I have received some mild censure of late from friends and readers for my lack of enthusiasm for the upcoming kalon-tripa election. I did explain my position earlier in a number of my blogs that our present “partyless” political system was not a true democracy, and that only a party-based system (even with all its inherent drawbacks) could make it so. I also stated that the role of the kalon-tripa in the exile Tibetan government was not that of a prime-minister in a democratic nation as India or the UK, since the kalon-tripa does not have the power to initiate or formulate national policy.
But recently I have been hearing, to my surprise, a lot of negative comments about the forthcoming elections, in particular about the slate of new candidates. Many of the criticisms seem regrettably unfair and partisan, and some appear to conceal an anti-democratic agenda. Hence I would like to make it clear to everyone that though I still maintain the position I outlined above, I have also spelled out, very clearly, that even under the present political system, the election of an honest and competent prime-minister would undoubtedly help to improve our exile government and political situation.
To clarify my position further and demonstrate my support for the upcoming elections (with the caveat that that next national elections in 2016 should be party based and truly democratic) I offer this, admittedly one-sided, appraisal of those candidates whose personalities and platforms I happen to know something about. I want to do this as a response to an indictment I heard a few weeks ago summarily charging all the candidates as incompetent and inexperienced.
This dismissive statement was made on a panel discussion on a VOA TV program. The discussion centered around a report that the “mimang” the Tibetan public, was demanding the exile charter be amended by the parliament in order that the present incumbent, Samdong Rimpoche, be able to serve another term as prime minister. One panelist claimed that the public had no choice but to demand this amendment as “all and sundry” (ghangjung mangjung) were now seeking the post of the kalon-tripa which made the public disappointed and worried. This speaker also asserted that none of the candidates had any experience (nyamnyung). He even repeated this in a later in the discussion and added that the public wanted an older, more experienced and wiser candidate, and that only Samdhong Rimpoche was qualified for the position. I think that this panelist was supported by a couple of the others. There was one panelist who appeared to be against the amendment proposal, but no one in the discussion, even the moderator, challenged the assertion that the new slate of candidates were unqualified, inexperienced, or that they were ghangjung manjung.
By the way, it should be pointed out that during the discussion it transpired that the so called “public” (mimang) demand for Samdhong Rimpoche’s return was merely a petition with no more than 900 signatures. This appears to me to be a very low threshold for accepting any proposal for parliamentary consideration; but accepted it was and even voted on, though not debated. It should be pointed out in fairness that Samdhong Rimpoche did raise an objection to the proposed amendment, but he seems to have gotten around to it rather late. Perhaps he should have stopped his followers from initiating this nonsense in the first place.
The complaint on VOA that none of the candidates had any experience is demonstrably untrue. For instance one candidate, Tenzin N. Tethong, though about ten years younger than Samdhong Rimpoche, actually has far more years of administrative experience in Tibetan government service than Rimpoche, who was for most of his life in exile a school teacher (at Simla and Darjeeling) then becoming the principal of Dalhousie school and later the director of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies at Varanasi. He was appointed (not elected) to the Tibetan Parliament by the Dalai Lama in 1991, when he started his political career. One of the more remarkable features of Rimpoche’s administration is its pedagogic tenor, with Rimpoche packing his cabinet, especially in his first term, with former students of his.
Nearly all the other candidates, even those who are relatively young or those not too well-known publicly, nonetheless bring exceptional qualifications and a new energy to this contest. I think it is important for the Tibetan public to understand and appreciate this, and not refuse to see virtue in anything other than the ancient or the ecclesiastical.
One of the more interesting candidates in this elections is Lobsang Sangay la, who is not only someone with a PhD from Harvard in International Law but an expressive though sometimes glib speaker, with a record of involvement in Tibetan politics from when he was a Tibetan Youth Congress leader in Delhi. Lobsang Sangay la has also performed a real service to the process of Tibetan democracy by shaking up the creaky electoral machine of exile politics with his campaigns tours and lectures which are without precedent in Tibetan society. I know Lobsang la very well and he and his wife are old friends of mine, from when I lived in Boston and when we organized evening discussion forums with other young Tibetans in the city.
I have only one criticism of his candidacy, but that one is fundamental. So I will deal with it at some length. Lobsang la seems to believe, quite sincerely, that a solution to the Tibetan issue can be found within the context of China’s constitution, specifically the law on regional ethnic autonomy. I debated him on one occasion. I pointed out that the Chinese constitution was not a document we could pin our hopes on (even in a peripheral way) for a resolution to our issue, since in China such a supposedly “fundamental legal document” has absolutely no real teeth. The Communist Party can change anything it wants in the constitution at any time. In fact it can dump the entire constitution by the roadside and pretend it never existed in the first place – which the Party has done, three times before. The present constitution of China is in fact its fourth actual constitution (I am not speaking here of bills or amendments) since the Communist Party took power.
The constitutional provision for ethnic autonomy, as meaningless as it is now, was meaningless right from the start, when Baba Phuntsok Wangyal invested all his hopes in it. In the process he betrayed his people and country and served as a willing propagandist and guide to the violent Chinese military invasion of independent Tibet. There is a powerful vested interest among nationality cadres in maintaining the ethnic autonomy provision in the constitution, but if push came to shove, if the crisis in East Turkestan and Tibet became critical some time in the future, the party might do away with the provision, once and for all. If you can dump entire constitutions without so much as a by-your-leave, dumping one provision shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The idea has been floated in Beijing by at least one Chinese intellectual.
Lobsang la clearly sees Tibet and his own future within the framework of the Chinese “motherland” and he has declared quite publicly, though half jokingly perhaps, that his ambition was to become “the Obama of China” . China, mind you, not Tibet. It makes you wonder if he doesn’t see the kalon-tripa election as a stepping stone to a larger political arena. But maybe I am being cynical here. The statement might be construed as a Walter Mitty like blossoming of previous (though less ambitious) expressions by our leaders about their desire to be citizens of the PRC.
Though all this puts Lobsang la squarely in the Middle Path camp, he has conveniently avoided taking sides in the fundamental Rangzen vs Middle Path debate by dismissing both points of view as divisive and unnecessary. That His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself is the principal debater and expositor for the Middle Way proposition, seems to have escaped Lobsang la’s observation. I will go this far in agreeing with Lobsang la, in that the Rangzen vs Middle Path debate should not have started in the first place. We should have held fast to our goal of Tibetan independence. But now that it has, the debate must go on till an acceptable resolution is arrived at, when we can all unite, once again, around a single national objective. Calling for a halt to the debate now is actually a sneaky way of silencing Rangzen supporters, since I am sure Lobsang la is not calling on the Dalai Lama to give up his Middle Way policy or to stop propagating it.
Lobsang la claims not to see the necessity of a national goal in our struggle, and has written that “one’s objective is not the most important part of the movement”. Instead Lobsang la stresses “unity, planning, and discipline”. The statement that a national struggle can do without a fundamental goal or objective is alarmingly naive, even lunatic, were it not so suspiciously opportunistic. The other part of the statement that debating the national goal is dangerous and unnecessary, is clearly anti-democratic, and his conclusion that such discussions must cease and Tibetans should embrace “unity, planning, and discipline” (presumably under the leadership of someone like himself?) even verges on the authoritarian.
Whatever my disgreements with Lobsang la, I think it is important to recognize that he is a serious and unflagging candidate for the Kalon Tripa elections, and that he has made a great contribution to the evolution of the exile political system. Just dismissing him as “inexperienced” or one of the ghangjung mangjung is essentially dismissing an entire new generation of Tibetans who, whether our seniors like it or not, will be taking up the reins of power and responsibility in our society before long.
In my next post I will discuss some of the other candidates.
 Lobsang Sangay la made the statement at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC, on July 29, 2008. This was the period when Obama was closing in on the Democratic nomination and Lobsang la, picking up on this contemporary event, asserted that if the US could have an ethnic minority as a president, China was capable of having one also. He concluded his assertion with the line “I want to be the Obama of China!”