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Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Kalon Tripa Elections - by Jamyang Norbu

October 13, 2010

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
October 9, 2010

I have received some mild censure of late from
friends and readers for my lack of enthusiasm for
the upcoming kalon-tripa election. I did  explain
my position earlier in a number of my blogs that
our present  "partyless" political system was not
a true democracy, and that only a party-based
system (even with all its inherent drawbacks)
could make it so. I also stated that the role of
the kalon-tripa in the exile Tibetan government
was not that of a prime-minister in  a democratic
nation as India or the UK, since the kalon-tripa
does not have the power to initiate or formulate national policy.

But recently I have been hearing, to my surprise,
a lot of negative comments about the forthcoming
elections, in particular about the slate of new
candidates. Many of the criticisms seem
regrettably unfair and partisan, and some appear
to conceal an anti-democratic agenda. Hence I
would like to make it clear to everyone that
though I still maintain the position I outlined
above, I have also spelled out, very clearly,
that even under the present political system, the
election of an honest and competent
prime-minister would undoubtedly help to improve
our exile government and political situation.

To clarify my position further and demonstrate my
support for the upcoming elections (with the
caveat that that next national elections in 2016
should be party based and truly democratic) I
offer this, admittedly one-sided, appraisal of
those candidates whose personalities and
platforms I happen to know something about. I
want to do this as a response to an indictment I
heard a few weeks ago summarily charging all the
candidates as incompetent and inexperienced.

This dismissive statement was made on a panel
discussion on a RFA TV program. The discussion
centered around a report that the "mimang" the
Tibetan public, was demanding the exile charter
be amended by the parliament in order that the
present incumbent, Samdong Rimpoche, be able to
serve another term as prime minister. One
panelist  claimed that the public had no choice
but to demand this amendment as "all and sundry"
(ghangjung mangjung) were now seeking the post of
the kalon-tripa which made the public
disappointed and worried. This speaker also
asserted that none of the candidates had any
experience (nyamnyung). He even repeated this in
a later in the discussion and added that the
public wanted an older, more experienced and
wiser candidate, and that only Samdhong Rimpoche
was qualified for the position. I think that this
panelist was supported by a couple of the others.
There was one panelist who appeared to be against
the amendment proposal, but no one in the
discussion, even the moderator, challenged the
assertion that the new slate of candidates were
unqualified, inexperienced, or that they were ghangjung manjung.

By the way, it should be pointed out that  during
the discussion it transpired that the so called
"public" (mimang) demand for Samdhong Rimpoche's
return was merely a petition with no more than
900 signatures. This appears to me to be a very
low threshold for accepting any proposal for
parliamentary consideration; but accepted it was
and even voted on, though not debated. It should
be pointed out in fairness that Samdhong Rimpoche
did raise an objection to the
proposed  amendment, but he seems to have gotten
around to it rather late. Perhaps he should have
stopped his followers from initiating this nonsense in the first place.

The complaint on VOA that none of the candidates
had any experience is demonstrably untrue.  For
instance one candidate, Tenzin N. Tethong, though
about ten years younger than Samdhong Rimpoche,
actually has far more years of administrative
experience in Tibetan government service than
Rimpoche, who was for most of his life in exile a
school teacher (at Simla and Darjeeling) then
becoming the principal of Dalhousie school and
later the director of the Central Institute of
Higher Tibetan Studies at Varanasi. He was
appointed (not elected) to the Tibetan Parliament
by the Dalai Lama in 1991, when he started his
political career. One of the more remarkable
features of Rimpoche's administration is its
pedagogic tenor, with Rimpoche packing his
cabinet, especially in his first term, with former students of his.

Nearly all the other candidates, even those who
are relatively young or those not too well-known
publicly, nonetheless bring exceptional
qualifications and a new energy to this contest.
I think it is important for the Tibetan public to
understand and appreciate this, and not refuse to
see virtue in anything other than the ancient or the ecclesiastical.

One of the more interesting candidates in this
elections is Lobsang Sangay la, who is not only
someone with a PhD from Harvard in International
Law but an expressive though sometimes glib
speaker, with a record of involvement in Tibetan
politics from when he was a Tibetan Youth
Congress leader in Delhi. Lobsang Sangay la has
also performed a real service to the process of
Tibetan democracy by shaking up the creaky
electoral machine of exile politics with his
campaigns tours and lectures which are without
precedent in Tibetan society. I know Lobsang la
very well and he and his wife are old friends of
mine, from when I lived in Boston and when we
organized evening discussion forums with other young Tibetans in the city.

I have only one criticism of his candidacy, but
that one is fundamental. So I will deal with it
at some length. Lobsang la seems to believe,
quite sincerely,  that a solution to the Tibetan
issue can be found within the context of China's
constitution, specifically the law on regional
ethnic autonomy. I debated him on one occasion. I
pointed out that the Chinese constitution was not
a document we could pin our hopes on (even in a
peripheral way) for a resolution to our issue,
since in China such a supposedly "fundamental
legal document" has absolutely no real teeth. The
Communist Party can change anything it wants in
the constitution at any time. In fact it can dump
the entire constitution by the roadside and
pretend it never existed in the first place -
which the Party has done, three times before. The
present constitution of China is in fact its
fourth actual constitution (I am not speaking
here of bills or amendments) since the Communist Party took power.

The constitutional provision for ethnic autonomy,
as meaningless as it is now, was meaningless
right from the start, when Baba Phuntsok Wangyal
invested all his hopes in it. In the process he
betrayed his people and country and served as a
willing propagandist and guide to the violent
Chinese military invasion of independent Tibet.
There is a powerful vested interest among
nationality cadres in maintaining the ethnic
autonomy provision in the constitution,  but if
push came to shove, if the crisis in East
Turkestan and Tibet became critical some time in
the future, the party might do away with the
provision, once and for all. If you can dump
entire constitutions without so much as a
by-your-leave, dumping one provision shouldn't be
too much of a problem. The idea has been floated
in Beijing by at least one Chinese intellectual.

Lobsang la clearly sees Tibet and his own future
within the framework of the Chinese
"motherland"  and he has declared quite publicly,
though half jokingly perhaps, that his ambition
was to become "the Obama of China"[1] . China,
mind you, not Tibet. It makes you wonder if he
doesn't see the kalon-tripa election as a
stepping stone to a larger political arena. But
maybe I am being cynical here. The statement
might be construed as a Walter Mitty like
blossoming of previous (though less ambitious)
expressions by our leaders about their desire to be citizens of the PRC.

Though all this puts Lobsang la squarely in the
Middle Path camp, he has conveniently avoided
taking sides in the fundamental Rangzen vs Middle
Path debate by dismissing both points of view as
divisive and unnecessary. That His Holiness the
Dalai Lama himself is the principal debater and
expositor for the Middle Way proposition, seems
to have escaped Lobsang la's observation. I will
go this far in agreeing with Lobsang la, in that
the Rangzen vs Middle Path debate should not have
started in the first place. We should have held
fast to our goal of Tibetan independence. But now
that it has, the debate must go on till an
acceptable resolution is arrived at,  when we can
all unite, once again, around a single national
objective.  Calling for a halt to the debate now
is actually a sneaky way of silencing Rangzen
supporters, since I am sure Lobsang la is not
calling on the Dalai Lama to give up his Middle
Way policy or to stop propagating it.

Lobsang la claims not to see the necessity of a
national goal in our struggle, and has written
that "one's objective is not the most important
part of the movement". Instead Lobsang la
stresses "unity, planning, and discipline". The
statement that a national struggle can do without
a fundamental goal or objective is alarmingly
naive, even lunatic, were it not so suspiciously
opportunistic. The other part of the statement
that debating the national goal is dangerous and
unnecessary, is clearly anti-democratic, and his
conclusion that such discussions must cease and
Tibetans should embrace "unity, planning, and
discipline" (presumably under the leadership of
someone like himself?) even verges on the authoritarian.

Whatever my disgreements with Lobsang la, I think
it is important to recognize that he is a serious
and unflagging candidate for the Kalon Tripa
elections, and that he has made a great
contribution to the evolution of the exile
political system. Just dismissing him as
"inexperienced" or one of the ghangjung mangjung
is essentially dismissing an entire new
generation of Tibetans who, whether our seniors
like it or not, will be taking up the reins of
power and responsibility in our society before long.

In my next post I will discuss some of the other candidates.

[1] Lobsang Sangay la made the statement at the
Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC, on July 29,
2008. This was the period when Obama was closing
in on the Democratic nomination and Lobsang la,
picking up on this contemporary event,  asserted
that if the US could have an ethnic minority as
a  president, China was capable of having one
also. He concluded his assertion with the
line  "I want to be the Obama of China!"
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