By Sherab Woeser
“Does the King do what he wants or does he do what the people expect him to do.”
From the motion picture 'The King's Speech'
The few of us in exile, as a people, took this giant and historic leap of faith from a medieval society and landed right on the centre stage of international diplomacy and west oriented dogmatism. Everywhere in exile, Tibetans found charity in being Tibetan while in many cases leaving Tibet behind. We prided ourselves with the educated briskness with which we exchanged our chuba for jeans and cut short the length of our hair and sleeves. Many times it would seem that we were so enthralled with where we wanted to go that we completely forgot where we come from.
Back in Tibet, where the overwhelming majority of Tibetans remain, the medieval society was forced to undergo drastic ‘social’ changes under the communist regime. Through the decades, generations of Tibetans have valiantly resisted the deriding changes the communist regime systematically forced upon Tibetan culture, religious practices, education system and political inclinations. The glorious uprisings of 2008 saw a new generation of Tibetans, educated and brought up under communist ideology, which had never seen His Holiness the Dalai Lama, fearlessly calling for his return.
The idea that is Tibet
Even after fifty long and painful years of complete physical separation and growing-up under social and political environments that are poles apart, we Tibetans, still share this common goal of His Holiness’ return and shi-je nyam zom (reunification of Tibetans).
Reasons for this telepathic surge of integrity might be many and varied but the simplest and yet the most powerful reason why we still remain connected across the globe as a people, I believe, is that we share the idea that is Tibet. The idea of being the ruddy faced people, native to the land of snows, the children of Chenresig, the proud wanderers of the vast plateau, the blessed people led by the Dalai Lamas. We cherish that idea.
Give a few crayons to a seven year old and the child will draw that ingrained visuals of the people we are. Hills, meadows, yaks, families on their rooftops burning juniper while the incense trial invariably leads to a monastery on the top of a hill. We are accustomed to that idea of a peaceful and harmonious country guided in our ways by our religion.
Scholars and poets in Tibet have paid floral tributes to that idea. The phenomenal blogger Woeser writes in a poem, “On the road, I clutch a flower not of this world, Hurrying before it dies, searching in all directions, That I may present it to an old man in a deep red robe. A wish−fulfilling jewel, A wisp of a smile: These bind the generations tight."
In the most common and habitual of our prayers we pay obeisance and find strength in the idea that makes us one. “Circled by ramparts of snow-mountains - this sacred realm, This wellspring of all sustenance and happiness. Tenzin Gyatso, bodhisattva of compassion. May his reign endure till the end of existence.” I have said this prayer uncountable times in school halls and official gatherings with the true hope that may His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s reign lead us all back to Tibet.
But with His Holiness’ recent letter to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile announcing the Dalai Lama institution’s full relinquishment of all political and administrative responsibilities, this idea of Tibet, it seems, has been given a death sentence.
Forgoing this beautiful idea now, when the majority of our people remain under an alien rule and the few of us outside attempt at setting up a new system of governance would be a political blunder that can cost us our most precious asset of our unity in aspiration.
Democracy with the Dalai Lama
In exile, all of us might not be too familiar with the different structures, functions and types of democracy but we all understand thoroughly that we have been given the right to chose and make our own decisions. We know that if we are up to it, we can speak our minds without fear or prejudice. We know that we can elect our representatives and raise questions when they don’t perform. The biggest gift of democracy to a people is their secure sense of freedom and we Tibetans relish in this latent sense of freedom, so much so, that we, at times opt for staying at home and watch tv than to stand in the voting queue.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama not only introduced democracy to the Ganden Phodrang Government but also took active and far reaching steps in making the infant Tibetan democracy more viable and accountable. We look a vibrant bunch of people here sometimes banging tables and sometimes chests talking about the future of Tibet but we all realise that our sense of freedom and responsibility comes from the fact that the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama lends us the legitimacy to speak for and work on behalf of Tibet.
Under the umbrella of legitimacy that His Holiness provides, the Ganden Phodrang Shung made a daring escape to exile, intended, initially at least, to reclaim our land and deliver to our people the gift of democracy and freedom. If history books were to justify our seemingly dispassionate and unproductive means by the exemplary and harmonious end we hope to achieve then this abrupt end to an era of popular and crucial leadership would carry far more political and ideological repercussions than just being another practical transition.
Two Dalai Lamas
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, off late, has been asked many times on the prospects of his reincarnation with reference to the current stalemate surrounding the 11th Panchen Lama. While His Holiness has continuously maintained that his reincarnation will be born in the free world, the Dalai Lama also accepts the strong possibility of the Chinese communist party picking their own choice for the 15th. His Holiness puts it succinctly as, “One official Dalai Lama and one Dalai Lama of the heart”.
Since the issue of retirement took steam, the Chinese government officials have been careful in stressing that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate. As ironical as it might sound but the Chinese communist party knows, all so well, that Tibet’s religious leaders, led by the Dalai Lama hold answer to almost any Tibetan puzzle. Retirement or not, China will romp forward with its longstanding preparations for appointing the next Dalai Lama with the blessings of their puppet Panchen Lama.
It is evident that an escapist approach to such a stalemate will galvanise the problem and cause further confusion and distress. Events as such, where a blasphemous lie is being employed to cover up a historical truth, more assertiveness and audacity should be displayed.
Amendments to the Charter
The statement of His Holiness on retirement, many perceive is a step intended upon making the exile administration more self-reliant and democratic. No sensible Tibetan would argue against that. But why do we want to believe that only the exit of His Holiness will make us more enterprising.
Why can’t we, while His Holiness acts as the free spokesperson, bring plausible changes to make the government more accountable to and more representative of its people and their aspirations.
While the institution of the Dalai Lamas continues to lend us the stamp of legitimacy, why can’t we practice multi-party democracy based on political ideology and have Katri and Chithue candidates promote political stances rather than region based allegiance.
Under His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s democratic leadership why can’t we bifurcate the house and introduce constituency based elections so that representatives would be directly responsible to its constituents.
With His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as the head of the state continues to authorize legislatures into laws why can’t we bring amendments to the Charter so that it is required of the parliament to review the policies of the exile administration every few years.
Bringing result-oriented amendments to the Charter will be much more effective in making the exile structure stronger than just electing a head of state or for that matter retiring the Dalai Lamas.
If we want to believe that a future without the Dalai Lama will be easier upon the exile administration just because we have distributed his nominal powers amongst ourselves then we are grossly mistaken. The vacuum that His Holiness will leave, as much as we might prepare, can never be filled. But if His Holiness leaves us as the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people with the promise to lead us until we are reunited, then our struggle still stands a chance against, amongst many other things, our own chaotic differences.
Returning without His Presence
We have witnessed the unfolding of the Sino-Tibet dialogue process and the ensuing press conferences on both sides of the Himalayas. The Chinese government began by denying the existence of any talks but later ceded that personal envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama were being entertained by members of the United Work Front Department, the communist party wing responsible for dealing with China’s ethnic minorities.
China knows best and has repeatedly witnessed the total reverence and penetrating influence that His Holiness the Dalai Lama commands in Tibet. Deep rooted fear of the Dalai Lama has led China’s communist regime to ban even pictures of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. To hope that under a negotiated settlement the same regime will allow the Dalai Lama and the Ganden Phodrang Shung to return is totally untenable to reason and logic.
But now, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama is relinquishing all his political responsibilities and breaking administrative ties between the Ganden Phodrang and the Tibetan people, the plausible question arises, is the Dalai Lama sacrificing his hopes for a return to pave the way for China to seriously consider the return of exile Tibetans? Because, seriously, at the end of the day China too desperately wants to get the Tibet monkey off its back. They will be quite willing to having us back, the lost brothers and sisters into the folds of the motherland as long as we are orphaned of the Dalai Lama’s leadership and detached from Tibet’s historical administrative governance.
And then the bigger question is, if we today agree to retire the institution of the Dalai Lamas would we then consider returning back to Tibet without His Presence?
I could be completely off the mark here in my speculations but with China anything is worth a second or multiple thoughts.
Tenshug for the Dalai Lama institution
My uncle, Lhasang Tsering, a few years ago confided in me that it was time, we Tibetans, started offering the deeply religious ‘tenshug’, long life offering prayers, not only to the 14th Dalai Lama but to the institution of the Dalai Lamas, beseeching the lineage to continue leading and guiding us in our struggle.
Then, to me, it sounded more like a passionate idea than a practical necessity. But now, I realise, what my uncle was looking at.
On the 22nd of April, the staff of the Central Tibetan Administration have the blessed opportunity of offering tenshug to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Luckily, I will also be a part of the gathering, praying for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama’s lotus feet to remain with us for hundreds of aeons and for his benevolent leadership to guide us, in its many manifestations, until we are reunited.