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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Ending to begin

July 23, 2011



Ganden Phodrang labrang, Drepung Monastery

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines from “The Second Coming” have often been pressed into service in political writing (of the despairing kind) though they are generally misemployed to introduce or set out events that don’t quite come up to the urgency of Yeat’s doom-laden metaphysical vision. I once saw them leading an op-ed in a British paper, the day after Margaret Thatcher’s third electoral victory.

But what is happening these days in the Tibetan world can, unfortunately, only be described accurately in the most dire of apocalyptic terms. And I don’t just mean inside Tibet, where the unrelenting oppression, violence, population transfer, cultural genocide and environmental devastation has now taken on an eschatological turn with the rapid marginalization and pauperization of the Tibetan people in the face of large-scale Chinese (and foreign) mining and development projects.

The latest addition to this “end of days” scenario is the unmistakably ethnocidal “Nomad Resettlement Program”. According to an official Xinhua news report 25,000 new units are being built in Qinghai for 2011, in addition to the previous 46,000 resettlement units already up and running. It has been estimated that the five year program would entail a total of about 134,000 herding families (approximately half a million individuals) to be forcibly removed from their grasslands and interned in bleak housing camps that bear a disturbing resemblance to  Stalinist gulags: row after row of identical grey cider-block huts surround by high stonewalls, the perimeters patrolled by police cars.

But no. Grim as all that is, I don’t just mean what is happening inside Tibet but also what is happening outside, particularly in Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government-in-exile has, to all intents and purposes, gone ahead and pulled the plug on itself.

One could say that it began in 1988 with the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal where he surrendered the cause of Tibetan independence, but a more immediate starting point for this current crisis was certainly this year’s 10th March statement by the Dalai Lama where he announced his decision to resign. I posted a blog criticizing the timing of his statement which came just ten days before Tibetan national elections. I also repeated a suggestion I made some years ago in a previous article in, that although the Dalai Lama’s decision to fully democratize the exile government was undoubtedly welcome, it was vital for reasons of political continuity and the morale of the Tibetan people inside Tibet, that he remain the head of state of the Tibetan nation – although in a purely ceremonial capacity. An insightful editorial in Tibetan Political Review made a similar recommendation outlining legal and constitutional reasons why such a step was necessary and why the exile parliament should not rush into any “hasty decision” on this issue. All such counsel and concerns were lost on Dharamshala, if it had even faintly registered there to begin with. The Tibetan parliament made an emotional request to the Dalai Lama asking him to continue in his role as “…the supreme political and spiritual leader of Tibet.”

The Dalai Lama categorically rejected the appeal during a religious teaching at the Tsuglakang temple in Dharamshala on March 19th. One aspect of the Dalai Lama’s statement that some people did not seem to grasp at first was that he was not only resigning as the political leader and head of state, but that he was also absolutely ending the role of the Dalai Lama as a national institution of Tibet. A report in made that clear: “His Holiness further said that it was his voluntary decision to end the political role of the Institution of the Dalai Lama that dates back to 1642, when the Great Fifth Dalai Lama assumed Tibet’s political leadership role.”

Viewing a video of the speech I was struck by the Dalai Lama’s claim that he was ending the institution of the Dalai Lama “victoriously” (gyalge nang nay). The Dalai Lama went on to say that the name of the Tibetan government Ganden Phodrang (Joyous Palace) was originally the name of the 5th Dalai Lama’s labrang or personal sub-monastery within Drepung monastery, and that he was going to take the name back – clearly intimating that the exile government could no longer use that name and that it was his personal property. The Dalai Lama’s stipulation was somewhat disconcerting at first. Didn’t he realize that he couldn’t just reach back some 370 odd years in history to reorder events to suit his current plans anymore than he could realistically demand the Chinese return to him the actual Ganden Phodrang building (which still exists).

When the Great Fifth took the name of his personal monastery and bestowed it on the new government of a free Tibet, united for the first time since the fall of the old Tibetan empire, it was an irrevocable political act and a profound historic event. I think we can all be certain that the Fifth was not having second thoughts that somewhere along the line he might want to take back the Ganden Phodrang name, just in case he had a change of plan in the future. Anyway the Dalai Lama got a new and vastly greater palace, the Potala, that the Tibetan people built for him with their sweat and devotion, and a new personal monastery, the Namgyal monastery (which he still has). Since coming into exile he has a modern private secretariat (kugyer yiktsang) which has more resources and political clout than the exile-government. Isn’t that enough?

Since 1642 the Ganden Phodrang has been the government of Tibet, and the legitimacy of the present exile-government rests in the minds of all Tibetans on the fact that it is an unbroken continuation of the same government that ruled in Lhasa before. If you took the name away you, in effect, ended the legitimacy of the government. If the exile government was not Ganden Phodrang anymore, then the 49,184 exile Tibetans who cast their votes this year were not participating in democratic election for a new prime minister and parliament, but rather in elections for the chairman and board of directors, or something on those lines, of a refugee organization or administration.

The inherent contradiction in the Dalai Lama’s demand may have prompted the next step in this farce. A five member Charter Re-drafting Committee was shortly created, which included the prime minister Samdong Rimpoche and Parliament Speaker Penpa Tsering, Taking its cue from the Dalai Lama’s withdrawal of the Ganden Phodrang name, the committee proposed that the old term “government” be dropped and the term “organization” be substituted.

The committee even came up with a strange touchy-feely (but on second thoughts perhaps a profoundly cynical)  motto for the new organization, “May Truth-ness Be Very Victorious” (denpanyi nampar gyalgyur chig ) to replace the former title and motto “The Government of Tibet, the Joyous Palace, Completely Victorious Everywhere (bhoshung ganden phodrang choglas namyal). This old formulation has a wonderful resonance to it, and I’m probably not the only one who thinks so. The government of Bhutan adopted something similar: “Palden Drukshung Choglas Namgyal. The Glorious government of Bhutan, Completely Victorious Everywhere.”

In an unusual fit of efficiency and energy the five-man committee even had the new motto engraved on the seal of the Tibetan government.

To discuss and endorse these proposals a national conference was called for May 20. Tenzing Sonam la, the filmmaker and essayist, in an article in Himal magazine, described this as “an historic occasion, as participants would debate the nearly 400-year-old political authority of the institution of the Dalai Lamas and the very existence of an official Tibetan government-in-exile.” Tenzing Sonam stresses how important this meeting was.

“418 Tibetans from around the world gathered in Dharamsala, constituting as representative a body of exile Tibetans as could be quickly mustered. After four days of intense discussions, the meeting unanimously requested the Dalai Lama to maintain a symbolic presence in the government as a ceremonial head of state, much like the system of constitutional monarchy in the UK. In the minds of the participants, there was no apparent contradiction in requesting this of the Dalai Lama as it did not impinge on his wishes to give up political authority. The name-change amendment was overwhelmingly rejected in favour of retaining ‘Tibetan Government-in-exile’.” (my italcs JN)

“When the participants had an audience with the Dalai Lama to present their conclusions, their first surprise was his firm refusal to even consider their recommendation that he remain as ceremonial head of state. But it was his response to their second point, the retention of ‘Tibetan Government-in-exile’ as the official name, that really shook them. He made a strong and emotional case against this proposal, saying that if the name was retained leading to a problem in the future, he would not be able to help them. He also suggested that the new name could be changed to something like ‘Tibetan People’s Administration’.

And that was exactly what was done in a following session of the Tibetan parliament. Steered and “chided” by Samdong Rimpoche, the parliament near unanimously voted to change the name of the Tibetan exile government to “Bhod Me Drik Tsuk” (lit. Institution/Organization of the Tibetan People).

Tenzing Sonam la’s article is required reading for anyone wanting to make sense of the tragic and farcial events played out in Dharamshala and the profoundly undemocratic, cynical and arbitrary manner in which decisions were made that led to them. A poignant obituary of the Ganden Phodrang government by Sherab Woeser la appeared in Other commentaries on various aspects of this issue that provide valuable insight and analysis are those by Wangpo Tethong, Christophe Besuchet, and Prof. Elliot Sperling (in Jane’s Intelligence Review).

As much as I admired Tenzing Sonam la’s piece I must disagree with one of his main premises, repeated by many Tibetans and also such non-Tibetans as Pico Iyer, Patrick French and others, that “Ever since coming into exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama has tirelessly promoted democracy” but failed because Tibetans were too conservative, religious, and unquestioningly devoted to the Dalai Lama. This, I have I said before “is essentially a pious fable that frustrated exile-Tibetans repeat like a mantra to berate themselves for the crushing stasis of their society and political movement.” His Holiness may have initially started his democratic quest on a sincere note but his inability to tolerate criticism or even a modicum of loyal opposition essentially ensured that the Tibetan political experiment would soon degenerate into something like Nepal’s old one-party “Panchayat democracy”.

And I do not agree with Tenzing Sonam la that the Dalai Lama’s resignation was “A far-sighted and bold initiative by the Dalai Lama to decisively impose the responsibilities of democracy on the diaspora.” First of all I think it is evident that the Dalai Lama was not really resigning and retiring in the traditional sense of the term, like president George Bush going back to his ranch in Crawford Texas to clear brush or whatever, or in the tradition of many great lamas in Tibet who go into meditation retreats (tsam) on withdrawing from spiritual or administrative duties. Charles Bell was told in Lhasa that the Great Fifth Lama “conducted the secular affairs of his State for no more than three years. He then retired into religious seclusion.”

The Dalai Lama was not so much retiring as undertaking a major career change. Less than a month after his resignation he was in Ireland dispensing advice to the Irish on their economic crisis, telling them that “The ultimate source of happiness, peace of mind, cannot be produced by money,” Then he was in Australia where he took on an idiot talk-show host’s pizza joke, and consoled the people of Queensland on the deadly flood and cyclone disaster they had recently endured. In July he was in Washington DC to give a Kalachakra initiation to be followed by a public talk and discussion in Chicago. In the following months he has more commitments in France, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Monterrey Mexico, Mexico city, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo (Brazil). This is not counting the four or more major teachings he is giving in Dharamshala, which will be attended by hundreds of devotees from Taiwan and South Korea. Going through the schedule section of the website leaves you tremendously impressed by the Dalai Lama’s stamina. It also makes you realize that His Holiness has for some time now been far more busy in his global spiritual quest than with the issue of Tibetan freedom.

It has been argued by many of the Dalai Lama’s devotee’s, Tibetan and non-Tibetan, that his teachings and travels benefit the Tibetan cause as they bring much needed international attention to it. There is undoubtedly some truth to this assertion, but the bottom line is that such spiritual junkets bring in only as much publicity to the cause as the Dalai Lama is actually willing to talk about. When he does not raise the issue during his travels (which is increasingly becoming the norm) the media is perfectly happy to ignore the hard political issues (why annoy China when you don’t have to?) and instead write about spirituality and world-peace.

Of course, the Dalai Lama’s has a right to do as he pleases on retiring. If he wants to spend his time providing spiritual guidance to the world, his decision is not only worthy of respect but even praise and admiration. I have no doubt that the Dalai Lama’s spiritual ministrations provide tremendous solace and direction to thousands of people around the world and that is certainly a very positive thing.

My only objection is to his deliberate decision to strip away the historic name and motto of the Tibetan government, essentially shutting down the institution as a political entity by reducing it from an “exile-government” to a refugee administration or organization. Many Tibetans, especially old officials and ministers in retirement were absolutely shattered by the Dalai Lama’s decision. I spoke to some of them and they appeared confused and bewildered as to why the exile-government had to end just because the Dalai Lama was retiring.

I was also puzzled at first but on some reflection it became fairly obvious. Tibetans overwhelmingly feel that the Dalai Lama’s policy to seek dialogue with Beijing has failed. Most feel that the failure has been disastrous and humiliating. Only the Dalai Lama active management of this issue and the effort of Samdong Rimpoche and other loyalists have kept the “Middle Way Approach” afloat – but even then, just barely. Without the Dalai Lama’s hands-on leadership and with the ultimate decision-making powers being transferred to a democratically elected exile-government, it could be reasonably expected that a Rangzen based political party would come into power, sooner or later. Possibly sooner, with all the unrest and uprisings within Tibet.

Therefore to ensure the permanence of the Middle Way policy within exile society – to set it in concrete as it were – it was vital that the exile-government be politically emasculated and converted into a body only capable of managing the settlements, schools etc, and not able to make decisions regarding the future of the Tibetan nation. Right now although the Dalai Lama is said to have completely retired and the claim has been made by the parliament that all political powers have been transferred to new “Tibetan People’s Organization” (TPO), it is not clear whether the various offices of Tibet and representatives and envoys of the Dalai Lama all over the world are under his authority of that of the TPO. Nearly all our dealings with other nations and also much of our externally generated funding is received by these unofficial “embassies”. The Dalai Lama’s international travels and programs are also managed by them.

It was also vital to the implementation of this plan that the Dalai Lama not remain as the symbolic head of state, even though requested by nearly all Tibetans. Any such connection would benefit the TPO through the Dalai Lama’s prestige and international standing. Moreover if he became the ceremonial head of state he would be constitutionally bound (as the Queen of England, the Emperor of Japan, and the King of Thailand are) not to publicly disagree with whatever policies that the elected organization had enacted, even if they included the rejection of the Middle Way.

The Dalai Lama has said that on retirement he would continue to promote the Middle Way Policy, and the new preamble of the amended charter gives him the standing to do so. So what you actually have now is someone with more political clout than a ceremonial head of state, but with no requirement to support the policies of the new elected Tibetan organization. And since the Dalai Lama will be situated in Dharamshala with his own private monastery and private secretariate, which will presumably henceforth be called Ganden Phodrang, no new administration or TPO, even one elected by a landslide majority, would be able to do anything the Dalai Lama did not approve.

The present kalon tripa, Lobsang Sangay la, appears to have fully absorbed the new reality. In his first interview since winning the elections he declared that “he stood for the Middle Way”, and that he “..will strive for the genuine autonomy of Tibet within the Chinese constitution.” He has also stated that he would abide by the advice and guidance of the Dalai Lama. Earlier when he was campaigning, he had been careful to always declare that he supported both independence as well as the Middle Way. In fact he coined a new term “u-rang“, combining the first syllable from umay-lam or Middle way and the first syllable from rangzen to define his unique position.

The conviction that the Middle Way must always remain the only political ideology of Tibetans, even if that status quo can only be maintained in the most undemocratic, cynical and self-destructive manner, is an article of faith for many of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way loyalists. They openly argue that the Dalai Lama’s international travels, meeting with various heads of states, public lectures and teachings, would come to a crashing halt if Tibetans began to advocate for independence, and some Western followers of the Dalai Lama also assert this. A Brazilian diplomat who came to a talk of mine at Tibet House in New York city told me so to my face and I wasn’t too sure whether she was giving me a bit of advice or making a threat. Another justification cited is that the financial support the exile administration receives from the EU, US Congress and other organizations would stop if exiles adopted the goal of Rangzen. These people are of course absolutely mistaken, and are just buying into a classic instance of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I won’t go into that now. The important thing to note is that it is a real belief on their part, one that the Dalai Lama also genuinely holds.

There is an additional reason, crucial but not openly discussed, why the Dalai Lama seeks to ensure that the Middle Way is never supplanted in exile polity. I wrote this in 2007 “Over the last decade, a delusion has been cultivated in Tibetan leadership circles that Tibetan Buddhism could become the dominant, perhaps even the state religion of China. An unspoken corollary to this eventuality is that the Dalai Lama could somehow be accorded the larger role of spiritual leader of the Chinese people.” Victor Chan who has co-authored a book with the Dalai Lama The Wisdom of Forgiveness, and founded the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education jointly with His Holiness, told me during an interview that he “… felt sure that His Holiness could become the leader of China’s Buddhists, but that in order for that to happen Tibetans had to renounce their demand for independence, since the Chinese “people” would never accept an independent Tibet.” His Holiness has put it more modestly “I would like to perform a Kalachakra in Tiananmen Square.”

The Dalai Lama’s special emissary, Lodi Gyari in an interview in made this claim: “One of the most decisive factors in the Tibetan issue is this newly found interest for Buddhism in China. In the same interview, Gyari claimed that there was a great “extent of reverence” for the Dalai Lama throughout China, even among officials in the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Gyari felt that this reverence even extended to China’s entrepreneurs and business community who believed “that what China really needs is the presence of His Holiness.”

It’s clear that His Holiness and those around him are convinced they are playing for enormous international stakes. Hence their impatience with those who still cling to such outdated, unprofitable and inconsequential institutions and issues as the exile-government and Tibetan independence. Yet, inside Tibet people continue to rise up for freedom and suffer the consequences. In exile, confused and heartbroken as most Tibetans are, demonstrations, hunger-strikes and marches go on. Shouldn’t someone be telling these people to go home; that it’s all over? And especially to those inside Tibet, to stop putting themselves at such enormous risk and danger for a cause that has been officially abandoned. Or do these people know something that we don’t? That perhaps far from being over the struggle may just be beginning? I don’t know, but I’d like to investigate this in Part II. A concluding observation.

Only two Dalai Lamas are known to Tibetans as “The Great” (chenmo). The Great Fifth (kuntreng ngaba chenmo) reunited a Tibet fragmented since the collapse of the Tibetan Empire, and the Great Thirteenth, (kundreng chuksumpa chenmo), freed Tibet from Manchu domination in 1911 and created an independent nation. The present Dalai Lama has received many distinguished international titles and honors “Nobel Laureate”, “Congressional Medal of Honor Holder” and so on, but the simple yet ultimate accolade from his own people has so far eluded him. His courtiers routinely address him as “The Great Helmsman of World Peace” (zamling shide dhipon), which is, I suppose, a title more in keeping with his current aspirations, but I wish they hadn’t used the same Tibetan word for “Helmsman” (dhipon) as the one used in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution to honor Mao, “The Great Helmsman”.

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