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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 II

October 13, 2009

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
October 8, 2009

THE MISSING PIECE OF OUR DEMOCRACY PUZZLE

Popular legend has it that Louis XV of France
declared "après moi, le deluge", in a possible
prediction of the French Revolution and the end
of the French monarchy. The remark can be
translated as "after me, the flood," or if you
want things spelled out "after my reign, France
will be plunged into death, destruction and chaos."

His Holiness, of course, cannot be accused of
saying anything so crassly vainglorious, but a
similar pronouncement about (not by) the Dalai
Lama has taken on the stature of a doomsday
mantra in exile society: "kyapgon rimpoche shing
la phebna tsangma tsarpa ray" or "after the
precious protector passes away everything will be
finished." I am sure that many who voice this are
sincere but simpleminded devotees, unaware of
Tibet's long history. But other such doomsayers
are nothing but cynical courtiers and politicians
trying to outdo each other in displays of abject loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

Some of these politicians have been known to use
this fear mantra as a starting point for pitching
the Middle Way policy and for perpetual
negotiations with China. "We must get a deal with
China now when His Holiness is alive, no matter
how bad a deal it is. After His Holiness passes
away everything will be finished and we will get
nothing." Ironically, these negativists, whether
they realize it or not, are in lock-step
agreement with China's leaders who are on record
as declaring that after the death of this present
Dalai Lama the whole Tibet issue would be finished.

I discussed this in a piece "After the Dalai
Lama", for Newsweek in 2002, so I won't go into
it again. I brought it up this time to highlight
the extreme personality basis of Tibetan
politics. This predominance of personality is not
just limited to matters relating to the Dalai
Lama but also to secondary players on our
political stage; even on the issue of the Kalon
Tripa elections which are coming up in 2011. It
is clearly visible in the way discussions on the
subject are proceeding. They are almost
exclusively about personalities. Is it going to
be Lodi Gyari, or Lobsang Sangye or Lobsang
Nyendrak, or Tempa Tsering? There is no debate on
what national policies these people actually
advocate, or at least favour. There has been even
less talk on what the duties and responsibilities
of the Kalon Tripa are, and on actually how much
power he has constitutionally to initiate or influence policies.

I am not saying that personalities don't matter
in politics. I am all for finding an honest and
competent person to be the prime minister of our
exile government. But first of all we have to put
in place that one indispensable (but missing)
institution in our incomplete democratic set-up,
the lack of which makes the role of our current
Kalon Tripa resemble that of a chanzoe (manager)
of a monastery or labrang, and not the prime minister of a democratic nation.

That missing institution is the party system. As
I pointed out in my previous posting, what we
have is officially described as a "partyless"
system, but is in practice a backroom one-party
dominance by a religious-loyalist-right wing
coalition. The necessity of a party system (which
could be a two-party or multi- party) in our
governance is not an earth-shattering discovery
on my part. Readers have already posted a number
of comments on my blog and on Phayul.com calling
for the introduction of political parties in
exile politics. When I was in Dharamshala this
summer and the conversation (inevitably) drifted
to the Kalon Tripa business, a surprisingly large
number of people told me the Kalon Tripa
elections were pointless unless we had them in the framework of a party system.

Samdong Rimpoche was questioned on the need for
political parties, in the panel discussion in
Dharamshala on June 21 (organized by Gu Chu Sum,
TWA and SFT) that I mentioned in my previous
posting. He did not sound too enthusiastic in his
reply. Rimpoche reiterated the official line
about our system being a "partyless" one, and
then attempted to put up a justification for that
system. He informed the audience that "partyless
democracy" was now being discussed everywhere
(absolutely not true), and mentioned that
Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and some other Indian
political leaders had declared partyless
democracy to be a superior system and called for
its adoption in independent India. Rimpoche is
right about JP's idealistic vision, but Rimpoche
neglected to mention that when JP led the broad
movement against Indira Gandhi's emergency rule
and defeated the Congress party at the polls in
1977, he did not even offer a tentative proposal
to make India a partyless democracy, but instead
presided over the victory of the Janata party
which become the next government of India.

It might be mentioned that JP started his
political life as a Marxist and took inspiration
from the great Indian Communist leader M.N. Roy,
who also advocated a partyless democracy. The
idea of a partyless or one-party democracy (which
pretty much comes to the same thing) is a logical
outcome of Marxist elitist thinking, and of
course leads to states like the PRC, the Soviet
Union, North Korea and so on, where the
privileged members of the one party or the
partyless party hold unchecked power in perpetuity.

A present day Indian political thinker and
electoral reform activist, (coincidently) a Dr.
Jayaprakash Narayan, has written of the efforts
by JP and others to promote partyless democracy
as "unalloyed idealism". In a three-part essay,
"Civil Society and Political Parties", he writes,
"it is unimaginable to think of a liberal
democratic society without influential political
parties. There is no genuine democracy in which
parties do not play a dominant and decisive role
in both elections and governance. The
well-meaning but somewhat naive attempts of
idealists to promote partyless democracy have
floundered in all countries, including in India." [1]

More than merely floundering, this "partyless"
model has been used by autocrats and dictators to
subvert democracy and the electoral system. In my
previous essay I discussed Nepal's "Partyless
Panchayat" democracy, but advocates of such a
system should note that they are keeping
ideological company not just with royalty as King
Mahendra, but with crude dictators like
Pakistan's General Ayub Khan, who launched his
"partyless democracy" in 1965. In the eighties,
the sinister Zia-Ul-Haq (who resembled the
English comic actor Terry Thomas) maintained that
a Western-style democracy was unsuitable for
Pakistan, and eventually held "party-less"
elections in February 1985. Even America's great
ally in the war on terror, General Musharraf, had
a go at partyless elections after sending the top
leadership of all major parties into exile.

Some Tibetans argue that we have so many problems
within our exile political system, that the lack
of political parties is only a marginal bit of
trouble. For instance our election system, based
exclusively on provincial and sectarian lines,
contributes significantly to the disunity and
conflict in our society. Then there is the dismal
lack of public interest and participation in the
national elections - especially by the young.
According to official figures only about
twenty-two percent of Tibetans in exile above the
voting age of 18, voted in the last Kalon Tripa
elections. There is also the contention that
Tibetan society lacks people with leadership
qualities and we should therefore accept whoever
His Holiness appoints or approves. Another
dilemma, and a sore point with educated lay
people, is the matter of two votes for monks, and
the un-secular nature of our government. Finally
there is the very worrisome and critical matter
of His Holiness's age (he is seventy-six) and the
fact that he will not be with us for very long.
Isn't it more important that we address these
questions before bothering about political parties?

I feel that the introduction of political parties
in our national elections for the exile
parliament and the prime-minister, is the "wedge"
solution to nearly all of our other political
problems. By that I mean the introduction of
political parties will act as the thin end of the
wedge that will force open barriers that at
present block not only solutions to, but even
discussion of, our many political predicaments and stumbling blocks.

Under the present system none of our fundamental
political problems are honestly or seriously
discussed by members of parliament or officials,
much less confronted and worked out. I am not
saying these are dishonest or unintelligent
people, but the system is such that in order for
them to gain and retain their position, they have
to actively resist change, prop up the status
quo, and faithfully echo the official line.
Merely changing the members of parliament or the
Kalon Tripa in 2011 will accomplish nothing.

The much needed changes can only come from
outside, through a new national party committed
to bringing about the necessary reforms. Of
course, this party has to gain a clear popular
mandate and win the Kalon Tripa elections and a
majority of the seats in parliament. This is of
course the ideal scenario. We might end up with a
coalition of two or three parties, which would
not be as desirable an outcome. But it would
still be workable, and definitely a vast and
fundamental improvement on the present state of affairs.

If we look at the transformation of former
authoritarian states as South Korea and Taiwan to
liberal democracies, we can clearly see that the
entry of a new outside political party or
opposition force, into a previously exclusive and
autocratic system, was the turning point for the
advent of democracy in that nation.

When a capable Kalon Tripa backed by a
progressive political party (with a majority in
parliament) should take power, we could, without
straining ourselves, envision a bill being
introduced into parliament to change our present
provincial and sectarian election system. Ditto
for the matter of two votes for monks and the
question of secular government. Perhaps a
national referendum or referenda might be held on
those issues, since they are fundamental constitutional questions.

My suggestion for an alternative system (which
also has been put forward by others) would be a
bicameral parliament with two chambers. The upper
house, with representatives of the three
provinces and five religious sects would be
symbolic of a future independent and democratic
Tibet. It would have a limited "review" and
advisory role. The members of the lower house
would be elected on a proportional basis from
every community and center in the exile world,
and through a one-person-one-vote electoral system.

The problem of voter apathy might be resolved to
some extent by the political parties themselves.
They will, of course, have to campaign and create
interest among the electorate if there are to be
competitive, much less victorious. They will,
furthermore, like parties elsewhere, have to
enroll and register new voters supportive of
their platform. At the moment absolutely nothing
is being done by the exile government; only the
usual blaming and scolding by officials about how
Tibetan youth have no patriotism or simshug etc.

The allegation about our society not having
anyone with leadership qualities is also a
pathetic canard that can easily be refuted.
Perhaps people with such attributes aren't
conspicuous in the administration, because the
very requirements of leadership: curiosity,
initiative, boldness, courage, intellectual rigor
and independent thinking are actively discouraged
in such circles. But once young Tibetans escape
from the confines of mainstream exile society
they appear to be capable of great
self-motivation and enterprise. In my travels and
talks I regularly come across young Tibetans, men
and especially women, who appear confident,
professional, outspoken, progressive and
challengingly intelligent. If you were demanding
the ideal leadership resume, you could perhaps
point to little little gaps here and there, but
nothing, I unreservedly maintain, that a little
time and experience would not fill in and smooth
over nicely. Such meetings and encounters always
leave me with a reassuring feeling about our
future, which is not a normal experience for me in Tibetan politics.

Even the flood of new refugees (sarjor) from
Tibet, some of whom though possibly traumatized
in one way or the other by their experiences, are
at least not burdened with the culture of
subservience that the exile education system (for
all its impressive achievements) has imposed on
our children. The educated newcomers provide a
fresh pool of potential leaders with the crucial
emotional proximity to Tibet (which many of us
earlier exiles have lost in some ways) and with
the invaluable knowledge and (welcome) distrust of China's leadership.

However critical I am of His Holiness's policies,
I am convinced (and I have said this before) that
the institution of the Dalai Lama is absolutely
necessary, not only for the continued functioning
of our exile government but even more as a living
symbol of our national struggle. Yet I believe
that the survival of this sacred institution is
dangerously uncertain, especially when we
consider the decline of our religious
institutions and the progressive weakening of the
exile government.  The only way to turn this
around is through the democratization of our
exile-government and the political empowering of
our exile society - starting with the
introduction of political parties. I wrote an
article "The Jewel In The Ballot Box" for
Phayul.com, quite a few years ago where I
discussed these questions. I will reissue it on this website very soon.

Which leads us to the most important question of
how our Rangzen Struggle relates to the
democratization of our exile society. I wrote in
Rangzen: The Case For Independent Tibet that: "
To the oppressed people of Tibet, democracy
represents not only a goal of eventual freedom
from Chinese tyranny but also the best hope for a
truly just and equitable government of their own
choice. As such, the promise of a true democratic
Tibet will be an effective repudiation of Chinese
propaganda claims that Tibetan independence would
mean a reversion to theocratic feudalism. Hence
democracy becomes a potent weapon for the cause
and its genuine and effective implementation in
our exile-society an absolute necessity for the
credibility of the Freedom Struggle."

Yet, many national liberation and independence
struggles have been successfully conducted by
organizations and societies not necessarily
democratic. A case could be made that in such
struggles the priorities are discipline, focus,
and obedience to a single commander rather than
parliamentary debates and democracy. On the other
hand, freedom struggles, even violent ones, have
been waged successfully by essentially democratic
movements as in the case of America, India, and
Israel. These movements also avoided the
subsequent chaos, internecine violence,
oppression and mass murder of its citizens, which
invariably followed the "liberation" of Communist
China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and other
totalitarian and authoritarian countries.

The idea of strong leadership, discipline and
obedience is an attractive one to many young
activists. For a time I was an enthusiastic
follower of Gyalo Thondup. GT (as we called him)
undeniably made a major contribution to our
struggle in the fifties and sixties. Yet his
capriciousness, absence of the democratic spirit,
and a "my way or the highway" operating
philosophy, created much of the political
confusion and stagnation we are mired in now.
Tibetans need to mature and look to themselves
rather than strong-men (miwang), high-born lamas
(kyebhu-dhampa), scions of the yabshi, or
"a-man-on-a-white-horse" (as Americans might put
it), to save them, or at least take care of their political problems.

Right now the Struggle is effectively emasculated
since all organizations and groups worldwide,
working and struggling for Tibetan freedom, lack
any political power, and have absolutely no input
in the decision making process of the
exile-government. The Tibetan Youth Congress,
Students For A Free Tibet and many other
Rangzen-based groups are doing tremendous work
but their operating budgets are minuscule and
they find it increasingly difficult to raise
support and money for their campaigns. On the
other hand, a completely self-serving agency like
the International Committee For Tibet (ICT), with
fancy offices (more suited to a corporation) and
generous salaries for senior functionaries,
essentially vacuums up whatever funds there are
available for the Tibetan cause, and ensures that
no one else gets even close to it.

Rangzen activists are fighting Communist China
not just with one hand tied behind their backs
(as the expression goes) but more precisely, with
both hands and feet hog-tied behind them - and
their mouths effectively gagged and taped shut.

Much of the international impact of the
tremendous revolutionary events in Tibet last
year was simply neutralized by the self-serving
comments of China's foreign propagandists and
"barefoot" experts, and squandered away by the
confusing and insanely self-destructive
statements and actions originating from
Dharmshala, and retailed in the west by the
International Campaign for Tibet and others.
Those who believe in Rangzen must reclaim the
debate on Tibet so that the actual aspirations of
the people inside Tibet are clearly represented to the world.

It is quite possible, the way Communist China is
intensifying its repressive ethnocidal policies
in Tibet, that another major, even critical,
uprising could take place in Tibet in the
foreseeable future. Because of this year's
conflict in East Turkestan, there is a
possibility that events in Tibet could overflow
into Central Asia, and perhaps even into China
proper, where income gaps are ever widening,
corruption is pandemic, and the once illusory
hope of reform, rule of law, possibly even
eventual democratization, has been irrevocably lost.

The only possibility for such a far-reaching,
once-in-a lifetime strategic opportunity to be
seized and acted on, not frittered away like last
year, would be if a strong national party,
committed to Rangzen and democracy, were to win
the Kalon-Tripa and parliamentary elections and,
with the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai
Lama, legitimately takes over the government-in-exile.
.
Note:
[1] Jayaprakash Narayan "Civil society and
Political parties" India Together Mon 28 Sep
2009. (Dr. Narayan is founder and coordinator at
Lok Satta, the people's movement for governance and electoral reforms.)
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