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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

"Tibetan" democracy

October 22, 2009

by Dhondup Tsering
Phayul
October 21, 2009

To say Tibetan democracy is a different kind of
democracy would be an understatement. While the
key principle of a democratic society "a
government representing the wishes of the
majority of the people” is undoubtedly present,
there are stark differences compared with other
democratic systems prevailing in other countries.
Such things may seem flawed to some, but one
could gain a more balanced perspective if the
background history and the purpose behind it is understood.

Coming into exile during the heydays of cold war,
the only option Tibetans had of winning some
international sympathy and support from the free
world was to profess some kind of interest in
western democratic ideals. Still during the
initial years, a complete western-style democracy
was impossible given the situation and the level
of political awareness. It would have been
disastrous, let alone the fact that the majority
of exile Tibetans would have rejected it outright.

A unique feature of Tibetan democracy is that it
is not a multi-party system. Rather deputies are
elected according to their provincial and
sectarian affiliation. Although this does seem a
little odd given how democracies function in
other countries, there is no denying its immense
contribution later on in forging a sense of
political consciousness amongst all
“tsampa-eaters”, and in maintaining at least a
semblance of harmony among the different
religious traditions. These are huge achievements
given what the situation was earlier.

Pre 1959: it is common knowledge that there were
two kinds of Tibet, one "political," and the
other "cultural." The whole of Amdo and major
portions of Kham only looked towards faraway and
remote Lhasa as a very important site for
pilgrimage, a spiritual Mecca of sort. The kings
and chieftains of these regions entertained their
own ambitions, and their political allegiance
more often than not swung towards Beijing. This
was only natural given the political and military
weaknesses of the Lhasa government. In turn, the
leadership in Lhasa considered the khampas wild
and uncivilized, and when khampa, and to a much
lesser degree Amdo refugees started flooding into
Lhasa in the late-1950s after their revolts had
failed, they were ignored as trouble-makers, rather than regarded as an ally.

Post 1959 Lhasa uprising: a substantial number of
Tibetans, including a large number of influential
lamas, and rinpoches, particularly the respective
heads of the different religious traditions,
managed to escape across the border into India,
Nepal and Bhutan. Of course due to its
geographical proximity, the vast majority who
escaped happened to be from Ngari and Utsang, and
not from Amdo and Kham. Population-wise, they
constituted the majority of Tibetans in exile,
even now. Yet another powerful group of people in
exile were the resistance fighters and their
leaders, comprising largely of Tibetans from Kham.

In an effort to bring all these disparate people
together, a fledge-ling democracy was established
that tried to reflect the need of the time, and
also at the same time retain our identity as a
Tibetan. In retrospect, Tibetan democracy seems
like a master stroke. A daring blend of modernity
and tradition, it is a democratic system that has
Tibetan written all over it. Only such a solution
would have been accepted by Tibetans at the time.

This very system was gradually able to influence
a lot of people, especially those in Tibet, into
believing in a cholka-sum Tibet despite the fact
that such an entity did not exist before 1959. We
will have to go back a lot in history to find a
political Tibet encompassing all the areas
inhabited by Tibetans, and history cannot become
a yardstick for what things should be now.
History is replete with kingdoms and empires, but
the reality is the present and not the glorious past.

When the Tibetan government in exile was set up
in the early 1960s, it focused on becoming
representative of Tibetans living in cultural
Tibet. This is why each of the three provinces
and the five religious orders enjoy equal number
of seats (10, 2) in the Tibetan assembly although
they don’t share the same population strength in
exile. One should not overlook the fact that
Tibetans in exile who are from central and
western Tibet and those belonging to the Gelug
religious order are under-represented in this system.

No wonder the events since March 2008. Protests
spread across the length and breadth of cultural
Tibet demanding the same thing. Calling for the
return of Dalai Lama not only in his capacity as
a spiritual head, but rather more significantly
as a leader from whom they can seek solutions for
their political, economic and social
helplessness. It is a scenario Beijing did not
expect, since much of these regions bordering the
hot plains of China were allowed relatively more
freedom compared to central Tibet. Portraits of
HH the Dalai Lama were quite common, and things
were basically running smoothly, or so the Chinese leadership thought.

In the exile Tibetan community also, many
significant changes have taken place. We are
Tibetans first and foremost now; provincial and
sectarian background takes the back seat. Not
many even know what religious school their family
belongs to. If people think all these positive
developments happened by chance, they couldn’t be
more wrong. A system is responsible for ensuring
such a product, and I hope by now I don’t have to repeat what that is.

Tibetan democracy too has evolved a lot since its
inception some fifty years ago. Power, once
concentrated solely in HH the Dalai Lama,
gradually has been delegated, to the parliament
and the cabinet. Despite shortcomings, the
Tibetan parliament has become quite busy and
effective in enacting laws, and now with the new
system of having people directly elect the Prime
Minister, things don’t look too bad, honestly
speaking. Not only can Tibetans elect the
representatives of their choice in the
parliament, but also their Prime Minister.
Popular vote decides the suitable candidate like
in any other democratic system.

Some people seem convinced that such an elected
leader would be tied down to a certain extent by
the very existence of HH the Dalai Lama at the
helm. So let me ask them, who is free to do what
he wants in a democracy? Such things can only be
realized in an authoritarian society. In a
democracy, there is always the opposition party
and then there is the all-powerful media. Just
look at India, where ruling political parties
often are bound by the wishes of their coalition
partners, not to mention the raucous opposition bench.

Even then Samdhong Rinpoche, as Prime Minister,
did close all the business undertakings of the
exile government few years ago. How would he have
done that if he did not enjoy any real power?
Notice also how he curtailed the powers of the
departments’ secretaries. Within a short period
of time, he has exercised his power to the
maximum in making the exile administration more
institutionalized, one that is able to last much
longer than outstanding personalities.

Then there are also a few who think that having a
monk as a leader is not a wise idea, and that a
lay man would do the job better. There is no
logic at all in this thinking. A lay man is far
more susceptible to greed and power. Tibet had
innumerable monks as leaders in the past and
surprise, surprise! Not a single Dalai Lama could
be faulted for being infamously corrupt, cruel,
or despotic. Some might not have been politically
outstanding or far-sighted, but then most of the
kings in other countries also didn’t do better. If only they were worse.

Political systems, in the end, are designed to
serve the interest of the people by ensuring that
the best possible leader comes to the front i.e.,
someone who will keep the welfare of the people
in his mind at all times. Although not "elected"
as such, in HH the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tibetans
have a leader who sincerely feels for his people.
Even a political party system cannot guarantee
such a candidate. In a poignant but revealing
incident, HH the Dalai Lama said to Samdhong
Rinpoche when he requested to be relieved from
his post, "You are lucky that you can at least
come to me for resignation. But who should I go to if I want to resign."

* The writer formerly worked as editor of the
Tibet Journal in the Library of Tibetan Works &
Archives, Dharamsala. He now resides in Toronto,
Canada, and can be reached at dhondup07@gmail.com .
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