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Lessons from the United States of America
By Email[Tuesday, May 19, 2009 22:23]
by Tsewang Namgyal

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go, if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” President Ronald Reagan

Electing the next Kalon Tripa will properly be one of the most important decisions we Tibetans will make in our life. A question one often hears from within our community on the upcoming election is do we have viable candidates? I humbly believe this is a dangerous question. The statement has a subtle pessimistic message that we do not have a viable candidate. Such pessimism could be contagious and worse - self fulfilling. Here we should draw wisdom from the words of the respected management consultant Peter Drucker that "No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings." I humbly believe more appropriate questions we should ask ourselves are - what can we do to elect the best candidate? What can we all learn from leaders and systems of other countries to help our leaders become even better? Below I would like to humbly try to answer these questions more in an effort to encourage further thoughts than to provide a conclusive answer.

What can we do to elect the best candidate?

I believe the most important thing we can do is find ways to inspire qualified individuals to run for the Kalon Tripa position. Tibet is blessed by many proven leaders. All the current Kashag members, Ms. Jetsun Pema, Ms. Rinchen Khando, Ms. Dolma Gyari, Ms Lhadon Tethong, Mr. Lodi Gyari, Mr. Tashi Wangdi, Mr. Lobsang Zayul, Mr. Jamyang Norbu, Mr. Lobsang Sangay, Mr. Tsegyam and many other accomplished people come to my mind. I am sure there are also many Tibetan Obamas out there who with the right encouragement and resources will make excellent candidates.

Personally, I believe the best way to inspire such individuals is through exhibiting ones own personal dedication towards Tibet. In addition, we should verbally encourage qualified individuals to run and offer financial, logistic and other support (depending on one’s ability) to the person that best fit one’s vision and has the ability (education and experience) and willingness (energy and track record) to execute it.

It is important we all remain mindful that running for Kalon Tripa is a very honorable but extremely difficult decision. It is not a simple matter of dedication or lack of it. This decision involves a collective agreement and commitment in particular from ones family members. Running for election itself, will involve candidates to take away from personal/family time and become open to scrutiny. In addition, even if candidates are able to raise funds for their campaigns it would not allow them to earn normally, especially if one is the primary bread earner. For example, one can argue without the initial backing of people like Ms. Penny Pritzker, we would not have had an unknown individual like Barack Obama become America’s 44th President.

What can we learn from leaders and systems of other countries?

The great benefit about being a refugee is we are able to learn from our adopted home countries. As a Tibetan American, I would like to focus on lessons we can learn from the leaders of this great country. America is not a perfect country. However, as someone who focuses on results I believe it is no fluke that this young country has become politically and economically the most powerful in the world. Much of this credit goes to the Presidents of this country and the systems that have allowed people of such diversity rise up to the highest power in this country (if not the world).

As of now there has been 44 Presidents in the United States. Here I would like to highlight aspects of four of them.

(i) George Washington (1789-1797)

America’s first President helped set an excellent trend for her future leaders. During his Presidency many Americans hoped that he would become the king. A democratic elected head of states was a new concept. There was much uncertainty in the country and one can empathize with the people during this period. In certain ways, this uncertainty is similar to the one that we face on a post His Holiness era.

President Washington probably had his concerns but refused to become a life long ruler. After the end of his term, he relinquished all his powers to the next elected President. We Tibetans are also blessed by compassionate rulers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rimpoche (“Rimpoche”). Like President Washington, it is clear that His Holiness and Rimpoche would like to transfer their power to the next elected Kalon Tripa. The question is: will our next elected leader be able to take over the power with confidence? Are we as a community willing to encourage and support this transfer? If we fear the transition, our democracy will be a sham and will in the future will have even a more challenging time to flourish. There is no better time for us to make mistakes than in the presence of His Holiness and Rimpoche.

In our conversations, it is clear that we feel that His Holiness or Rimpoche should always hold some kind of political power. I believe this should be left to the discretion of our next elected Kalon Tripa not out of disrespect of our past leaders but out of respect for our democratic values. If our future Kalon Tripa always felt that he/she is not the ultimate decision maker that would hurt that individual’s confidence and prevent clarity of that person’s decision making abilities. This is not much different from allowing a grown “child” to make his/her own decision. If a child always feels that one needs to get some sort of implicit decision this will not allow the person to think independently (as they would second guess what the parent thinks), will not learn from mistakes (as will likely blame it on the parent) and will likely delay the decision making time (which is bad in a fast moving world).

Separately, during a recent discussion with an American friend he mentioned to me an interesting issue that came up between President Washington and the U.S. Congress. I understand President Washington who was relatively wealthy individual offered to work for free perhaps to protect his image as a selfless public servant. Here I understand the U.S. Congress refused and forced him to take an appropriate salary. The logic was that if President Washington set such a precedent, it may make it difficult for future Presidents who are not materially well off to feel a similar obligation. This farsightedness many believe had a factor in allowing a poor but one of America’s greatest Presidents (Abraham Lincoln) to lead America in freeing the country of slavery.

In the future, we may come across similar situations since there is much glorification of self sacrifice. I believe it is important we also be mindful that it is critical that our Kalon Tripa is well compensated and lives in a house that is appropriate. Sometimes results should take precedents on motivation. The US President's annual salary is $400,000 and as we know he lives in the White House. Of course we cannot match the salary and benefits, but we can try to provide appropriate amount based on our own ability.

As humans, there is a subtle respect given to outward appearance and it is important especially if our Kalon Tripa is a family person he/she should not worry about taking care of family obligations. In addition, I believe His Holiness, Rimpoche and we as a community must exhibit tremendous amount of respect on the next position of Kalon Tripa. This can be done symbolically through seating arrangements, how that person is addressed (usage of prefixes such as Honorable or Excellency) and introduced to the external media (the equivalent translation of Prime Minister). Symbolism is important on our community where large segments of our population are illiterate. For the outside world too where positioning is critical in order to open doors and get immediate recognition (rather than spending precious time explaining what Kalon Tripa means). If we as a community do not exhibit the appropriate respect, no one else would do it. If we are not media savvy, we will lose out in the important media war.

It is also interesting to note that President Washington did not belong to any political parties. In fact he frowned on it although there was a natural evolution in the development of a two party system in the country. Currently, we in our community do not have a vibrant political party. I understand the National Democratic Party of Tibet (“NDPT”) is the only internal political party that exists. I believe eventually we will develop into a two (if not multi) party system primarily driven by our ideological division based on those who advocate independence for Tibet and those who would prefer the middle path.

I believe the lack of political parties should not be a concern. Nor should it be a concern with development of political parties based on the ideological divide. Most important I believe what is important is that we all respect our democratic process and hold it above any of our ideological viewpoints. Past history of United States has shown that democracy can flourish both with and without political parties.

(ii) Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

President T. Roosevelt (“TR”) was America’s 26th President. At the young age of 42 he succeeded President William McKinley after he was assassinated. There are many lessons we Tibetans can learn from his Presidency but I would like to highlight two.

Firstly, his sudden succession reflects the importance of having a Vice Kalon Tripa. Such a position would help in periods of great uncertainty and sudden transitions. If such a situation arises in our community, the Vice Kalon Tripa will be able to take over the Kalon Tripa position to carry out the mandate for the set time period. I would like to note that besides TR, there were eight other American Vice Presidents who succeeded the Presidency due to early death, assassination or impeachment of the President. In the future, it is highly likely our Kalon Tripas could face a similar situation. The other benefit of a Vice Kalon Tripa is that it would allow public to have a tested candidate for the future Kalon Tripa position bringing some comfort. There were four sitting U.S. Vice Presidents who became Presidents.

One of TR’s greatest accomplishments is his work related to conservation. TR was able to show how conserving America’s land, forest and animals are her long term interest. TR had to work with and fight against powerful business and political interest. TR’s ability and persistence to work with different forces is something that our leaders can learn. We have our share of powerful and short sighted interests within and outside our community.

One would argue that TR had an easier time than the leaders who have to fight against foreign occupiers. However, if you look at certain other “free” regions in the world it shows that ruling a region can be as difficult as freeing it. Recently I had tea with a very educated young Indian from the state of Orissa. He is a graduate of one of India’s premier engineering colleges and best Business Schools in the United States. With a sad face he mentioned to me that his home state of Orissa is near hopeless. The citizens of the state are literally sitting on gold mines as the state is blessed by many natural resources but are dying out of starvation. I asked what the cause of the poverty and pessimism? He mentioned that it is due to lack of good leadership, corruption and illiteracy.

In speaking with him it appeared I was even more optimistic about Tibet than he was about Orissa. In further reflection, I can see why this is the case. Although there are challenges fighting foreign powers, it is more challenging sometimes fighting powerful forces within ones own community. There is real power and money that drives individuals to loose their morality. Lack of common enemy prevents unity and idealism.

For more information on TR, I would recommend this tribute on him posted on youtube.com

(iii) Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

President Roosevelt (FDR) was America’s 32nd President. FDR lead America during the great depression. In his inaugural address FDR made the famous statement that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." For us Tibetans, I believe the interesting aspect of his Presidency was the debate that took place regarding his interest to run for a third term. Prior to his running, there was an implicit rule that two terms were the maximum that a US citizen could be President. The arguments against three terms was that it would take away opportunities from other candidates and give excuse for dictators to come into power.

FDR did win the third term but subsequent to it the 22nd Amendment of the United States Constitution was put in place. FDR is the only person to serve three terms as President. There is well motivated, segment in our population that argue we need to amend our Constitution where the Kalon Tripa can serve for three terms. We should be mindful that there is a reason why most democratic countries have a term limit. It would be important for us to study the experience of others so that we do not set a precedent in the future that we could regret.

(iv) John F. Kennedy (1961 – 1963)

President Kennedy (“JFK”) was America’s 35th President. In his short Presidency, he has inspired the world. My father mentioned he remembers tears flowing in his and others faces in India when they heard of his assassination. JFK was able to inspire not only Americans but people around the world through his famous saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." In our current situation, our leader would need to inspire the best out of every Tibetan not only in political activism but also in the field of social, education and economic empowerment of our people.

Personally, I believe the most important lesson we can learn from JFK is his negotiating skills. During JFKs Presidency the world came close to a nuclear war with the Cuban missile crises. He could have taken the easier way of giving into the Soviets but he stood his ground allowing him to negotiate a peaceful and lasting resolution to the crises. Here I would like to quote from his Inaugural Address (January 20th 1961):

“So let us begin anew - remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring those problems which divide us.

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Negotiating with the Chinese government is going to be an important effort by our next Kalon Tripa. I believe some aspects of JFKs style has been adopted by our current Kalon Tripa administration. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has not reciprocated in kind. Unfortunately, our government exhibits too much fear reflected in the tone of their statements. The Chinese government needs to reduce their suspicion. Our next leadership needs to reduce our fear.

There are probably no leaders one can trust more than the Tibetans. Many are grounded by the Buddhist ethical values that they would sacrifice honesty over profits. In fact, if someone had to be suspicious it should be the Tibetan side because China has the weapons and the manpower (and not the most stellar track record). On the Tibetan leadership side fear of the Chinese government is neither beneficial (as this just gives the Chinese government more power) nor rational. If someone has to fear it should be the Chinese government. Truth is on our side. In the world of public opinion truth is the winner. I believe truth will prevail in the end. Our offer to talk and reach an agreement with them legitimizes them and implicitly forgives their wrong past actions. I hope Kennedy’s words will inspire our leadership to persist in our efforts as there is no alternative path for lasting peace.


I would like to share here a lesson that I learned from my dear beloved 89 year old father – It is critical we always share respectfully but candidly our opinions with our leadership. My father had the good fortune to serve the Tibetan government in an independent Tibet and in exile. In Tibet, he had an opportunity to see the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and interact with the Fourteenth when he was in his teens. My father mentioned that he heard that one of His Holiness Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s advisors assertively, but respectfully, advised the young Dalai Lama that it was important before he spoke that he checked whether it benefited others or not. If it was the latter, His Holiness was told to keep quiet. I understand from my father that many years back His Holiness indicated appreciation of the advice that was given to Him.

Today His Holiness is the light of our lives and a model world leader. For me His greatness is his immense compassion, wisdom, practicality, hard work, integrity, confidence and humility. In the future, we will have new leaders. It is critical we share respectfully our opinions candidly with our leadership. The advice that His Holiness advisors had given him in the past may have had some positive impact on His Holiness and this has greatly benefited all of us.

Finally, reflecting on our history we can see that we Tibetan had our share of great rulers.. Songtsen Gampo (617‑649 A.D.), Trisong Detsen (755‑797 A.D.), Tri Ralpachen (806-841 A.D.), Drogon Choegyal Phagpa (1235-1280), Fifth Dalai Lama (1617 – 1682), Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876 –1933) and the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama are a few that immediately come to my mind. Learning from our best leaders in our history and those of other countries I believe will allow us to have our best days in the future.

The author is an MBA graduate (Beta Gamma Sigma Honor Society member) from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and works in the Investment Banking field in New York City. Tsewang is one of the Founding Board of Directors of Students for a Free Tibet, first Tibetan to officially enlist in the United States Military and served as the Executive Director (volunteer) of the Tibetan Community Center Project (NY) from 2007-2008 . He can be reached at densang123@yahoo.com
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