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Tibet - Preparation for the Future (II)
By Email[Sunday, March 22, 2009 17:20]
By Tsewang Namgyal


As we commemorate 50 years in exile I took the opportunity to reflect on the work of the Tibetan Government in Exile (“TGIE”) and think how it can do even better. The organization has successfully set up schools/hospitals/monasteries in exile; democratized our government; bought Tibet’s attention to the world; put pressure on the Chinese government to make sure Tibetans in Tibet are treated humanely and worked hard to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement with the Chinese government to name few concrete achievements. As a Tibetan, it is not difficult to feel a deep sense of gratitude and humility. All of us Tibetans have greatly benefited directly or indirectly from TGIE.

Naturally, we all have a responsibility to make sure the organization continues to succeed. Our Buddhist culture reminds us through the teaching of “dependent arising” that TGIE does not inherently exist. Success or failure of the organization is in a certain ways a reflection of oneself.

The organization now faces many old/new threats and opportunities. Much of these I believe can be mitigated and leveraged if TGIE continues to attract high caliber individuals, think creatively, strategically position itself and move boldly. In analysis of our history, current situation and experience of other countries I believe one of the greatest threats and opportunities we face are from the forces of differing internal factions. Here I would like to humbly share some thoughts related to it in case aspects of it maybe of some use.

Internal Threats

With internal factions here I refer to those driven both by religion and politics. In our community, the religious aspect of factions has mainly come in the form of selection of reincarnate Lamas and sectarian issues. The political factions have been primarily driven by provincialism, personalities, ideology and tactics.

The challenges and benefits of internal factions are not unique to our community. This was an issue that the American founding fathers had considered and they have in turn discussed methods on how to deal with it as illustrated on a commentary written by America’s fourth President James Madison in the Federalist # 10 (http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm).

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
There are two methods of curing the mischief of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease…The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Without structural reforms internal factions in our country has the potential to give a fatal blow to TGIE. Currently, with the leadership and respect of/for HHDL, I believe we have been able to control much of the negative aspects but in the future this will be very challenging.

Religious Factions


Buddhism since it’s entry to Tibet has greatly enriched our country. We Tibetans have been able to develop a unique culture and the ideology has bought us all much happiness. To discuss the benefits of this great teaching and kindness of all our beloved teachers will comprise of many books.

On March 10, 2009, HHDL mentioned in his Statement that, “in our efforts to realize the cause of Tibet and uphold its religion and culture, we should craft our future vision and strategy by learning from our past experience.” Our history has shown that the mix of religion and politics in Tibet had made the country very vulnerable to manipulation by outside forces and weakened her politically.

To illustrate this case, between the reign of the eighth and twelfth Dalai Lama (about 150 years), Tibet was ruled by Regents and other officials due largely to the premature deaths of several of the Dalai Lamas. During this period the Gurkhas and Manchus were both able to exploit the situation occasionally pretending to be patrons of our Tibetan Buddhist leaders.

To share a little more detail, in 1775 under the pretext of settling a dispute between brothers of the then Panchen Lama the Gurkhas attacked Tibet and plundered its monasteries. This in turn gave the opportunity for the Manchu troops to enter Tibet on the pretext to stop the Gurkha attacks. With the help of the Manchus, the Tibetans were able to regain their lost territories while giving the Manchus much influence in the region. The Manchu emperor Ch’ien Lung further attempted to increase his authority by initiating the lottery system to select the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. To this day the lottery system is used by the Chinese government as a weapon.

Separately, in the beginning of the last century much discussion was held in the selection of our Regent. According to Warren Smith in his book Tibetan Nation, “After the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, lay officials of the Tsongdu suggested a Council of Regents of two or three members… The system of monastic regents had been proven to have its faults; past regents were either excessively other worldly or so enamored of power that their involvement in the premature deaths of several Dalai Lamas was suspected (231).” Despite these concerns, Reting Rimpoche was selected and he held much of the spiritual and political power. His later power struggle with Taktra Rimpoche, Sera war and eventual controversial death proved the fears of the Tsongdu.

In recent years there is much discussion about our leadership post HHDL. Rather than considering on quick fixes it is critical that we review our past experience. If we are not able to learn from history, we are likely going to enter into another period of chaos.

It is true that mixing religion and politics has its benefits. Most importantly it is a strong unifying force and for many of us it is our appreciation of our religion that inspires us to make Tibet politically strong. However, I believe we need to think deeper, longer term and more strategically to find ways how we can capture the benefits of our current mix of religion in politics without compromising our entire position.


I humbly believe the only long term solution to resolving religious factions by TGIE is through secularization. The concept is not a new one. In fact one of the reasons why I feel it is a solution is that it has proven to be very effective in other countries and adopted by most countries in the modern political world. In the past, Tibetan intellectuals have called for secularization and few thoughtful articles have been written on the subject in Phayul.com.

Through separation of religion and politics it will allow our political leaders to focus on politics and our religious leaders focus on spiritual matters. If not, our political leaders will be forced to make religious related decisions like endorsing reincarnate lamas. Our political leaders in general are not qualified to make spiritual decisions but also this would be a distraction to their normal work of running a government. In addition, making such decisions would alienate large sections of populations on religious lines when they share the same political goals.

Similarly, our religious leaders maybe forced to wear a political hat something that they may have no interest or qualification. In addition, they maybe unable or not able to make decisions that may not conform to their religious vows. For example to make extreme decisions related to whether to use violence as a mean or how to revitalize the economy that may make political economic sense but not necessarily meet spiritual guidelines.

I would like to note that secularization does not mean our Sangha should not be able to participate in politics or Buddhism should have no influence on Tibet. In fact, every Tibetan should be encouraged to actively participate in the democratic process. HHDL is a living proof that Buddhist monks can make great politicians. Also Buddhist values like compassion and protecting the weak should influence our politics similar to the way Quakers have influenced the US constitution.

In addition, I believe secularization with Tibetan characteristics should also consider having HHDL as a nominal leader like the King of Thailand or Queen of England to unify the community and act as a moral force. However, the real power should always lie with the democratically elected leader for a fixed period of time.

On the subject of selecting the next HHDL, I believe this should be kept a strict spiritual matter. Personally, I still fail to understand how political leaders whether Tibetan or Chinese can play a role in such a decision. If we need someone to do a heart surgery one will look for a heart surgeon. It would be preposterous to select someone based on their ethnicity or political power.

Selection of the Dalai Lamas is even more complicated than heart surgery and requires skill sets that are even more specific. I note many well motivated Tibetans are forced to think of out of the box solutions to prevent the Chinese government from trying to exploit the situation. However, after careful thought I fear politicization of it whether from Tibetan or Chinese side for political purpose will demean the institution of the Dalai Lama and history will question the future credibility of the Dalai Lamas. I feel this decision must be left to our wise spiritual teachers and the oracle.

Finally, although I believe secularization is the best mitigant I believe there is a great danger if our effort to try to separate religion from politics is not executed properly. The medicine has the potential to be more harmful than the disease itself.

We are a very religious community and based on our current condition it is clear our political sophistication level is relatively lower compared to our passion. Manipulators (whether instigated by the Chinese government or those who naively feel they are protecting our precious teachings) can knowingly/unknowingly create rift between secular and religious forces. Therefore it is critical that if in the future we do look to become a true secular government the proper tactics we adopt in executing the vision is as critical as the goal itself.

The main tactic I believe should be to focus on the benefits of secularism and not mistakes of our past. Such reflections would likely lead to defensive attitudes rather than looking optimistically towards the future. In addition, one of the pre conditions to moving forward is to first have the full endorsement and backing of all the heads of our different religious schools before we act on this path.

Buddhism and Political world

Buddhism’s mix with politics has its own unique challenges. Granted there is much wisdom in Buddhism that we can get guidance politically especially the teachings related to compassion, impermanence and dependent arising. However, I feel there are two key differences between the Buddhist and political world that we should be mindful.


For a Buddhist, in ones spiritual practice the right motivation is critical. Without proper motivation one’s actions is tainted and efforts near useless. This makes sense because the goal of a Buddhist is to transform ones mind. How can one move forward in ones spiritual practice if the brakes are on?

In politics motivation is not the key but the end results. A resourceful and educated politician has a greater chance of bring practical benefits to a community than a kind and well intentioned politician.

Just as an entrepreneur opens a restaurant not necessarily to feed the public but to make money. A politician may run for office not necessarily to benefit a community but for his/her love for power or for other selfish reasons.
We should not view motivation as a litmus test especially in a future Tibet where politicians will be driven for less than altruistic reasons when there is a real personal benefit that one can generate in running for office. In short we should not expect our politicians to be Bodhisattvas but real people with human flaws.

Being mindful of this I believe we will better able to prioritize our interest in selection of our political leaders. Hopefully we will find ones that have the best of both worlds but in our selection of our leaders we should give proper weight as we make choices.

Nature of humans

Our spiritual teachers remind us that all sentient beings have been our mothers. In addition, we are taught that we all have the Buddha nature. These teachings help us to empathize with others, develop equanimity and generate compassion. This is key for our spiritual practice because without the foundation of compassion true spiritual wisdom is impossible.

However, in the political world it is better to assume the negative aspects of human nature. This is critical because assuming the worst of humans it allows us to put in place a robust system to protect society from the worst aspects of human nature.

In our community, we occasionally hear allegations of corruption of certain TGIE government officials and leaders of certain NGOs. Our lack of proper system has unfortunately fueled a mob like environment in which individuals are judged in the world of public opinion. Many a time good and bad individuals are accused and the system can be easily used to settle personal scores.

Many of those who launch the accusations, normally anonymously, are likely driven by the right motivation but without understanding of the whole story. In the future if we are able to set up a more transparent system with appropriate checks and balance based on the worst case of human nature we will be more likely to reduce future problems. In addition, people who have credible evidences of wrong doings by any public figure should be encouraged (if not rewarded) to speak out as we have a right considering many of the officials are paid staff and it has an effect on all of us. However, the call should be for independent investigation by qualified individuals and a transparency of the end results like it is done in a mature society.

This will most importantly clear the names of individuals who have been wrongly accused. Those who have actually hurt the public trust should be appropriately disciplined. Such a system would also allow farsighted government officials to take calculated risks. When success is not appropriately recognized in proportion to the potential condemnation of failure fear will prevent people from taking even low. It will also place our public figures on a defensive mode which will prevent excitement, creativity and energy.

Political Factions


Pre 1959, conflicts among the different political factions were one of the primary factors that prevented Tibet from modernizing. Factions spent much of their time destroying each other and manipulating the Tibetan government. To name a few cases: (i) neutralization of the Drog Drag regiment and false accusation of Kunphela on the death of the XIII Dalai Lama; (ii) arrest of Lungshar with allegation of attempting to overthrow the Tibetan government; (iii) Reting/Taktra power struggle; (iv) flogging and banishing of Khyungram and (v) persecution of Gendun Chopell are all case illustrations of this point.

For more details of this period I personally found helpful reading the works of Shakabpa, Tsepon W. D. Tibet: A Political History, Goldstein, Melvyn C. A History of Modern Tibet 1913 1951, and Smith, Warren W. Tibetan Nation.

In our community today as indicated earlier we have different factions mainly driven by provincialism, personalities and differing visions for a future Tibet. As of now, greatly due to HHDL influence, the factions have not been able to manipulate TGIE. In the future in the absence of HHDL and without urgent structural changes, there is a grave danger that factions may manipulate the public, marginalize/demonize TGIE depending on their needs and create a rift between the TGIE and the community. This would be particularly dangerous if the factions are well organized and capitalized.


Communism’s solution to factions have been through (i) taking away the liberty of others and (ii) through an effort to create a utopian society where everyone thinks alike and is equal. Needless to say this has not succeeded as it goes against the very nature of the human mind and discourages innovation/hard work. Adoption of such tactics has created suffering for all those who have been affected.

The first step I believe TGIE should take to mitigate the negative forces of faction is to have clear generally acceptable goals. The goals should not create a perception of threat to any faction. Personally, I believe the focus of TGIE should be through a transparent platform (i) invest equally (via education and guidance) in every Tibetan so that they can succeed to their full potential; (ii) protect the weak and old; (iii) become largely financially self sustainable through revenues from within the community; (iv) diversify geographically our power base; (v) find a just solution with the Chinese government; and (vi) empower our community so that they are ready to execute any fair political agreement.

Secondly, unlike the tactics to handle religious factions or by communistic means, TGIE should welcome political driven factions as long as it is not illegal or immoral. TGIE should encourage factions to focus on specific problems depending on their expertise, encourage debates and the government should give fair hearings to different factional forces. The organization should creatively think of ways to see how they can use the factions to either cooperate or compete among each other to benefit our society and accomplish TGIE’s strategic goals.

One place for inspiration and guidance I believe is from America’s founding fathers. To quote President Madison, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government… In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions (http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm).”

As indicated above, TGIE in order to continue to stay legitimate they should make sure that the organization itself governs itself, has the appropriate internal checks/balance and represents the people.

Pre 1959 the various factions were led by very capable individuals, not necessarily bad people. If their energy was instead channelized properly they could have greatly strengthened Tibet. For example if the government was able to find a way to make Kunphela and Lungshar work collaboratively this itself would have made much difference in the modernization of Tibet. Both of them were very visionary politicians and cared much about Tibet’s future.

In the future TGIE will again come across visionary and ambitious individuals like Kunphela and Lungshar. The organization will also face powerful factions. Viewing factions as friends, through proper tactics and skillful execution TGIE can use this energy to enter into even greater heights.


Through my father I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of TGIE officials’ daily sacrifice and the sense of joy they feel through their work. All of us make our own efforts in our different ways depending on our skill sets. However, undoubtedly TGIE is our spine. It is critical, while we continue to keep a watchful eye on our government officials, we must continue to show our officials the utmost respect and provide support whenever possible. They deserve it. Equally important unless we do this we will not be able to attract future great talents to serve the administration. Without qualified people the organization will eventually die.

Shantideva used the beautiful metaphor that covering one’s feet with leather sandals is the same as covering the entire world with leather. He used this metaphor to indicate that if we are able to restrain our mind it is the same as restraining external phenomena. Similarly, I believe if TGIE is able to make the right structural changes and strategically position itself this would be the same as neutralizing much of Tibet’s external threats and leveraging outside opportunities.

The author is an MBA graduate (Beta Gamma Sigma Honor Society member) from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and currently works in the Investment Banking field in New York City. Besides his regular work, Tsewang has traveled extensively throughout the three provinces of Tibet and provided consulting and voluntary services to a number of Tibetan organizations. He can be reached at densang123@yahoo.com

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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