News and Views on Tibet


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By Jamyang Norbu


For some months, now large-scale protests and violent street battles have been raging throughout Cairo and other major cities of Egypt. Thousands of Egyptian liberals and secularists have come out on the streets to protest what they called President Mohamed Morsi’s “power-grab”, after he issued a declaration awarding himself new powers, which he claimed were “temporary” until a new constitution was put in place. Morsi’s opposition will have none of it and claim that he wants to make himself “the new Pharaoh”.

The exile Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has since last year been going through a major constitutional crisis of its own. The odd thing in Dharamshala’s case is that no one there appears to have realized that anything consequential had happened at all. It is perhaps likely that some of the more savvy residents of the exile Tibetan capital had their suspicions but were too intimidated or confused to say anything, much less stage a protest at the Gangchen Kyishong square.

I only got my first inkling of this “crisis” when I came across this reworking of the title of the Tibetan prime minister from that of “kalon tripa” to “sikyong” an older and somewhat obscure title used by the old regents of Tibet. But I assumed this name change was merely a cosmetic one. Samdong Rimpoche had some years back changed the title of the exile PM from the traditional si-lon to the more grandiose sounding Kalon Tripa or the “Enthroned Kalon”*

So I assumed, as everyone else did, that the change from Kalon Tripa to Sikyong was also just a change in the Tibetan name and that the office of the prime minister remained the same. In an official report issued on September 26, 2012, by CTA on its website it was also made clear that only the name or title of the office had been changed:

“Kalon Tripa Dr Lobsang Sangay today ratified the recent amendments made to the Charter of Tibetans in Exile to change the official title of Kalon Tripa to Sikyong.”

But in the last paragraph of the report there was a hint that perhaps something more than a name change had actually taken place: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama said on 8 August 2011 that he was handing over the political leadership that he inherited from Regent Tagdra Rinpoche to Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the first democratically-elected Sikyong or Tibetan political leader.”

In effect the Dalai Lama was handing over his power as sovereign monarch, which he had received from the Tagdra regent, to his prime-minister, who in effect now became the next sovereign, monarch or head of state. In his own official Twitter profile Lobsang Sangay la gives a description of what a “Sikyong” actually is, and he makes it clear that it is more than a mere change of title or name.
“Sikyong – the democratically elected head of the Tibetan people and political successor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama”

Public memory is short so I think everyone should remind themselves that Lobsang Sangay la was elected on 26 April 2011 as the kalon tripa or the prime-minister of the exile government. That was it. Nothing more, nothing less. Just a prime-minister, or Kalon Tripa if you like.

In a parliamentary system of government the prime-minister is the head of the government only. In such a system the head of the nation or the state – or the head of the “people” in our situation – would be a monarch (as in the UK or Japan) a president (as in India), or in our own case before His retirement, the Dalai Lama.

Where an executive branch is led by a person who serves as both head of state and head of government, that person is usually elected and titled “president”, but can also be an unelected monarch. If you combine the power of the head of government and the head of state, as it appears to have happened in the case of the “Sikyong”, then you have a president, as in the United States, Venezuela or Kenya.
So at the bare minimum there has been a profound and fundamental change in the Tibetan political system. And the strangest thing is that there has been absolutely no real discussion in the cabinet, the parliament or among the public about this major alteration in the administration. Of course, this is not to say that the Tibetan people cannot or should not change their political system if they so wish. But even in a nominally democratic country such a fundamental change to the political system would require numerous and lengthy parliamentary and public debates, and ultimately a national referendum.

In our case the national discussion on whether we were going to change from having a having a prime-ministerial to a presidential system, should have taken place the before the Dalai Lama’s actual retirement. But this never happened, not then, not now, and probably not anytime soon. What is truly depressing is that there has been no public outcry, not a single voice of protest and not one editorial or article in any exile journal condemning this absolute disregard for democratic procedure. Everyone, it seems, is going along with the polite fiction that only “the official title of Kalon Tripa to Sikyong” has been changed as the CTA has claimed in its press release.

Speaking of protests, the powers that president Morsi “temporarily” awarded himself which triggered the demonstrations that have practically crippled Egypt, are essentially far less radical or profound than the changes that have been made surreptitiously to the Tibetan body politic. Morsi claims, with some justification, that his changes to the system were made to avoid interference from a court system that was largely a holdover from the Mubarak era, and which had overturned many efforts at reform since the Revolution.

So in what direction is the exile political system now headed? Is the role of the “Sikyong” equivalent to that of a “president” or even a “Supreme President”, as some of the Sikyong’s supporters are beginning to call him? Can we expect “Supreme Leader” or “Beloved Leader” next year? Since this transmogrification is now a done deal, should we perhaps resign ourselves to the new reality and hold our peace? And even if we did, is this change really all that simple or clear? For instance, in his claim that he is the political successor to the Dalai Lama the Sikyong seems to be stating that his role as leader is more profound and far reaching than that of a merely elected official, even that of a president.

The beginnings of what might be called a cult of personality appears to be forming around Tibet’s new “supreme” leader. His visits to exile communities in the USA and elsewhere have been heralded by motorcades of Black SUVs and security personnel in dark suits and shades, more suited to heads of superpowers or major criminal organizations than the head of a refugee administration whose funding is derived largely from charitable donations from the West. The representative of the Office of Tibet in New York has also made the fawning declaration that the “number one” priority of the new Tibetan administration was to raise the international profile of the new exile political leader.

The Sikyong himself appears to have sipped a little of his own Kool-Aid when he suggested to an Australian journalist that the self-immolations in Tibet had somehow been inspired by his election victory. He also, quite possibly, sees his own role from a heroic, perhaps even quasi-messianic, point of view. He told the same reporter that he had taken over the “hardest phase” of the Tibetan struggle: ‘”If you study any movement, the beginning is swift and brutal,” he told The Herald. “In Tibet’s case, it was the Chinese invasion. And the end is swift and pleasurable – look at the result of the election in Egypt. But the middle phase is always the most difficult.”

Clearly our Sikyong has not studied the Indian independence movement where the conclusion – partition – was probably the most traumatic phase of the entire struggle, nor even the recent Egyptian Revolution whose ending far from being “swift and pleasurable” is daily deteriorating into street violence and chaos. For those taking the actual lead in our struggle, those courageous self-immolators and political prisoners in torture-chambers and Laogai camps throughout Tibet, there can be no doubt that this is the “hardest phase”. But it is not appropriate for the Sikyong, or any of us living in the free world, for that matter, to describe our own modest contributions to the cause, in such momentous terms.

We might get some idea of the direction in which the Sikyong mythology is heading from the sub-title of a documentary film being made by two European filmmakers, Christian D.Paehler and Maren Strenge. The project appears to have the approval and support of CTA and shooting in Dharamshala seems to have been wrapped up. Lobsang Sangay is referred to in the title as The Outsider but more interestingly in the sub-title as “Tibet’s Next Incarnation?”. No objections or controversy has come up about this very suggestive sub-title, so perhaps we can conclude that this has been officially approved and blessed. This sub-title (even with the question mark) suggesting that Tibet’s new-found democracy could revert to a theocracy of some kind, is not at all reassuring.

If the Sikyong is “the political successor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama” and he might furthermore be “Tibet’s Next Incarnation” as his officially approved biographical documentary appears to suggest, then we are in a far deeper constitutional cesspit than if the change were only one from prime-minister to president, which though problematic enough, does not carry with it the many theological questions (and perils) inherent in a system that is based more on metaphysical than on constitutional principles.

In such an event a host of questions will have to be answered before even the first steps can be taken to deal with the issue. What is the exact constitutional role of this “Political Successor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama”? Must this Tibetan leader be acknowledged as an “incarnation”, as he seems to suggest he should be? Is he the manifestation of the “Madhey Trulku” option that His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentioned some years ago, where His Holiness would manifest an alternative emanation before his own passing? If so, then would it not be sacrilege to even suggest term limits for such a political incarnation? Would the public have to regard him as a “supreme president for life”? Would we have to address him as His Eminence, or His Serenity or even His Holiness? Would we have to conduct a search for his reincarnation on his death? And so on.

It is astonishing that someone with a doctorate in law from Harvard should have gone along with such makeshift – make it up as you go along – constitutional arrangements for the top leadership position of an entire people, even if at this moment in their history the Tibetan people are stateless and powerless. Surely, as I suggested earlier, a “national” debate even a referendum of some kind could have been conducted for the exile public to decide on what system of government (parliamentary, presidential, theocratic etc.) their newly elected leader, should head. Yes, His Holiness the Dalai Lama did make the initial suggestion for changing the Kalon Tripa role to that of a “Sikyong”, but I am sure he would not have disapproved of a national debate and referendum on the subject. He is on record for insisting (on a number of occasions) that the final decision on fundamental policy issues must be made by the Tibetan people, and not by Him.

This misinterpretation, even deliberate misuse of the Dalai Lama’s suggestions and statements is the source of another major constitutional crisis in Tibetan society right now, creating an unnecessary and potentially malignant division within the exile community. On September 6th last year, eleven Dharamshala based political factions and coteries (from the religious right) gave a press conference at the Bhagsu Hotel where they condemned the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and “some individual Tibetans” for “hurting the Dalai Lama’s feelings” by accusing Him of closing down the government-in-exile. These groups were behind the so called “public” demand for shutting down the Tibetan Youth Congress. They have also issued threats of violence to “individuals” in Tibetan society known for their pro-independence views. “However, when questioned by reporters, the NGOs said they did not have any direct evidence that the TYC had made any statement to this effect, but rather that they were referring to a speech made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama” (on August 3, 2012 at a teaching in Ladakh).

This incident is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact there appears to be a ratcheting up in Dharamshala of efforts to marginalize, demonize and possibly even force the closure of all Rangzen based organizations. The adoption of this divisive and desperate strategy by the Tibetan leadership is probably a reaction to recent developments in the Tibetan political scene that have begun to erode public faith in Dharamshala’s signature national policy.

The game changing development in this regard has been China’s complete and unambiguous rejection of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. The abrupt resignation of the Dalai Lama’s two top negotiators to Beijing, who in their statements hinted at the hopelessness of their task, also underscored the the abject failure of that policy.

In the exile community the Tibetan Youth Congress escalated its various campaigns for independence, organizing a series of Rangzen conferences world over, and was also partially successful with a hunger strike in New York at the United Nations on March 2012. Another development in exile society in 2012 was the formation of the Tibetan National Congress (bhod gyalyong rangzen lhentsok) with a mandate to pursue the ultimate goal of restoring a sovereign, independent and democratic Tibetan nation state. In 2013 the celebration of the centennial of the Great 13th Dalai Lama’s “Declaration of Independence” by exile Tibetans world-over, signaled a definite and positive shift in the Tibetan public’s understanding and appreciation of the Rangzen struggle.

But without doubt the most significant and powerful developments came from inside Tibet. The self-immolations intensified towards the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. In addition to their call for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, more and more self-immolators openly called for Tibetan independence and separation from China.

To stem the rising tide of public enthusiasm for the Rangzen cause, Dharamshala appears to have adopted a two-pronged strategy. The first is to attack Rangzen advocates as both “hurting the feelings” of the Dalai Lama and “creating divisions” (what Beijing calls “splittism”) in Tibetan society.

In its March 10 statement this year, the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile warned the Tibetan people not to resort to speaking, writing articles, and propagating information without any sense of responsibility and instead to direct their efforts at achieving “the common desires” of the Tibetan people. “Common desires” being their euphemism for the Middle Way Approach. Earlier the Sikyong had condemned some unnamed people who, “either knowingly or unknowingly”, were creating divisions among the Tibetan people. Speaker Pempa Tsering similarly attacked “baseless claims made by a small group of Tibetans causing distress to His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. Other cabinet ministers as Gyari Dolma had also publicly condemned critics of the establishment.

In October of 2012, Thomtok Trulku, abbot of the Dalai Lama’s private Namgyal Monastery, on a tour of the Tibetan communities in Minnesota and New York, denounced those advocating ideas contrary to the Dalai Lama’s wishes. Much to the surprise of his listeners he also spoke out against Tibetans celebrating the Centenary of the 13th Dalai Lama’s Declaration of Independence. He said that such celebrations would cause distress to the Dalai Lama. The young person from Minnesota who phoned me about this was quite upset: “I thought all Dalai Lamas were the same person.”

The other prong of Dharamshala’s anti-Rangzen strategy has been to create an environment of misinformation around the Dalai Lama, especially regarding statements and activities of Rangzen advocates, and in doing so hopefully provoke Him into issuing statements against them. Vigilant observers of the Tibetan political scene will have noticed that although the Dalai Lama has completely retired from office, he is always surrounded by the Sikyong, ministers and officials even during his religious teachings and various mind-science or peace conferences round the world. All this following Him around is, of course, a means of gaining and maintaining access to His Holiness at all times, and subsequently being the first to put in a point of view whenever anything happens or is discussed. The flip side to this maneuver is denying your political opponents any or all access to the Dalai Lama.

When I was editor (1993-1995) of MANGTSO (Democracy), the largest independent Tibetan language paper, I regularly requested interviews with His Holiness which were regularly denied. This was at a time when any Indian or international newspaper or magazine could get a personal interview for the asking. It is so depressingly simple, these two essential lessons in Tibetan politics: gain and maintain your access to the Dalai Lama, deny all access to your enemies. And these two lessons seem to be as valid now even after His Holiness has retired from office, as much as when he was in.

I have absolutely no doubt that it is all this sycophancy and manipulation that is behind the anxiety, even alarm, that His Holiness now feels towards Rangzen advocates about whom He is being incessantly informed regarding their activities allegedly undermining His political legacy and dividing Tibetan society. It is such misinformation that has caused him speak out against the Tibetan Youth Congress and “individual Tibetans” advocating independence, and perhaps even for his unfortunate remarks at Mundgod supporting Libby Liu’s outrageous expulsion of Jigme Ngabo from RFA.

On 29 March 2013 at a teaching at Salugara in North India, His Holiness expounded in great detail on the incomparable merits of the Middle Way Approach and how its implementation would bring about peace and economic prosperity inside Tibet. He added that advocacy of independence, though, was “closing the door” for establishing contact with China, thereby subverting His efforts at negotiation. His Holiness stated that the Middle Way Approach would furthermore bring benefits to “400 -500 million Chinese Buddhists” and even spread the Buddha Dharma, particularly Tibetan Buddhism throughout China as had happened in the past. He made no direct reference to the self-immolations and only hinted at the failure of Dharamshala’s dialogue efforts with Beijing, but he insisted that he had “full confidence that it (the Middle Way Approach) will produce results in the future.” At the conclusion of his talk he stated emphatically that “Most importantly, the Tibetans in Tibet continue to put their trust in me and to place their faith in me. Similarly, the Tibetans in exile put their trust in me and place their faith in me. So I retain a responsibility.“**

His Holiness is, of course, correct in his assertion that his people continue to place their faith in him, but the second part of the remark that He “still retains a responsibility” can clearly be read to mean that He “still retains ultimate political power” in the Tibetan world, especially on the issue of the Middle Way Approach, where He appears to be suggesting that no change in policy would be tolerated.

If such is the case and that if “two years” after the Dalai Lama’s retirement Tibetan cannot have an open and frank debate on the success or failure of His signature national policy, it makes the whole claim of Tibetan exile democracy a bad joke. It also gives credence to China’s repeated accusations of the Dalai Lama’s insincerity and dishonesty. A Wall Street Journal report mentioned that “China has dismissed the Dalai Lama’s retirement as a ‘trick’ designed to impress the international community.”

The rationalization of this particular statement of the Dalai Lama, that I have already begun to come across, as being just the personal opinion of an individual Tibetan, and thereby just an expression of His democratic right to free speech, is not only disingenuous but deeply and disturbingly dishonest. Even in his retirement His Holiness has political powers, relatively speaking of course, that the president of a democracy can only secretly dream about. For instance the concept of Him being “All Knowing” (thamche-khenpa) is one held literally by nearly all his followers. Any attempt to question this can result in one being labelled an “unbeliever” and having mobs of fanatics howling for your blood. Hence there can be no real democratic debate on any subject if His Holiness insists on contributing his viewpoint.

I feel that it is absolutely important for His Holiness to understand that his true political legacy – in an ultimate sense – is not the Middle Way Approach or even his advocacy of non-violence for which he received the Nobel Prize. His true legacy, one for which he will be gratefully remembered by His people, is his introduction of democratic governance to exile Tibetan society, no matter how limited or flawed it has been, as I have described in some of my previous writings. It is also my sincere belief that the future Tibetan leadership and even the kind of society that the democratic process will bring about, will have the knowledge, skill and dynamism to bring about the successful resolution of the Tibet issue. It is hence important for His Holiness to make sure that his legacy of democracy is not discredited and that His idée fixe, the Middle Way Approach, does not become the principal cause of its failure. The decision to step down from power was, of course, entirely His Holiness’s own. Nonetheless, retiring from the position of supreme authority He had held his entire life might have been for Him a little unsettling in the beginning, and the cause of some anxiety and even a second thought or two.

No less an observer and analyst of the human condition than William Shakespeare has, in his great play King Lear, laid out the difficulties that could arise when an aging but strong-willed sovereign (who is also not a very good judge of character) steps down from political power. Those readers who have not seen an actual performance could watch the DVD of the play produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, or even Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent cinematic rendition of it in Ran. There are some significant differences in this interpretation, though. You could, of course, just sit down with the Complete Works and read the play.

One of the more compelling characters in King Lear is “the Fool”, Lear’s court jester who is absolutely loyal to his master and accompanies him faithfully on his wanderings in a wild countryside during a violent thunderstorm. He is eventually hanged, or so we are given to understand, since he does not appear in the second half of the play. In spite of this, George Orwell in his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” insists that “The Fool is integral to the play. He acts not only as a sort of chorus, making the central situation clearer by commenting on it more intelligently than the other characters, but as a foil to Lear’s frenzies. His jokes, riddles and scraps of rhyme, and his endless digs at Lear’s high-minded folly … are like a trickle of sanity running through the play”

Old Tibet being a medieval sort of place like Lear’s Britain, had, in place of newspapers and TV, its jesters, singers and versifiers who “spoke truth to power.” During the 13th Dalai Lama’s reign there was the minor official “Kisur-la” with his biting satirical verses. We had opera performers who poked fun at important Tibetan institutions as the state oracle and the clergy, and water-girls (monlam-chuma) who sang songs ridiculing the corrupt and powerful. In that capacity, I suppose the author of this blog and those regular commenters on it serve such a useful if humble function as the Dalai Lama’s personal “Fools”.

Of course, I speak for those of us sufficiently clued-on to contemporary reality not to be taken in by Dharamshala’s pernicious mummery, but still old-fashioned enough to keep faith with His Holiness. Yet we should be aware that another generation of Tibetans activists, intellectuals and leaders are coming to the fore who would like to move beyond the realm of court jester’s, eunuchs, sycophants or even “next incarnations”, no matter how romantic these roles may have once seemed. Generation Y Tibetans want to take their place in a true democratic future where even the most all-knowing and all-powerful can be questioned or critiqued, as a matter of course, without the mob or the Inquisition butting in.
* The Kalon-Tripa title might have been a subliminal expression of Samdong Rimpoche’s unrealized academic/ecclesiastical ambition. The highest rank that a Gelukpa lama or monk can aspire to is that of the “Ganden Tripa” or Enthroned of Ganden”.
** Translation of His Holiness talk at Salagura by Tsering Wangchuk la, TSG Liaison & Press Officer.


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