By Tenzin Sonam
This is not an intimate account of what happened in the recent 5-50 Youth Forum organized by the Central Tibetan Administration but rather this is a personal appraisal of how the event was perceived by its online crowd and unexpected repercussions that the Forum might have on the society. From reading the comments during the live stream of the 5-50 Forum, an easy binary conclusion could be drawn using the proverbial divide of a glass being half empty or full. Those who saw the glass half full, tend to agree that the Forum was a success, and it generated pride and hope watching the diversity of talented youth who can speak and think freely. The half empty crowd seemed completely appalled by the unhinged and extensive use of English during the course of the event, which consequently compelled some speakers to use English. This latter group of observers feared that the glass might be completely empty in the next 50 years.
Each side has their legitimate doubt, reason, and justification for their vitriol. The optimists argue that the youths hail from different intellectual and institutional tribes, and therefore, it is a necessity to appropriate their discourse in the lingua franca - English. The pessimists were concerned that the Forum didn’t model the youth they want to perceive in 50 years and hence questioned the legitimacy of those gathered in discussing Tibet and its future when they miserably failed to fulfill one of the core essentials of being a Tibetan – speaking the Tibetan language.
The more important question from this divide for me is how the CTA is projecting itself to the world and to its own people and how it wants to be perceived. These live public broadcasts are efficient use of communication but we cannot be too cautious especially when the event you are broadcasting claims to have “the best and brightest of our Tibetan Youth deliberating Tibet’s political future” and the medium of discussion is anything but Tibetan. This is not a critique of this well-intentioned initiative but the CTA should possess the astuteness and tenacity to minimize public embarrassment and maximize impact of such initiatives.
Considering the huge ongoing demographic shift in the diaspora Tibetans, it is critical to ask whether CTA will succumb to the increasing demand for use of English language in the future or will it hold its rightful ground as the legitimate cultural and political establishment for the Tibetan people around the globe. Hence, those agonizing over the lack of Tibetan use in the Forum as succumbing to the increasing language shift in our youth is a reasonable fear. The counter argument might be that CTA is a political organization and its ultimate goal is the restoration of freedom for Tibetans in Tibet, and therefore, how the diaspora Tibetans communicate is immaterial as long as they remain dedicated and active in their political goal. However, I have my own doubts as to whether our brothers and sisters in Tibet only look for activism on their behalf in the diaspora or greater political and cultural leadership and vision.
During their brief audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the end of Forum, His central message to the youths was to educate and immerse themselves in our inherited Buddhist ways of knowing in order to secure the next fifty years. However, this didn’t seem a core issue during the Forum. In the end as mentioned earlier, the CTA should make a conscious decision whether it wants to present itself as just a political entity or the true inheritors of our political legacy and cultural heritage. The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University. The views expressed here are his personal