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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."

Tibet: Young democracy faces a big challenge

October 29, 2010

Rick Westhead
The Toronto Star
October 27, 2010

DHARAMSALA, INDIA -- Thubten Shoepel's
photocopied election posters are everywhere in
this mountain village -- taped to buildings,
trees, bullock carts and temple walls.

"He can follow the guidelines of High Holiness
the Dalai Lama," the 44-year-old's posters promise.

"He has worked for Tibet's planning commission
and besides this, he has a visa for America but
he has stayed in India to serve the (Tibetan)
government. He has a lot of experience and sincerity."

When it comes to campaigning for the upcoming
parliamentary election of the Tibetan
government-in-exile, this is as clear an election
platform as you are likely to find.

In five months, on March 20, some 79,000
registered Tibetan voters around the world will
head to the polls to elect a prime minister and 44 members of parliament.

Western scholars call the upcoming election a
milestone in the exiled government's history.

For decades, the Dalai Lama has served both as
Tibet's spiritual and political leader. But with
the 75-year-old in a period of self-described
semi-retirement, the Tibetan government-in-exile
is poised to play a more prominent role in negotiations with China.

Yet there are concerns about whether the exile
government is ready to handle the added responsibility.

Critics worry that Tibet's exile government is
woefully unsophisticated and unprepared for a
showdown with China and an unofficial survey of
the hundreds of political posters in Dharamsala,
a north Indian mountain village that serves as
the capital of Tibet's exile government, seems to
support this theory. Shoepel's was among the most compelling campaign pitches.

A fellow in the Tibetan Studies Initiative at
Stanford University, 61-year-old Tenzin Tethong
is running to head the kalon tripa, the Tibetan
exile government's eight-member cabinet. He
agreed that the young democracy has struggled to find its footing.

"It's a work in progress," he says.

Tibet's exile government holds two sessions a
year. One is in March and a second is in September. Both are just 15 days.

This year, the government passed a single piece
of legislation, a new law that gives exiles in
North America two parliamentary seats instead of one.

The government raises money by charging Tibetans
in India a 2 per cent tax on earnings. Overseas
Tibetans pay $84 a year to receive voting
privileges, said Jampal Chosang, the government's chief electoral officer.

Samdhong Rinpoche (Rinpoche is an honorific for a
senior lama) has served as the exile government's
first prime minister for the past eight years and
his stewardship has been laced with controversy.
He has infuriated some young Tibetans by calling
the Tibetan issue a domestic matter for China and
earlier this year, he risked widening a rift
among the estimated 120,000 exiled Tibetans when
he ridiculed those who want the Dalai Lama to
stop asking China for autonomy and instead demand Tibet's independence.

In a May 23 speech in New York, Rinpoche said
people who push independence "criticize and
denigrate his holiness. All these people are a
bit more dangerous than the Chinese communists."

Elliott Sperling, a Tibetan scholar at Indiana
University, said Samdhong Rinpoche's Tibetan
democracy has missed out on opportunities to
mature. The Dalai Lama hasn't helped matters, he said.

"In public, it's impossible for people to
criticize the Dalai Lama's middle-way approach
with China," Sperling said. "It's very difficult
to have a real democracy if the leader is out of
bounds and people don't understand that
criticizing him is their very basic right."

Similarly, Sperling said the Dalai Lama could be
showing parliament more leadership by
establishing a search committee now to find his
eventual successor. When the 75-year-old Dalai
Lama does die, it's widely expected that China
will announce its own Dalai Lama.

"There's no doubt that there's going to be a
scramble for power," Sperling said.

Sitting in a coffee shop in Dharamsala, a few
feet away from the entrance to the Dalai Lama's
temple, several monks mused on a recent evening
over the Dalai Lama's eventual death and the power vacuum it would create.

Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, was 57 when
he died a week before Christmas in 1933.

Mourners prepared his corpse in the traditional
way: The Buddhist monk's body was boiled in yak
butter and salt and his mustachioed face was
painted with gold. His corpse was transported to
a temple in the Tibetan capital city Lhasa where
it was seated upright while his soul, Buddhists
believe, journeyed to nearby Lake Chö Kor Gye to take up temporary residence.

It was four years before the current Dalai Lama
was discovered living with his parents in a poor
Tibetan mountain settlement and decades after
that before he became a respected world leader.

"I don't think there's any question that when His
Holiness dies, China will say the game is over,"
a 25-year-old monk from Nepal whispered in the crowded café.

And with China likely declaring victory, several
high-profile Tibetan advocates said it's a safe
bet that violence in Tibet, sporadic to this point, would increase.

"Freedom is not nice and cool all the time," said
Tenzin Tsundue, an activist who lives in
Dharamsala. "Of course there may be more setting fires."

While China has argued that the foreign press
doesn't understand the Tibetan issue and has said
the exile government doesn't appreciate its
efforts to bring prosperity to the region, more
young Tibetans are becoming restive, said Jamyang
Norbu, an acclaimed Tibetan writer who now lives in the U.S.

In March 2008, Tibet was paralyzed by a string of
riots in Lhasa that left as many as 140
protestors dead. While the city has taken on a
more militarized look, with numerous
closed-circuit TV cameras, the prospect of violence remains.

Even now, Norbu said some Tibetans in Lhasa are
stockpiling AK-47s that they buy on the black market from Chinese police.

The going price for one AK is two lumps of musk,
he said. Extremely rare and expensive, musk comes
from the gland of a male musk deer and is used to make perfumes.
" Norbu said. "He has no idea how sophisticated the Chinese apparatus is."

That's the kind of percolating dissent Samdhong
Rinpoche's successor stands to inherit in March.

It may be a young democracy, but Tibet's exile
government doesn't lack political intrigue.
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