A REALITY CHECK OF TIBETAN EXILE POLITICS
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 hanging 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, information-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of the Prime Minister were calling for the amendment of the Exile Charter so that the two-term limit could be rescinded and Rimpoche could serve for third (and perhaps even a fourth or fifth) term.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 kalon tripa in the exile Tibetan government is not that of a prime minister in a democratic nation as India or the UK (who actually initiates and formulates 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 and candid 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 calling this system a democracy. It is when we do, 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 in coming forward as candidates or proposing new nominees. 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, an expectation was voiced 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 hopes 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, even the prime minister was 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 multiparty parliamentary elections held 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 these appointments would require the confirmation of the Dalai Lama and the Parliament. 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 set out.
There is one more final and 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 is professed to be. In truth, whenever such claims of a “party-less” system are 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 nonetheless 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. Unquestioning loyalty to the leader figure being the paramount duty of its members .
The first elections for the Tibetan exile parliament (then called the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies) were held in 1960 – along provincial lines. Besides the Three Provinces United Association, other organizations 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 were shaky at best. Even within exile-society the claims of these organizations have been challenged by outside groups, and even among 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 mentioned 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 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, deemed 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. 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 denounced as anti-Buddhist. The president of the Three Provinces 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), that 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 bullied 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 went from bad to 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 on the basis of 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, giving a 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 momentous 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 (he added with a smirk) that the potential nominee 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 and shameful 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. But 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 can only be described as disrespectful, even insulting, to His Holiness’s preeminent role as sovereign of the Tibetan nation. In 1966 or thereabouts, the daughter of Yarphel Pangdatsang came to Dharamshala for an audience. 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 His Holiness) 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 made it incapable of realizing that its actions were destroying the crew (and captain) of the spaceship it was supposed to protect.
So this is where matters stand. As depressing as the whole thing sounds, I believe there is a way to bring about real and effective democratic governance in our exile society. It is going to be more complicated and strenuous 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 succeed. Some ideas on how to go about this will be posted on this site in the near future.