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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."

Waiting for Mangtso

September 12, 2009

A Reality Check of Tibetan Exile Politics

September 9, 2009

I started pecking out this piece over a month ago in the garden of Nalanda
Koti, my old bungalow in McLeod Ganj. On this particular visit to India I
was struck by how the issue of the 2011 Kalon Tripa elections, and
additionally the "20 Questions" on Prime Minister Samdong Rimpoche's
resignation, somehow elbowed their way into every conversation, not only
with Tibetans but also Indian and Western friends and even the few
journalists that always seem to be around McLeod Ganj.

I had, a week or so before my departure for India, speculated on Radio Free
Asia (RFA) that there was, perhaps, some tension between the Prime
Minister's office and His Holiness's private secretariat. Last year when I
was in Dharamshala for the "Special Meeting" someone told me that Rimpoche
had become increasing frustrated with how little say he had in matters
relating personally to His Holiness. In one instance I was told that
Rimpoche wanted to vet the Dalai Lama's travel schedule, and that officials
at the private secretariat regarded that as an act of lèse majesté. This
was, of course, all speculation coming from the backwoods of Tennessee, with
no first hand information to back it up, as I admitted to Karma Zurkhang,
the RFA interviewer.

I wasn't on any more solid ground, informational-wise, with the
semi-official explanation I received this time around at Gangkyi. Rimpoche
had given a talk to TGIE officials and staff explaining the reasons for his
resignation. He revealed that he had suffered from depression (sog-lung)
since adolescence, but had gained a remission after coming into exile.
Rimpoche now felt the condition returning, making it difficult for him to
continue in office and carry out his duties.

In a noticeable break with the mealy-mouthed tradition of officialdom, the
former speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, Karma Chophel la, offered a blunt
explanation for Rimpoche's decision. In a radio interview the ex-speaker
declared that Rimpoche had little choice but to resign because of the abject
failure of his major policy initiatives, including his role in the promotion
of the Middle Way and negotiations with China. He was supported in this
analysis by Sonam Topgyal la, the former kalon tripa, who was also being
interviewed in the radio program.

At Dharamshala I also learned that supporters of the Prime Minister were
calling for the amendment of the Exile Charter so that the two-term limit
could be rescinded and Rimpoche could serve for a third (and perhaps even a
fourth or fifth) term. An informed acquaintance of mine told me he suspected
that Rimpoche's resignation might actually have been a ploy to raise the
amendment issue. Such a development would allow Rimpoche to launch the
campaign for his third term while still in office, giving him a definite
advantage over future competitors. To be fair, Rimpoche himself has publicly
stated that he was against any amendment of the Exile Charter for this
purpose.

As critical as I have been on occasions about Samdong Rimpoche, I think we
should give him the benefit of the doubt on this occasion and not assume his
resignation was a political ruse. I could be wrong about this, but I suspect
that Samdong Rimpoche has had an epiphany. He has finally realized the
fundamental limitations of the democratic process in exile politics. In his
statement at a panel discussion in Dharamshala on June 21, (organized by Gu
Chu Sum, TWA and SFT), Rimpoche admitted that the Kalon Tripa did not have
the freedom to operate in the usual manner ("free style" was how Rimpoche
put it) but had to work within a framework where besides the presence of
other institutions (and this was repeatedly emphasized throughout the
discussion) the Dalai Lama's wishes were absolutely and unquestionably
predominant. In response to a question from the audience about the
priorities of the Prime Ministers duties, Rimpoche responded, very clearly,
that it was important for the kalon tripa "to even anticipate the Dalai
Lama's unstated thoughts and direct his efforts to their realization."

Which is essentially saying that the role of the PM in Tibetan
administration is not that of prime ministers in democratic nations as India
or the UK (who actually initiate and formulate national policy) but rather
that of a "first minister of the crown" in a pre-democratic monarchy or
theocracy. The latter statement about anticipating His Holiness's thoughts
echoes the fawning of the grand eunuch in a decaying Oriental court, than
the free expression of a democratically elected leader.

This was definitely not the view that Rimpoche appeared to hold previously,
judging by his earlier statements. In his first term he had been much more
effusive about the authenticity and significance of Tibetan democracy, and
enthusiastic about the democratic role of his office in Tibetan governance.
There is no fundamental or substantive disagreement between the Dalai Lama
and his prime minister on His Holiness's highest-priority policy goal as
defined by his Middle Way Approach. In fact Samdong Rimpoche has been
unflinchingly loyal in this, even setting himself up as a kind of
theoretician or ideologist for the Middle Way - writing articles and
speaking on the subject.

Rimpoche has carried out a number of his own policies, namely the
privatizing of all Tibetan government businesses (whether profitable or not)
making farmers in resettlement camps adopt organic methods (causing
financial loss and conflict in the farming community) and converting the
Gangkyi staff mess to vegetarianism. But traditional prime ministers
throughout the ages have been allowed some latitude in secondary policy
matters. Of course if Samdong Rimpoche had ever expressed any misgivings
about a fundamental policy matter as the Middle Way Approach, there can be
no doubt that his career would have been effectively terminated. The job of
the prime minister in the exile Tibetan government, even if he has come to
his position through an election of some kind, is, first and foremost, to
carry out the policies and the wishes of the Dalai Lama, as Samdong Rimpoche
himself has finally admitted.

All this is perfectly traditional and legitimate (even the sycophancy) - as
long as we do not insist on describing this system as a democracy. It is
when we do that, and when we start believing our own propaganda that
misunderstanding and confusion ensues.

Some months ago Thupten Samdup of the Canada Tibet Committee and newly
appointed representative of the Dalai Lama in London, started a website to
"facilitate the nomination for the next Kalon Tripa". He was tremendously
disappointed when people showed very little interest coming forward as
candidates or naming new nominations. He posted an article in Phayul.com
"Walking the Talk" where he expressed his frustrations but also laid out his
reading of the current Tibetan political system.

"For the first time in our history we have a parliamentary system and an
evolving democratic structure intended to grant representation and
freedoms.... Tibetans in Diaspora now have a precious opportunity to
participate more directly in the democratic process: to choose worthy
candidates from among our people to stand for the highest office in the
Tibetan government-in-exile - the Office of the Kalon Tripa."

I also came across other comments on various websites by Tibetans expressing
hope that a transformational leader like Barak Obama or at least an honest
and capable prime minister like Manmohan Singh, would be elected as a new
kalon tripa, and our political system would thus become fundamentally
reformed. In one discussion on the Internet hope was expressed that the
election of a "rangzen" candidate could change the current exile-government
policy and bring a new direction to our freedom struggle. I do not want to
pour cold water on these expectations and initiatives, which are probably
well intentioned. Nonetheless they are naïve and misguided in assuming that
our political system is a democratic one where an elected prime minister
would have the constitutional powers to make fundamental changes in our body
politic.

Our system resembles nothing more than the "Party-less" Panchayat system of
Nepal, formulated by King Mahendra in 1962. He declared that this "Panchayat
Democracy" was closer to Nepalese tradition and culture than Western
democracy. Elections were held for seats in the Rashtriya Panchayat, as the
Nepalese parliament was called. In 1980, under King Birendra, the prime
minister was even elected by the rashtriya panchayat. Nonetheless Nepal
remained very much a monarchy where the real political power was held firmly
by the king and his royalist supporters. Only in 1991, with multi-party
parliamentary elections throughout the country, could Nepal actually claim
to have become a real democracy.

Even those Tibetans fully aware of the stagnant and ineffective nature of
the Tibetan political system often cling to the hope that the election of a
transformational political leader could bring about a major change in
political direction. There are a number of reasons why this hope is
unrealistic. Even if, by a very long shot, such a prime minister were to get
elected, he would be up against a parliament whose members have no
institutional requirement to work with him. He might be able to pull the
Kashag in his wake, since the ministers would be his own appointees, but
then, of course, he would have the ultimate and unenviable task of informing
His Holiness that His Middle Way policy had failed and that a new course of
action put in place.

Then there is the one final awkward fact that is never mentioned in any
public discussion or even acknowledged as existing - the reality of the
other center of political power in the exile world, besides the Dalai Lama,
the kashag and the parliament. Our "party-less" democracy is in fact not
quite as party-less as it claims to be. In truth, whenever claims of a
"party-less" system is made in any undemocratic country, what is never
mentioned is the party representing the status quo, the established power,
that is always there in the shadows. In the case of the Tibetan exile world,
this undeclared party is more a loose coalition of organizations than a
single political party. But it none-the-less represent the political machine
that has since the beginning of exile history maintained a formidable
control over the election process, and has otherwise ensured unquestioning
loyalty of the exile public to His Holiness and the first family (Yapshi).

Probably the first of these organizations in what I will call the
religious-right coalition, was the Cholsum Chigdril Tsokpa or the Three
Provinces United Association, created by Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lamas
older brother. It had an initial membership of largely junior monk
officials. This organization was used effectively in Gyalo Thondup's power
struggle against senior members of the early exile government, largely
aristocrats, who were nearly all driven out of office. The formation of this
organization might have been influenced by Gyalo Thondup's student days in
Nationalist China. There was a bit of the Guomindang in the makeup of the
United Association, especially in their overriding loyalty to the leader
figure.

With the first elections for the Tibetan exile parliament (Commission of
Tibetan People's Deputies) was held in 1960 along provincial lines,
organizations (besides the Three Provinces United Association) claiming to
represent each of these provinces sprang up in the following years: U-Tsang
Tsokpa (for central Tibet) Domey Tsokpa (for Amdo) and Dotoe Tsokpa (for
Kham). The claim by these organizations to be sole representatives of the
provinces of Tibet was shaky at best. Even within the exile-society the
claims of these organizations have been challenged by outside groups, and
even within themselves, in the form of divisions and internal conflicts.
There was little transparency in the leadership selection process and
finances of these organizations. After the founding of the Tibetan Youth
Congress, the only genuinely democratic organization in exile, the various
component groups of the coalition began to adopt some of the vocabulary and
organizational structure of the Congress, but they remained essentially
non-democratic and reactionary.

I am not going to go into much detail here about the coalition. A full
history of exile politics is really needed. The origins of these
organizations are murky and their history convoluted and often baffling. It
should be stressed again that this coalition of various organizations is not
a monolithic structure like the Chinese Communist party. There have been
messy internal differences, and in fact most of the major crises in exile
society have come about because of rifts and conflicts within the
religious-right coalition. At least a couple of these have ended in
fatalities.

The initial attacks by the religious-right coalition were directed against
those perceived as opposing Gyalo Thondup. I had earlier mention those
aristocrat ministers and secretaries in the early exile government, but
there were also Khampa leaders as Markham Thosam, Manang Abo and others who
were seen as questioning or criticizing Gyalo Thondup or supporting his
opponents in the government. The fact that Manang Abo had been a leader and
participant in the '59 Uprising, did not save him from being branded a
traitor. The coalition also succeeded in shutting down an embryonic
political party set up by the former Tibetan representative to Nationalist
China in Nanjing, Thupten Sangpo (a.k.a. Tsatora Khenchung). Another
incipient political party called the "Social" party started in Dalhousie was
also shut down. It is possible that the Dalai Lama's proclamation of a
democratic constitution for Tibet in the early sixties had inspired these
short-lived efforts at democratic participation.

Later attacks (often physical and violent) were directed against Tibetan
intellectuals who wrote anything that could be remotely construed as
critical of the Dalai Lama, Buddhism or Gyalo Thondup. The late Professor
Dawa Norbu was threatened with violence for an editorial in the Tibetan
Review, while Karma Zurkhang, the editor of the Tibetan Youth Congress
magazine, Rangzen, was attacked for publishing a letter-to-the-editor, which
was denounced for being insulting to His Holiness. A well organized and
extensive hate-mail campaign was directed against a Tibetan academic in
Japan, Tsultrim Kalsang Khangkar, who was alleged to have criticized His
Holiness in his writings - but which he has consistently denied doing so.
Alo Chonze, the leader of the anti-Chinese Mimang organization in Lhasa
during the mid 50's, was also mobbed in Dharamshala and humiliated in the
Cultural Revolution style with ink and spittle being smeared over his face.
His daughter, a Tibetan government official, was also briefly held hostage.

For a while the Tibetan Women's Association was a major participant in the
coalition witch hunts, but that organization has now, gratifyingly, moved on
to more constructive social and freedom activism, and to working for the
empowerment of Tibetan women.

Pro-establishment Tibetans have often tended to dismiss such incidents as
unfortunate but spontaneous incidents stemming from the devotion of an
uneducated Tibetan public to the Dalai Lama. Such a viewpoint is not
entirely wrong on the surface of things, but even a cursory investigation of
the incidents clearly reveals political motives and direction behind them.
His Holiness has, unfortunately, never once condemned these acts of violence
and intimidation being carried out in his name, and has perhaps
unintentionally provided an incentive for loyalists to carry on in this
thuggish manner.

A scholar from Amdo, Pema Bhum had a fatwah or sorts declared against him
for an academic paper on Tibetan literature that was deemed anti-Buddhist.
The president of the Cholsum United Association, went so far as to offer a
reward of Rs.200,000 to anyone who would murder the scholar, and even
repeated this offer in an interview with the political journal Dasar. Pema
Bhum was a director of the Amnye Machen Institute, with Tashi Tsering,
Lhasang Tsering and myself.

At Amnye Machen we published the newspaper Mangtso (Democracy), which
attempted to report on Tibetan politics in an open and truthful manner. Our
staff members and some young men who sold our paper on the streets were
constantly harassed and threatened. The editors received death threats on a
regular basis, and gangs and mobs often poured into our office, scaring the
girls at the reception desk and harassing everybody else. All these
incidents were clearly organized and instigated by the religious-right
coalition in order to shut down the paper.

Things deteriorated from to worse. Worse after we published an editorial
condemning an underhand move by the coalition to gain full and official
control over the selection process of candidates for the parliamentary
elections. The stated reason for this move was to ensure that no disloyal
person or secret Chinese agent would slip in as a candidate. We managed to
stall that political move, but even without resorting to such a Communist
Chinese or North Korean electoral procedures, the religious-right coalition
had pretty much sewed up the electoral process.

Since exile Tibetans can only vote based on the province they had come from
and, the provincial organizations claim, with official approval and support,
to exclusively represent everyone from that particular province, tremendous
control is maintained over the electoral process and the outcome of the
elections. The system is skewed against the young and those born in exile
since they have little affinity or connection with the provincial
organizations. Furthermore, many young Tibetans born in exile are of mixed
parentage, Toepa/Khampa, Amdowa/Lhasawa and find it problematic to join
these organizations. We should also bear in mind that all monks have two
votes each in these elections, to the tremendous advantage of the
religious-right.

The religious-right coalition has never been energetic in Rangzen or human
rights activism. They have largely focused their efforts in maintaining
political power through the parliamentary (and later Kalon-Tripa) elections,
and through ostentatious public displays of loyalty to the Dalai Lama, and
sometimes Gyalo Thondup. A noticeable feature of many of the religious-right
leaders has been their habitual mahjong playing.

I recall just one campaign, a Peace March to Tibet in 1995, organized by the
religious-right coalition. A large sum of money (about 80 lakh rupees) was
raised from the public, but just at the commencement of the march it was
announced that the goal of the Peace March (initially Tibet) had now been
changed to Delhi. Halfway to Delhi, at Ambala, the march-leaders hustled
everyone on buses claiming that they had to meet the Dalai Lama (on his
return from a foreign trip) in New Delhi.

In fact last year's campaigns by the Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a
Free Tibet, the Tibetan Women's Association and other groups have been
condemned by the religious-right for causing the failure of the negotiation
talks with China, and upsetting His Holiness. Even the numerous campaigns
against the Beijing Olympics and the Torch relays, have been denounced by
the coalition for deliberately provoking the Chinese government and
antagonizing the Chinese people.

This right-religious coalition now serves as the main force to promote the
Middle Way policy in Tibetan Society. A special sub-organization, the
Tibetan People's Movement for Middle Way, appears to have been created some
years ago which has organized "workshops" and meeting to educate the Tibetan
people about the Middle Way Policy. Less peaceful methods have also been
adopted to deal with anyone even questioning the Middle Way Approach.

For instance the speaker of the Tibetan parliament, Karma Choephel,
attempted to introduce a resolution for a parliamentary review of the Middle
Way Approach. He immediately faced a barrage of opposition not only from
within the Parliament but from the coalition, calling for his ouster and
even for physical violence against him. He had to withdraw his resolution.

Most recently an intellectual from Amdo, Lugar Jam, gave a public lecture in
McLeod Ganj analyzing the failure of the Middle Way Approach and Gyalo
Thondup's role in this fiasco. He was immediately fired from his position as
an analyst in a TGIE research office, and has since then been constantly
harassed and threatened in the time-honored manner. Late the Amdo provincial
organization has started a process to remove him from membership of the Amdo
community, with the likely aim of disenfranchising him.

It doesn't require undue perspicacity to see that no single person, even if
elected to the position of the prime minister would be able to alter our
present course. Especially since the Tibetan parliament itself has
unanimously passed a resolution supporting and praising the Middle Way
Approach as the only guiding principal and sole policy direction for the
Tibetan issue. The present speaker of the parliament, Penpa Tsering, stated
very clearly at the public discussion in Dharamshala on June 21 (where he
was also a panel member with Samdong Rimpoche) that only someone supporting
the Middle Way was eligible for the position of Kalon-Tripa. Penpa Tsering
did acknowledge that a Rangzen supporter could try and get nominated, but
that he would be wasting his time.

I am not saying, that even under the present political system, the election
of an honest and competent Kalon Tripa would not be a small improvement on
things. Of course, it would. But the improvement would only be in areas that
did not encroach on the Dalai Lama's policy of the Middle Way. Rangzen
activists and supporters who feel that the hopeless, even suicidal,
negotiation policy of the exile government could be changed by the
nomination of a rangzen candidate, should modify their expectations.

Sometimes it appears that even His Holiness himself is stymied by this
system that was presumably created to serve his interests. Last year after
the great uprising in Tibet, the brutal Chinese crackdown, and the
disastrous humiliating ending of negotiations with Beijing, the Dalai Lama
publicly expressed his loss of faith with Chinese leaders and called for the
Special Meeting in November, apparently with the aim of finding some new
direction in Tibetan politics. However, then the machine of loyalist
politics was cranked up. All sorts of phony surveys and statistics, a
plethora of loyal resolutions from purported public meetings, were churned
out to give His Holiness the impression that the Tibetan public
enthusiastically and near unanimously supported His Middle Way policy, and
would never loose faith in Him or question any of His decisions.

On occasion the coalition has even been known to exercise their loyalist
zeal in a loose-cannon manner that has been a little too close for comfort
to the physical presence of the Dalai Lama. In 1966 or thereabouts, the
daughter of Yarphel Pangdatsang came to Dharamshala for an audience with
Holiness. Earlier, Pangdatsang had been a close family friend of the Yabshi,
His Holiness's mother (Gyalyum Chenmo) even staying regularly at the
Pangdatsang mansion in Kalimpong. But then Pangdatsang fell out with Gyalo
Thondup and found himself the target of a vilification campaign.
Inexplicably, this only Tibetan millionaire at the time, suddenly departed
for Communist China, opening himself up to more accusations. When his
married daughter Wangmo requested an audience for herself before her
departure to the USA, it was granted by the Dalai Lama's principal
secretary, Kungo T.C. Tara. The coalition heard about this and soon a large
howling mob assembled before the Dalai Lama's old palace at Swarg Ashram,
screaming (in earshot of the Dalai Lama) for Kungo Tara to be dragged out of
his office. A tearful Kungo Tara went before a very upset Dalai Lama to
offer his resignation.

The right-religious coalition sometimes reminds me of HAL the schizophrenic
computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose deformed sense of loyalty
to its mission makes it incapable of realizing that its actions are actually
destroying the crew (and captain) of the spaceship it is supposed to
protect.

So this is where matters stand in our political world. As depressing as the
whole thing sounds, I believe there is a way to bring about real and
effective democratic governance in our society. It is going to be more
complicated than just voting for a nice Kalon Tripa and then crossing your
fingers and hoping for the best. We have to commit ourselves to an
extraordinary and far-reaching purpose - a democratic revolution. Nothing
less will work. Ideas on how to go about this will be discussed in a future
essay.
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