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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

For a Democratic Future, Try Non-Violence

August 14, 2011

Today, August 8, 2011, marks a historic moment for Tibetans, in Tibet and in exile: Dr. Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard graduate and legal scholar born in exile, has been sworn in as the first non-monastic, directly elected Prime Minister of Tibet’s legitimate exiled government.

The swearing in of Dr. Sangay in Dharamsala, India, the seat of Tibet’s exiled government, not only ends more than 350 years of political leadership by the lineage of the Dalai Lamas over the Tibetan people. It also caps a half-century in the secular maturation of Tibet’s democratically elected government in exile.

Most of what the world knows about Tibet has come through His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet into exile in 1959. During more than a half century in exile, the Dalai Lama has been recognized around the world for his tireless devotion to peace and non-violence. In 1989 he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and he continues his efforts to ensure the cultural and spiritual survival of his people, in Tibet and among the 125,000 Tibetan living in exile.

Yet, even as China's occupation of Tibet has brought hardship and challenge to Tibetans, the past half-century has also created the opportunity to modernize Tibet’s government.

In 1961 the Dalai Lama presented to the Tibetan people a draft constitution, which began a two-year dialogue that would culminate in the constitution’s establishment. The “Charter of the Tibetans,” as it is now known, enshrines the fundamental human rights and freedoms that the world’s democratic states hold dear, including the freedom of assembly and movement, speech, belief, and religion.

In 1990, Tibetans furthered their nascent democratic institutions and practices by establishing an electoral process to directly elect members of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, as well as to choose members of the executive branch’s Cabinet. In 2001 came the first direct election of the Tibetan government’s Prime Minister, or Kalon Tripa.

With the second five-year term of the current Kalon Tripa, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, ending in this past spring, last fall Tibetans around the world went to the polls to elect the next Kalon Tripa. After several months of vibrant debate and campaigning, and two rounds of voting, in October and again in March, Dr. Sangay, born in exile to parents who fled China’s crackdown on the Tibetan people in 1959, was declared the winner, receiving an absolute majority of votes over two other secular candidates.

While the peaceful electoral process and maturation of a democracy in exile might seem newsworthy enough, two additional compelling events occurred during this time.

First, during both rounds of voting, Chinese officials intervened with the Nepalese government to disrupt the voting process for some 9,000 eligible Tibetan voters living in exile in Nepal. Nepal’s police arrested and detained Tibetans and seized ballot boxes, denying Tibetans the right to vote, and thereby to determine their own political future.

Second, in mid-March the Dalai Lama stepped down from the all of his governmental responsibilities, voluntarily devolving his political authority and ending 350 years of direct governance and leadership by successive Dalai Lamas. His reason? “Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people.”

Today, on the eve of Dr. Sangay’s historic swearing-in ceremony, it is an understatement to say that he and his people still face enormous domestic challenges, in Tibet and in exile. Preserving Tibetan religion, culture, and language; health care and education; and addressing unemployment are but a few of these challenges.

But it is the very persistence of Tibetan freedom in exile, despite repeated Chinese attempts to crush Tibetans’ traditions and aspirations that will carry Mr. Sangay and all Tibetans forward.

As the Dalai Lama relinquishes all political authority over the Tibetan polity, at home and abroad, all eyes now turn to Prime Minister-elect Lobsang Sangay, and to the Tibetan people, whose unswerving faith in their non-violent efforts to establish and enhance their constitutional freedoms provide a renewed message of peace and hope for the world.

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