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Further Musings on the Upcoming Elections by Jamyang Norbu

October 20, 2010

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
October 18, 2010

Readers must forgive me for nit picking, but the
term "kalon-tripa," literally "the enthroned
minister" bothers me. It doesn’t exactly sit well
(no pun intended) in a democratic system. Thrones
might be okay, these day, for titular sovereigns
as the Queen of England or the King of Thailand,
and certainly for His Holiness who Tibetans
(especially those in Tibet) desperately hope to
see one day back at the Potala on the golden
throne that the people of the three provinces
(led by Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang) offered him on
the 4th of July 1957. Everyone else,
prime-ministers included, should, even in a
figurative sense, not be entitled to anything
more than a chair. The term kalon-tripa also has
an unsuitable religious association. The
highest-ranking geshe in the Gelukpa church is
called the Ganden tripa or “the enthroned of
Ganden”.  Why don’t we just use the clear,
concise and standard term “si-lon” which every
Tibetan/English or English/Tibetan dictionary defines as “prime-minister”?

But moving on to the discussion on the candidates
for the coming prime-ministerial elections, I
absolutely want to say how tremendously impressed
I am with Gyari Dolma la for stepping up and
throwing her hat in our political ring. In any
traditional society (even in a not so
anti-feminine one as ours) it is always so much
more difficult for a woman to take such a public
initiative than a man. The fact that Dolma la
just did it, without any sort of affirmative
action entitlement, the support of the Tibetan
Women’s Association or the endorsement of her
powerful brother, Gyari Lodi Gyaltsen la, is
particularly admirable and praiseworthy.

She has a legal education and has in fact has
worked pro bono on a number of occasions to help
the Tibetan community in Delhi in the Indian
courts. She has also been a long time member of
the Tibetan parliament and because of her
parliamentary experience and debating skills she
has been elected deputy-speaker three times. That
her colleagues appear to have consistently valued
her talents and energy as a deputy-speaker but
never took the logical next step and elevated her
to the speaker’s chair, might indicate some
residual sexism among the largely male membership
of that body. But I am speculating here. Her
critics sometimes tend to raise their eyebrows at
her emotional outburst. But I for one would
actually welcome a leader who showed anger at
injustice and tyranny and shed tears when our
people were being tortured and executed. I am fed
up with the fearful and flaccid official
reaction, generally of the
lets-not-upset-the-Chinese variety, whenever some
response to Chinese atrocities is required.

Former Kalon Tashi Wangdu-la is also highly
qualified to be the next prime-minister. I am not
too sure he is running. I heard sometime ago that
he was not, but I see an ad for him in
so I am assuming he is. Besides his higher
education in Britain and his many years of
government experience Tashi Wangdu-la brings a
really strong and uncommon democratic virtue to
his resumé. Among the few Tibetan officials I
have known he has been very tolerant and
genuinely understanding of dissent.  When I was a
director of the Amnye Machen Institute our
newspaper Mangtso was often critical of
government policies, but Tashi Wangdu-la (who was
kalon then) never let that get in the way of
appreciating the many works of the Institute,
which he publicly supported and unstintingly
praised on numerous occasions. Tashi Wangdu-la
may not be an exciting candidate for some
people’s tastes, but he has a solid track record.
And right now we need leaders who can listen to
the ideas and grievances of all the diverse
groups in our society, especially those that are
at presently marginalized or feel themselves to
be ­ and hopefully bring them back into the national fold.

Another former government official running for
the kalon-tripa seat is Lobsang Jinpa-la. His is
not a high profile candidacy but he is someone
who has many years of hands-on experience in the
various departments of the TGIE, lastly in the
Private Secretariat of the Dalai Lama. But he has
one outstanding quality that requires me to tell
this story. In 1976 the Tibetan Youth Congress
went through its most critical life-and-death
crisis when in the face of TGIE opposition it
organized the Coordinating Committee for Tibetan
Freedom, with Tibetan communities in Delhi and
elsewhere in India and Nepal. After
demonstrations, large-scale arrests, a
hunger-strike, great deal of lobbying and
vigorous PR work, the Coordinating Committee
managed to get the new ruling party of India, the
Janata Party, to call on the United Nations to
take up the issue of Tibet. It also secured the
Janata Party’s preliminary recognition of Tibetan independence.

Because of the opposition by the TGIE and His
Holiness, all TYC Centrex leaders had to resign
from their posts. The TYC went into a dangerous
decline and there was some fear of the
organization falling apart. But Lobsang Jinpa-la
became president in 1977 and in a slow,
methodical and quiet manner he went about putting
the organization back, piece by piece. And it
must be said that he not only succeed in doing
that, but made tremendous improvements in TYC’s
financial and organizational strength. Would he
be able to do the same for TGIE? Why not give him the chance?

I think another candidate, Phurbu Dorjee-la,
deserves more recognition than he is getting
right now. He is probably the least well-known of
all the candidates I am discussing, but he brings
a dogged earnestness and untiring civic sense to
his candidacy, that is unusual in Tibetan
political circles, where big name connections and
extravagant rhetoric serves as a regrettable
substitute. Phurbu-la has a solid legal resumé,
first studying law in India (LLB) and later
obtaining his LLM in International Legal Studies
from Washington College of Law at Boston. In
fact, of all the Kalon Tripa candidates he is the
only one who has actually practiced law, which is
the definition of “lawyer”. He registered as the
first sherpang (legal adjudicator) in the Tibetan
Supreme Justice Commission in Dharamshala, and if
I am not mistaken, he has even practiced for a
time at the Indian courts at Lower Dharamshala.

The point I am trying to make here is that
Phurbu-la is one of those unassuming people who
seem to have no problem starting at the bottom of
the ladder and working their way up step by step,
on their own steam; not politicking or looking
for some sinecure or short-cut. He is a joiner,
one of those people who tirelessly attends all
Tibetan meetings and participates in every
community event. Too many of us fail dismally on
that score (I plead guilty also) but I don’t
think there can be any doubt that such people are
indispensable to our society. Hares may be
exciting to watch but the tortoise has definite virtues that we need right now.

In terms of sheer volume of accomplishments
Tenzin Namgyal Tethong is hard to beat. He is one
of the three founding editors of the first
Tibetan exile magazine (1968). Sheja (Knowledge),
modelled after the Readers Digest, was very
popular with the Tibet exile public in the 60s &
70?s, and is still running (the last time I
checked) after all these years. He is one of the
four founders of the Tibetan Youth Congress, and
also served in the Information Office where he
was briefly the editor of the Tibetan Review, He
also worked at the Kashag Secretariat and the
Education Department. In the latter he put
together the first detailed proposal for the
creation of a University of Tibet. He probably
did that in the early seventies, but I obtained a
printed copy later on which I took up with the
late Gyatsho Tshering la, director of the Tibetan
Library. The two of us re-worked the project and
Gyatsho la presented it to His Holiness somewhere
around 1983, if I remember correctly.  The
University of Tibet project, drafted at least a
decade before the present Lhasa University was
set up in occupied Tibet, shows, in a real sense
Tenzin Namgyal la to be someone with vision, and
not merely an accomplished bureaucrat.

He was posted as the representative of Dalai Lama
in New York, after the American government had
discontinued their financial and political
support for the Tibetan issue. In spite of this
complication, a severe shortage of funds, the
absence of a significant Tibetan community (I
recall only about 20 or 30 Tibetans in New York
in 1975) and dismally few Western supporters, he
managed to pull of a few coups. He organized the
first ever international tour of the Tibetan
Institute of Performing Arts in USA, Europe,
South East Asia and Australia in 1975-76. Prior
to this no Tibetan organization, including
monasteries had toured the West. But more
significantly, Tenzin Namgyal-la managed to bring
about the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the
USA in 1979, a project which had till then been
bedeviled by cold-war politics. Those were the
days the US was cultivating China against the
Soviet Union, and there was none of the official
(and public) sympathy for the Tibetan issue, that
we received from the mid-eighties onwards.

Tenzin Namgyal la was instrumental in setting up
Potala Publication, The Tibet Fund and especially
the International Campaign for Tibet in 1988 to
lobby for the Tibetan issue in the American
government and society. He also played a key role
in the formation of several Tibetan initiatives
in the U.S. and Canada among which are the U.S.
Tibet Committee, the Tibetan Association of New
York and New Jersey, and Tibet House ­ New York.
He was also the leader of the second delegation
sent by the Dalai Lama to Tibet, in 1980.This
delegation of young and Western educated Tibetan
officials created a sensation throughout Tibet
for their outspokenness and boldness. John Avedon
quotes Tenzin Tethong in his book In Exile From
the Land of Snows, “The Chinese took one look at
us and realized we were not the type of Tibetans
they were used to dealing with. We were very
outspoken. We challenged every statement they
made, pointed out all their lies and mistakes …
The fact that we were well educated yet still had
faith in our religion and traditional culture was
incomprehensible to them. It didn’t fit in with their dogma.”

 From 1990 to 1995 he served as a kalon and later
kalon-tripa. When he resigned, Mangtso the
newspaper of the Amnye Machen Institute that I
edited with my two colleagues, published an
editorial commenting on his tenure. We had
earlier published criticisms and comments on his
administration (as we had of other
administrations) but in the editorial we noted
that though he had served in the cabinet for five
years he had not completed his kalon-tripa term
and we expressed our disappointment with his
departure. We also noted that during his tenure
as kalon-tripa the Tibetan government had run up
the first deficit in its history. The Tibetan
word we used for “deficit” was “chas-lhag”
literally “missing-left over”. I admit the choice
of the Tibetan word was not a good one, but it
was exactly the same one was used by the Tibetan
parliament in their Hansard like official
publications of its proceedings, to mean “deficit”.

There was some genuine misunderstanding but
certain Tibetans, unfortunately took it upon
themselves to misinterpret the word "deficit" as
meaning to steal or embezzle, and spread rumours
to that effect. Two leaders (since passed away)
of a Chushigangdruk faction at the time worked
particularly hard to spread that rumour as they
had earlier been in some trouble with the TGIE
for their acceptance of money and the leadership
of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission
of the Taiwan government. The fact that Mangtso
had first uncovered this Taiwan connection and
even printed a facsimile of the agreement between
the Khampa leaders and the MTAC, provided a
double incentive to these people to persist in
the misinterpretation ­ which was repeated again
and again in their organization’s news-journal.
This same misinterpretation of the word was also
used by those hostile to the Amnye Machen
Institute as evidence of its journalistic
irresponsibility and reason why the Mangtso
newspaper and the Amnye Machen Institute had to be shut down.

 From information I came across much later it
appears that that the deficit had been run-up
over a fairly long period of time, covering a
number of administrations, but had largely been
unnoticed because of faulty accounting practices.
When changes were made to accounting practices
during Tenzin Tethong’s tenure, the deficits
showed up for the first time. Because of this
unfortunate incident Tenzin Namgyal la (who is a
cousin of mine) and I have not been on speaking terms for a long time.

Considering the many failed and controversial
programs of the present administration it might
be a morale-booster for Tibetan voters to realize
that all the projects that Tenzin Tethong has
been involved in setting up: Sheja Magazine, The
Tibetan Youth Congress, Potala Publications,
Tibet Fund, Tibet House New York, International
Campaign for Tibet and others are still carrying
on quite successfully (although in the last
instance, under Gyari Lodi la, not exactly in the
way it was intended). Tibetans will also be
reassured to note that when Tenzin Namgyal la
resigned his official position as North American
representative, and later Kalon Tripa, he
transferred all his related projects to his
successors and did not hang on to any of these
undertakings (many with considerable funding and
sinecure prospects) as a part of a “personal
retirement plan”, as has unfortunately been the
case with a few of our senior officials.

Of course all the candidates I have discussed
earlier are Middle Way followers. But as far as I
can make they hold that view largely because of
their faith in the Dalai Lama, and not because
they have an independent or intellectual stake in
the Middle Way. So I am unable to discuss their
ideas on this fundamental issue as I have done
with Lobsang Sangay la, who has expressed his
support for the Middle Way in articles and talks.

Tenzin Tethong has staked a somewhat different
position for himself with his emphasis on
Self-Determination (rangthak-rangchoe) for the
Tibetan people as a resolution to the issue of
Tibet. He and his supporters even organized a
conference on this issue in 2006 in Switzerland.
The UN resolution on Tibet (of 1961) that
acknowledged the right of Tibetan people to
self-determination, appeared to be the driving
inspiration for the participants. I strongly feel
that any refashioning of our fundamental goal of
Rangzen, because it does not appear immediately
viable or because is politically inconvenient, is
extremely short-sighted and damaging to national
unity. Self-determination like negotiations is
acceptable, maybe even necessary at certain
moments in our struggle, but only as a means to
achieving Rangzen, and not as the fundamental
political goal in itself. Hence when I attended
the Self-Determination conference I expressed my
views clearly to the participant and did not sign their resolution.

Nonetheless, since it does not appear that Tenzin
Namgyal-la desires to make Tibet a part of China,
without at least first getting the consent of the
Tibetan people in a national plebiscite
supervised by the UN, I think he might provide
the Middle Way Policy a restraining influence,
and could prevent any more disastrous negotiation
trips to Beijing for the time being.

Hence, though I absolutely maintain that a
rangzen-based national party must be created to
contest future elections,  for the impending
elections I support Tenzin’s Namgyal-la’s
candidacy. I think he will bring in a period of
calm rebuilding of our exile government, which
will give His Holiness and the Tibetan people
time to rethink national policy. During his
debates with other candidates Tenzin Namgyal-la
was careful not to make extravagant promises and
claims, which seems to have disappointed many in
the audience. But his restraint reassured those
more aware of the truly frightening problems
confronting us right now, and also aware there
are no quick and fancy solutions to any of them.
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