusations that certain non-governmental organization's enjoy tacit 
government support sounded oddly, well, democratic. It seems that he 
takes the "non" in non-government organization rather seriously and 
believes that they, and society in general, should too.

 From a distance the whole thing looks like an experiment. Tibet has 
lacked a political class and what might be called civil society, so a 
geographically scattered diaspora is even less likely to succeed in 
remaining politically united. Phurbu Thinley, however, reported in 
Phayul on Democracy Day that the 2001 elections saw Tibetans in 27 
countries voting and the enthusiasm for the democratic process was 
gradually expanding.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama remains an entirely unelected head of state 
and there are concerns that efforts to inform the electorate about 
their local candidates are under-funded. There remains great 
resistance to any efforts to dismantle the Dalai Lama's temporal powers.

In the long term there may be further problems also. Political thinker 
Wang Lixiong has argued that should the current system ever be 
transposed to an autonomous Tibet some day it will problematically 
exclude non-Tibetan minorities.

The Han Chinese can hardly be called a minority in Tibet any more. 
Without a dramatic shift in current voter outlook, religious control 
of politics also seems inevitable. Most seriously, Wang Lixiong points 
out, under the kind of democracy supported by the Dalai Lama, forces 
demanding independence would quickly rise to prominence, which is a 
sure reason for China to be reticent about accommodating this style of 
autonomy in Tibet.

The story of the exiles' democratization process is largely a 
successful one. They have established the networks of government 
effectively, rallied some interest in democracy as a process and 
ratified a constitution. Nevertheless, the experiment needs refining 
if it is to be representative in exile. To convince the Chinese 
government of its viability for Tibet itself, it may need to be 
drastically overhauled.

Denis Burke is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam where he 
recently completed research on Chinese-Tibetan affairs in the 21st 
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