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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."

Opinion: Lessons from the United States of America

May 21, 2009

by Tsewang Namgyal
May 19, 2009

"There is no limit to what a man can do or where
he can go, if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit." President Ronald Reagan

Electing the next Kalon Tripa will properly be
one of the most important decisions we Tibetans
will make in our life. A question one often hears
from within our community on the upcoming
election is do we have viable candidates? I
humbly believe this is a dangerous question. The
statement has a subtle pessimistic message that
we do not have a viable candidate. Such pessimism
could be contagious and worse - self fulfilling.
Here we should draw wisdom from the words of the
respected management consultant Peter Drucker
that "No institution can possibly survive if it
needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must
be organized in such a way as to be able to get
along under a leadership composed of average
human beings." I humbly believe more appropriate
questions we should ask ourselves are - what can
we do to elect the best candidate? What can we
all learn from leaders and systems of other
countries to help our leaders become even better?
Below I would like to humbly try to answer these
questions more in an effort to encourage further
thoughts than to provide a conclusive answer.

What can we do to elect the best candidate?

I believe the most important thing we can do is
find ways to inspire qualified individuals to run
for the Kalon Tripa position. Tibet is blessed by
many proven leaders. All the current Kashag
members, Ms. Jetsun Pema, Ms. Rinchen Khando, Ms.
Dolma Gyari, Ms Lhadon Tethong, Mr. Lodi Gyari,
Mr. Tashi Wangdi, Mr. Lobsang Zayul, Mr. Jamyang
Norbu, Mr. Lobsang Sangay, Mr. Tsegyam and many
other accomplished people come to my mind. I am
sure there are also many Tibetan Obamas out there
who with the right encouragement and resources will make excellent candidates.

Personally, I believe the best way to inspire
such individuals is through exhibiting ones own
personal dedication towards Tibet. In addition,
we should verbally encourage qualified
individuals to run and offer financial, logistic
and other support (depending on one’s ability) to
the person that best fit one’s vision and has the
ability (education and experience) and
willingness (energy and track record) to execute it.

It is important we all remain mindful that
running for Kalon Tripa is a very honorable but
extremely difficult decision. It is not a simple
matter of dedication or lack of it. This decision
involves a collective agreement and commitment in
particular from ones family members. Running for
election itself, will involve candidates to take
away from personal/family time and become open to
scrutiny. In addition, even if candidates are
able to raise funds for their campaigns it would
not allow them to earn normally, especially if
one is the primary bread earner. For example, one
can argue without the initial backing of people
like Ms. Penny Pritzker, we would not have had an
unknown individual like Barack Obama become America’s 44th President.

What can we learn from leaders and systems of other countries?

The great benefit about being a refugee is we are
able to learn from our adopted home countries. As
a Tibetan American, I would like to focus on
lessons we can learn from the leaders of this
great country. America is not a perfect country.
However, as someone who focuses on results I
believe it is no fluke that this young country
has become politically and economically the most
powerful in the world. Much of this credit goes
to the Presidents of this country and the systems
that have allowed people of such diversity rise
up to the highest power in this country (if not the world).

As of now there has been 44 Presidents in the
United States. Here I would like to highlight aspects of four of them.

(i) George Washington (1789-1797)

America’s first President helped set an excellent
trend for her future leaders. During his
Presidency many Americans hoped that he would
become the king. A democratic elected head of
states was a new concept. There was much
uncertainty in the country and one can empathize
with the people during this period. In certain
ways, this uncertainty is similar to the one that
we face on a post His Holiness era.

President Washington probably had his concerns
but refused to become a life long ruler. After
the end of his term, he relinquished all his
powers to the next elected President. We Tibetans
are also blessed by compassionate rulers like His
Holiness the Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rimpoche
(“Rimpoche”). Like President Washington, it is
clear that His Holiness and Rimpoche would like
to transfer their power to the next elected Kalon
Tripa. The question is: will our next elected
leader be able to take over the power with
confidence? Are we as a community willing to
encourage and support this transfer? If we fear
the transition, our democracy will be a sham and
will in the future will have even a more
challenging time to flourish. There is no better
time for us to make mistakes than in the presence of His Holiness and Rimpoche.

In our conversations, it is clear that we feel
that His Holiness or Rimpoche should always hold
some kind of political power. I believe this
should be left to the discretion of our next
elected Kalon Tripa not out of disrespect of our
past leaders but out of respect for our
democratic values. If our future Kalon Tripa
always felt that he/she is not the ultimate
decision maker that would hurt that individual’s
confidence and prevent clarity of that person’s
decision making abilities. This is not much
different from allowing a grown “child” to make
his/her own decision. If a child always feels
that one needs to get some sort of implicit
decision this will not allow the person to think
independently (as they would second guess what
the parent thinks), will not learn from mistakes
(as will likely blame it on the parent) and will
likely delay the decision making time (which is bad in a fast moving world).

Separately, during a recent discussion with an
American friend he mentioned to me an interesting
issue that came up between President Washington
and the U.S. Congress. I understand President
Washington who was relatively wealthy individual
offered to work for free perhaps to protect his
image as a selfless public servant. Here I
understand the U.S. Congress refused and forced
him to take an appropriate salary. The logic was
that if President Washington set such a
precedent, it may make it difficult for future
Presidents who are not materially well off to
feel a similar obligation. This farsightedness
many believe had a factor in allowing a poor but
one of America’s greatest Presidents (Abraham
Lincoln) to lead America in freeing the country of slavery.

In the future, we may come across similar
situations since there is much glorification of
self sacrifice. I believe it is important we also
be mindful that it is critical that our Kalon
Tripa is well compensated and lives in a house
that is appropriate. Sometimes results should
take precedents on motivation. The US President's
annual salary is $400,000 and as we know he lives
in the White House. Of course we cannot match the
salary and benefits, but we can try to provide
appropriate amount based on our own ability.

As humans, there is a subtle respect given to
outward appearance and it is important especially
if our Kalon Tripa is a family person he/she
should not worry about taking care of family
obligations. In addition, I believe His Holiness,
Rimpoche and we as a community must exhibit
tremendous amount of respect on the next position
of Kalon Tripa. This can be done symbolically
through seating arrangements, how that person is
addressed (usage of prefixes such as Honorable or
Excellency) and introduced to the external media
(the equivalent translation of Prime Minister).
Symbolism is important on our community where
large segments of our population are illiterate.
For the outside world too where positioning is
critical in order to open doors and get immediate
recognition (rather than spending precious time
explaining what Kalon Tripa means). If we as a
community do not exhibit the appropriate respect,
no one else would do it. If we are not media
savvy, we will lose out in the important media war.

It is also interesting to note that President
Washington did not belong to any political
parties. In fact he frowned on it although there
was a natural evolution in the development of a
two party system in the country. Currently, we in
our community do not have a vibrant political
party. I understand the National Democratic Party
of Tibet (“NDPT”) is the only internal political
party that exists. I believe eventually we will
develop into a two (if not multi) party system
primarily driven by our ideological division
based on those who advocate independence for
Tibet and those who would prefer the middle path.

I believe the lack of political parties should
not be a concern. Nor should it be a concern with
development of political parties based on the
ideological divide. Most important I believe what
is important is that we all respect our
democratic process and hold it above any of our
ideological viewpoints. Past history of United
States has shown that democracy can flourish both
with and without political parties.

(ii) Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

President T. Roosevelt ("TR") was America’s 26th
President. At the young age of 42 he succeeded
President William McKinley after he was
assassinated. There are many lessons we Tibetans
can learn from his Presidency but I would like to highlight two.

Firstly, his sudden succession reflects the
importance of having a Vice Kalon Tripa. Such a
position would help in periods of great
uncertainty and sudden transitions. If such a
situation arises in our community, the Vice Kalon
Tripa will be able to take over the Kalon Tripa
position to carry out the mandate for the set
time period. I would like to note that besides
TR, there were eight other American Vice
Presidents who succeeded the Presidency due to
early death, assassination or impeachment of the
President. In the future, it is highly likely our
Kalon Tripas could face a similar situation. The
other benefit of a Vice Kalon Tripa is that it
would allow public to have a tested candidate for
the future Kalon Tripa position bringing some
comfort. There were four sitting U.S. Vice Presidents who became Presidents.

One of TR’s greatest accomplishments is his work
related to conservation. TR was able to show how
conserving America’s land, forest and animals are
her long term interest. TR had to work with and
fight against powerful business and political
interest. TR’s ability and persistence to work
with different forces is something that our
leaders can learn. We have our share of powerful
and short sighted interests within and outside our community.

One would argue that TR had an easier time than
the leaders who have to fight against foreign
occupiers. However, if you look at certain other
“free” regions in the world it shows that ruling
a region can be as difficult as freeing it.
Recently I had tea with a very educated young
Indian from the state of Orissa. He is a graduate
of one of India’s premier engineering colleges
and best Business Schools in the United States.
With a sad face he mentioned to me that his home
state of Orissa is near hopeless. The citizens of
the state are literally sitting on gold mines as
the state is blessed by many natural resources
but are dying out of starvation. I asked what the
cause of the poverty and pessimism? He mentioned
that it is due to lack of good leadership, corruption and illiteracy.

In speaking with him it appeared I was even more
optimistic about Tibet than he was about Orissa.
In further reflection, I can see why this is the
case. Although there are challenges fighting
foreign powers, it is more challenging sometimes
fighting powerful forces within ones own
community. There is real power and money that
drives individuals to loose their morality. Lack
of common enemy prevents unity and idealism.

For more information on TR, I would recommend
this tribute on him posted on

(iii) Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

President Roosevelt (FDR) was America’s 32nd
President. FDR lead America during the great
depression. In his inaugural address FDR made the
famous statement that "the only thing we have to
fear is fear itself." For us Tibetans, I believe
the interesting aspect of his Presidency was the
debate that took place regarding his interest to
run for a third term. Prior to his running, there
was an implicit rule that two terms were the
maximum that a US citizen could be President. The
arguments against three terms was that it would
take away opportunities from other candidates and
give excuse for dictators to come into power.

FDR did win the third term but subsequent to it
the 22nd Amendment of the United States
Constitution was put in place. FDR is the only
person to serve three terms as President. There
is well motivated, segment in our population that
argue we need to amend our Constitution where the
Kalon Tripa can serve for three terms. We should
be mindful that there is a reason why most
democratic countries have a term limit. It would
be important for us to study the experience of
others so that we do not set a precedent in the future that we could regret.

(iv) John F. Kennedy (1961 -- 1963)

President Kennedy ("JFK") was America’s 35th
President. In his short Presidency, he has
inspired the world. My father mentioned he
remembers tears flowing in his and others faces
in India when they heard of his assassination.
JFK was able to inspire not only Americans but
people around the world through his famous
saying, "Ask not what your country can do for
you; ask what you can do for your country." In
our current situation, our leader would need to
inspire the best out of every Tibetan not only in
political activism but also in the field of
social, education and economic empowerment of our people.

Personally, I believe the most important lesson
we can learn from JFK is his negotiating skills.
During JFKs Presidency the world came close to a
nuclear war with the Cuban missile crises. He
could have taken the easier way of giving into
the Soviets but he stood his ground allowing him
to negotiate a peaceful and lasting resolution to
the crises. Here I would like to quote from his
Inaugural Address (January 20th 1961):

"So let us begin anew - remembering on both sides
that civility is not a sign of weakness, and
sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us
never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us
instead of belabouring those problems which divide us.

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back
the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in
creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of
power, but a new world of law, where the strong
are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first 100
days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000
days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor
even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Negotiating with the Chinese government is going
to be an important effort by our next Kalon
Tripa. I believe some aspects of JFKs style has
been adopted by our current Kalon Tripa
administration. Unfortunately, the Chinese
government has not reciprocated in kind.
Unfortunately, our government exhibits too much
fear reflected in the tone of their statements.
The Chinese government needs to reduce their
suspicion. Our next leadership needs to reduce our fear.

There are probably no leaders one can trust more
than the Tibetans. Many are grounded by the
Buddhist ethical values that they would sacrifice
honesty over profits. In fact, if someone had to
be suspicious it should be the Tibetan side
because China has the weapons and the manpower
(and not the most stellar track record). On the
Tibetan leadership side fear of the Chinese
government is neither beneficial (as this just
gives the Chinese government more power) nor
rational. If someone has to fear it should be the
Chinese government. Truth is on our side. In the
world of public opinion truth is the winner. I
believe truth will prevail in the end. Our offer
to talk and reach an agreement with them
legitimizes them and implicitly forgives their
wrong past actions. I hope Kennedy’s words will
inspire our leadership to persist in our efforts
as there is no alternative path for lasting peace.


I would like to share here a lesson that I
learned from my dear beloved 89 year old father
-- It is critical we always share respectfully
but candidly our opinions with our leadership. My
father had the good fortune to serve the Tibetan
government in an independent Tibet and in exile.
In Tibet, he had an opportunity to see the
Thirteenth Dalai Lama and interact with the
Fourteenth when he was in his teens. My father
mentioned that he heard that one of His Holiness
Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s advisors assertively, but
respectfully, advised the young Dalai Lama that
it was important before he spoke that he checked
whether it benefited others or not. If it was the
latter, His Holiness was told to keep quiet. I
understand from my father that many years back
His Holiness indicated appreciation of the advice that was given to Him.

Today His Holiness is the light of our lives and
a model world leader. For me His greatness is his
immense compassion, wisdom, practicality, hard
work, integrity, confidence and humility. In the
future, we will have new leaders. It is critical
we share respectfully our opinions candidly with
our leadership. The advice that His Holiness
advisors had given him in the past may have had
some positive impact on His Holiness and this has greatly benefited all of us.

Finally, reflecting on our history we can see
that we Tibetan had our share of great rulers.
Songtsen Gampo (617-649 A.D.), Trisong Detsen
(755-797 A.D.), Tri Ralpachen (806-841 A.D.),
Drogon Choegyal Phagpa (1235-1280), Fifth Dalai
Lama (1617 – 1682), Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876
–1933) and the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama are
a few that immediately come to my mind. Learning
from our best leaders in our history and those of
other countries I believe will allow us to have our best days in the future.

The author is an MBA graduate (Beta Gamma Sigma
Honor Society member) from the Thunderbird School
of Global Management and works in the Investment
Banking field in New York City. Tsewang is one of
the Founding Board of Directors of Students for a
Free Tibet, first Tibetan to officially enlist in
the United States Military and served as the
Executive Director (volunteer) of the Tibetan
Community Center Project (NY) from 2007-2008 . He
can be reached at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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