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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?"

Tibet poll 'a vote for freedom'

March 27, 2011

* Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent
* From:The Australian
* March 19, 2011 12:00AM

IN an election battle that will determine the most powerful secular leader ever to head the world's exiled Tibetan community, Lobsang Sangay has shared dinners, campaign tips, 12-hour car rides - even a hotel room - with his political rivals.

Before every speech, the poll favourite takes pains to highlight the "integrity and patriotism" of his two fellow prime ministerial aspirants.

As if Richard Gere's somnolent charms weren't sufficient endorsement for Tibetan Buddhism. Never, it seems, has the world seen such a civilised election campaign.

"Why not?" the 42-year-old Fulbright scholar, Harvard Law fellow and self-described freedom fighter asks when the wisdom of such good-natured collectivism is questioned.

"It's not just an election for the position of Prime Minister in a democratic government. It's a freedom struggle.

"Whoever wins, I wish him all the best and we must unite behind him and work for Tibet."

About 83,000 exiled Tibetans in India and more than 30 other countries, including Australia, head to the polls tomorrow to choose only their second democratically elected parliament and leader, and their first secular Prime Minister, as the high-ranking monk Samdhong Rinpoche steps down in August.

But not even the most genteel election race can mask the divisions emerging within the community.

The polls - and the office of the Kalon Tripa (PM) - were lent greater significance last week when the Dalai Lama announced his intention to relinquish political power after 51 years as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The Dalai Lama's roles as spiritual and political leader date back to 1642 and there is considerable resistance among the six million people in Tibet - who don't get to vote tomorrow - to any change delivered from the outside.

Even within the exiled community, the election will test the unity of Tibetans, split between those who support the growth of democratic institutions and those unwilling to accept the devolution of their spiritual leader's divine right to rule.

"We need to encourage a culture of democracy," says Tenzin Tsundue, a writer and spokesman for the volunteer Tibetan Youth for a Better Democracy movement that is backing 30 "progressive" candidates for the 44-seat parliament.

Tsundue says he is dismayed by the current parliament's unwillingness to accept the Dalai Lama's political retirement because "this isn't about retirement but about creating new leaders who can lead, not just follow".

"The Tibetan community is habitually dependant on His Holiness and that can be dangerous if it comes to a point where he is unable to offer that kind of leadership," he says.

It's not a view universally shared by Tibetans in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, which has served as home-in-exile to the Dalai Lama and his followers since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.

"The Tibetan government-in-exile is dependent on the Dalai Lama. Within Tibet they would not accept an exiled government without him," MP Pema Jungney told journalists this week.

The election result, due in May, is tipped to herald a new, possibly more combative, phase in the China-Tibet relationship. The two leading candidates have hinted at their willingness to move beyond the Dalai Lama's Middle Way of autonomy for Tibet.

Sangay says his priority is to "win freedom for Tibetans and Tibet . . . and anyone elected as Prime Minister must implement the Middle Way because it's the stated view of His Holiness".

His main opponent, Tenzin Tethong, 62, a Stanford University distinguished fellow of Tibetan studies and founder of key Tibetan initiatives in the US, has even talked of "self determination" - code among younger radicals for independence.

The election has stirred a political awakening among the traditionally theocratic Tibetans, who have embraced their nascent democracy like never before.

In 2006, less than 27 per cent of voters participated in the elections.

But concerted campaigns in the past year by youth activists, non-government organisations, women's groups and the Dalai Lama have many predicting voter turnout as high as 75 per cent.

Tenzin Tsundue says there's no better indicator of the community's new enthusiasm than the fact that 15 people fought last year's primaries for the right to stand for prime minister.

Two years earlier, Tibetan exiles - alarmed at the dearth of potential candidates - were pushing to amend their democratic charter to allow the incumbent Prime Minister to stand for a third term.

Tsundue credits the internet and social media for helping drive the change and says the new enthusiasm has "encouraged and inspired the Tibetan struggle itself".

"We now have three established, really promising leaders who have created huge appreciation among Tibetans," he says.

Sangay agrees there's been a political awakening, though he is more inclined to credit the 2008 uprising suppressed by Chinese authorities - and his own political campaign, which for the first time took electioneering to the most remote Tibetan settlements.

To a community accustomed to inheriting leaders through divine reincarnation, it was a thunderously successful revelation, which delivered Sangay twice the votes in last October's primaries as his closest rival. "Now if candidates don't go to the people they will not win," he says.

Most Tibetans believe this election will bring more transformation still and Tsundue says his community is on the edge of a "hugely inspiring moment".

"This is all happening in 50 short years," he says. "When my mother and father came from Tibet they had never even seen trains or buses or bicycles.

"Using the little freedom we have as Tibetan refugees around the world, we're working to create a process of democracy that will be our gift when we get back to Tibet, to create a new Tibet."

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