Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

The second coming

January 6, 2011

DNA / Lhendup Gyatso Bhutia / Sunday, January 2, 2011 3:55 IST

Three weeks ago, when Wen Jiabao arrived in New Delhi amidst much
fanfare, 46-year-old Tseten Yang, a primary school teacher, was climbing
a hill in a little town called Kalimpong.She was running a temperature
that day. But she was not going to miss an opportunity to set her eyes
on the one person every Tibetan wishes to see before dying — Tenzing
Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

While Jiabo brokered big trade deals in New Delhi, the 75-year-old Dalai
Lama had an equally important mission at hand. He was visiting the
little-known regions of Kalimpong, Salugara and Sikkim, conducting
spiritual discourses, meeting the local Tibetan population, and helping
strengthen and protect the Tibetan identity of these areas. His entire
trip lasted 13 days. “It is such a blessing that he has come here. I
might otherwise have never seen him,” Yang says. “I not only got to see
him, he also looked at me and smiled.” She even took photographs of the
Dalai Lama, to which she now prays every morning.

And sometime later this year, the Dalai Lama will ‘retire.’

“He is born a Dalai Lama. There is no post of Dalai Lama from which he
retires. He will only be relinquishing his political and administrative
duties. He will continue to remain the spiritual head of Tibetans,”
clarifies Tenzin Taklha, spokesperson at the Dalai Lama’s office. But
the Dalai Lama was quite clear in his statement issued in late November
that he plans to retire in six months.

Who’ll be the next leader?

But will his retirement create a leadership vacuum in the exiled Tibetan
community? Isn’t that what the Chinese government has been waiting for —
a time when the Dalai Lama won’t be around to prick the world’s
conscience on the issue of Tibet’s freedom?

Although the Dalai Lama has said that he will always be there to guide
the new leadership, given his advancing age, there might soon come a
time when he is not around. He has also said that the lineage of the
Dalai Lama might stop after him, if the Tibetan community so wishes.
Even if this does not happen, given the usual time taken for a new Dalai
Lama to be anointed (at least two decades, from the death of one Dalai
Lama to another being ready to take up the position), the Tibetan
community might indeed be in a state of crisis.

The international media has speculated that the mantle of Tibetan
leadership will now pass on to the 17th Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Trinley
Dorje. The Karmapa Lama, the third highest ranked in the hierarchy of
Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, had jumped from
the balcony of his monastery in Tibet into a waiting Land Cruiser to
take a dangerous 900 mile journey to reach India in 2000. He was only 14
years old then. But today he is a revered figure, one who attracts
thousands of Tibetans wherever he goes. The Dalai Lama himself was 25
when he reached India and took charge of the exiled Tibetan community.

The second biggest figure in Tibetan Buddhism — the Panchen Lama — is
mired in controversy, and, when the time comes, he may play an
instrumental role in choosing the 15th Dalai Lama. In fact, there are
not one but two Panchen Lamas. The one approved by the Dalai Lama and
the Tibetan community, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, languishes somewhere in
Tibet, hidden from the public eye. Considered the world’s youngest
political prisoner, he disappeared immediately after he was recognised
in 1995 as the new Panchen Lama. He was only six years old then. There
is little to guess about those behind this. The Chinese government has
propped up its own Panchen Lama, and given the fact that in Tibetan
tradition the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama usually anoint each other,
many fear that the ‘Chinese’ Panchen Lama will declare a ‘Chinese’ 15th
Dalai Lama.

However, the Karmapa Lama taking up the political leadership of the
exiled community seems unlikely. The community, in fact, stands at a
critical juncture in their 50-year-old history. What path they take will
very much change the course of their struggle. Not only does the Dalai
Lama plan to completely relinquish his temporal role, the next leader is
likely to be a democratically-elected head. The election for the next
kalon tripa (prime minister) of the Tibetan government-in-exile is
currently underway.

Takhla clarifies that it will be an elected leader and not the Karmapa
Lama who will politically lead the exiled community. “This has been the
Dalai Lama’s wish for a very long time — that the Tibetan community is
democratically mature enough to find its own leader. And he thinks the
time has come, seeing the impressive leaders that are now emerging,”
says Takhla.

Since 2001, the kalon tripa has been directly elected and the current
kalon tripa, Samdhong Rinpoche, is completing his second and final term
in August. According to the Dalai Lama, who is already in a state of
“semi-retirement,” when he does retire completely, the entire weight of
the leadership will fall on the next kalon tripa. A total of 15
candidates contested the first round of elections in October, 2010 (held
in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Australia, the US, Europe and elsewhere). The
second and final round with the top three contestants will take place on
March 20. Among them, and widely tipped to be the next kalon tripa, is
Lobsang Sangay, 43, who is currently a senior fellow at Harvard Law School.

Is a new sun rising?

In the first round of elections, Sangay secured 22,489 votes out of the
total 47,000 votes cast. The next leading candidate, Tenzin Namgyal
Tethong, received only 12,319 votes.

Sangay, incidentally, is more than just an academic bright spark. He
spent about a week in Tihar jail for protesting in front of the Chinese
embassy in Delhi. He was also the general secretary and president of the
Regional Tibetan Youth Congress in Delhi during 1988-91.

His origins, however, are humble. His late father was a monk who
participated in the 1959 uprising against the Chinese in Tibet,
controlling the arms and ammunitions department of the guerilla group.
His mother broke her leg when fleeing from China into India. To this
day, she limps. The family grew up in a Tibetan refugee settlement in
Darjeeling where, apart from studying in the local Tibetan-medium
school, he cut firewood and grass during holidays. During the winter
break, he travelled to the nearby city of Siliguri to help his parents
sell sweaters.

“Like most other Tibetans at that time, we were poor. To get me
educated, my father had to sell one of the three cows that he owned,”
says Sangay, who now lives in Boston. The Tibetan government awarded him
a scholarship to study in Delhi University and Sangay later went to
Harvard as a Fulbright scholar and earned a doctorate in law.

“I owe all my success to the Tibetan government, the Dalai Lama and my
parents. And now I want to help serve the government,” Sangay says. “The
Dalai Lama has stressed that the kalon tripa must assume political
leadership. If I get the privilege to become the next kalon tripa, my
primary responsibility will be to resolve the Chinese occupation of
Tibet by gaining international support for the Tibetan movement. I will
also have to ensure the welfare of the exiled community, apart from
encouraging the Tibetan youth to participate in the Tibetan movement.”

A community in transition

When the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959, a huge population of
Tibetans followed him. But now they are again moving — this time to the

Some 80,000 or more refugees followed the Dalai Lama to India in the
year of 1959. Over the years, the steady flow of Tibetans seeking
political asylum in India continued and the community’s population grew
steadily by about 2.8% every year. But a recent census report by the
Tibetan government-in-exile found that in the decade 1998-2008, the
growth rate had dipped to 1.96%.

Two reasons being cited for this are the increasing literacy levels
(88.7% for Tibetan men and 74.4% for the women), where women are
delaying marriage and focusing on their careers, and the usage of
contraceptives among married women (from 10% in 1980 to 95% in 2001).

But one of the other key reasons is mass-migration within the exiled
community. The census found that some 9,309 Tibetans moved to the West
from India during 1998-2009. There are currently 94,203 Tibetans in
India, 13,514 in Nepal, 1,298 in Bhutan and 18,920 elsewhere.

In the US, Section 134 of the Immigration Act that was passed in 1990
has given a major fillip to this exodus, as it sets aside 1,000
immigrant visas specifically for Tibetans living in India and Nepal. A
chain migration ensued, whereby those granted citizenship pulled in
their relatives, and by 1998, the Tibetan-American population had grown
to around 5,500 (according to a survey conducted by Tibetan
government-in-exile in 1998). Many more Tibetans also reside illegally
in the US.

The ‘Tibetan’ areas of places like Kalimpong now resemble ghost towns,
where only elderly Tibetans can be seen. All the youngsters have either
moved to the US or are in the process of immigrating. Yang, who once
lived in Kalimpong with five sisters and a brother, now lives alone with
her husband. Three of her sisters, along with the lone brother, live in
the US, while another sister lives in London. The last sister is in
Nepal, trying to move to the US. “We were once such a big family, but
like most other Tibetan families in our town, everyone is moving to the
West,” Yang says.

The kids love American Idol

In such a scenario, where a new generation of Tibetans is growing up not
in Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal, but in New York or London,
with no Tibetan friends and just a cursory awareness of China’s
occupation of Tibet, what happens to the identity of Tibetans?

Tshering Tsomo, Yang’s sister in New York, works as a babysitter and has
two sons and a daughter. All her kids are crazy about American Idol and
love baseball and basketball. “It is very difficult to get my children
to even speak in Tibetan,” she says. “When they lived in India as kids,
they spoke fluent Tibetan, and visited the Tibetan monastery every day.
But where is the scope for that here? I’m afraid a day might come when
the youth might forget all about their Tibetan identity and culture.”
Tsomo, however, does send her three children to a Sunday school run by a
local Tibetan group, where they are taught the language. And she forces
them to speak Tibetan at home.

Taklha says, “Yes, it is a worry that with the mass migration from India
and Nepal, Tibetans may forget their origins. But the Tibetan community
under the Dalai Lama has, despite living in exile, been able to
successfully replicate the Tibetan way of life.”

A welfare state

Not just that. In 2001, the Economist magazine, after surveying two
dozen governments-in-exile, reported that the Tibetan one is “the most
serious”. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) under the Dalai Lama
has successfully managed to preserve Tibetan culture by running 46
agricultural or handicraft-based settlements across India, Nepal, and
Bhutan. It also runs welfare offices, schools, hospitals and clinics,
co-operatives, courts to settle civil disputes, old-people’s homes, and
monasteries that service Tibetan refugees. Not only is there a
parliament and a democratically elected prime minister, the Dalai Lama
has also put in place that bulwark of a modern democracy — a written
constitution. The constitution, among other things, also has a clause by
which the Dalai Lama can be impeached and removed from office.

So if and when the Dalai Lama does step down this year, not only will
there be well-settled establishments that take care of the exiled
community, there will also be a mature political leader who is
democratically elected and ready to take the Tibetan movement forward

One can now perhaps understand Mao Ze Dong’s statement in 1959. Despite
having successfully occupied Lhasa, when he learnt that the Dalai Lama
had escaped into India, Mao reportedly told a comrade, “In that case, we
have lost the battle.”

URL of the article:
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank