Monday, May 2, 2011

The Symbol and the Protector of the Nation

(I have updated an earlier post on the new Kalon Tripa)

Ballots have spoken: Dr Lobsang Sangay, born in India 43 years ago and educated at Harvard Law School will be Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile) for the next 5 years.
Already a couple of weeks before the results were officially announced by the Chief Election Commissioner, rumors were circulating that Sangay had gathered 27,000 votes in his tally, against 18,000 for Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, his nearest rival and 3,000 for the experienced Tashi Wangdi..
The fact that the rumors were accurate shows that the Tibetan ‘democracy’ remains still young and shaky. Some solid home work needs to be done by the Tibetan institutions in exile, if they want to project the image of a vibrant democracy.
After the results, Sangay asserted: "It is sobering to realize that nearly 50,000 people in over 30 countries voted in the recent Kalon Tripa and Chitue elections”; for an outside observer, it is rather surprising that only 58% of the voters participated in such crucial election. If one compares with the recent Legislative Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and other Indian states where 80% of the registered voters went to the polls, the Kalon Tripa election saw a relatively low participation, especially considering that some 1,20,000 Tibetans are illegible to vote.
Beijing must have also known the results: already on March 22 (two days after the elections were held), an editorial of The People’s Daily complained: “In 1992, Lobsang Sangay rose to fame and became the youngest leading member of Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a terrorist organization in nature.”
The Tibetan youth organization was thus described: “The crimes made the organization look like a kin member of Al-Qaida, Chechnyan armed terrorists and ‘East Turkistan’ separatists.”
Even more far-fetched, the Communist mouthpiece’s affirmed: “The organization also made preliminary plans to prepare personnel, funding and arms to steal into China through the China-Nepal border.”
The paranoid Chinese State, which locks up behind bars whoever does not have the same views as the Communist Party (the latest on the list are Nobel Laureate Lui Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei), likes also to malign its opponents abroad.
For Beijing, Sangay’s crime is to have been, like thousands of other young Tibetans, a member of the Youth Congress several years ago. Just because the youth organization does not adhere to the Dalai Lama’s Middle Path and believes in a more radical, although non-violent approach, the TYC has been labeled ‘terrorists’.
The main difficulty for Sangay comes from that fact that on March 10, the Dalai Lama dropped a bombshell: he had decided to retire.
In an interview in 2006, the Dalai Lama had already told us:
"I have three commitments: promotion of human values, promotion of religious harmony and promotion of awareness of the Tibetan cause."
He had further elaborated: "Out of three commitments, number one and two are mostly on volunteer basis. Till my death I committed myself to these causes. Regarding the third one (Tibet), in a way it not a voluntary commitment, it is due to past history and to the Dalai Lama institution. I am bound to this commitment and this responsibility, because I am the Dalai Lama who played a role in the past history of Tibet”.
The Dalai Lama had acknowledged his historical role as the Protector and Symbol of the Tibetan Nation, but had already said that he wished to ‘retire’. In his 2011 Tibetan Uprising Day’ Statement, the Tibetan leader explained again the background of his decision: "As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect.”
In June 1991, the Tibetan Parliament in exile (also known as the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies) had adopted a ‘Charter’, a sort of Constitution guaranteeing all Tibetans equality before the law without discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, language and social origin. While providing a separation of power between the judiciary, legislature and executive powers in the Central Tibetan Administration (or Government in exile), the Charter assigns specific functions to the Dalai Lama as the Head of the State.
With the recent announcement, the Assembly has no choice but to amend the Charter as the Tibetan leader’s functions will have to be allotted to other bodies or individuals. It is a difficult task, though the Dalai Lama said: "It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run. It is not because I feel disheartened. Tibetans have placed such faith and trust in me."

The new context
The elections were held in a specific context, just 10 days after the Dalai Lama’s announcement, not giving time for the electors to ‘digest’ the enormity of the news; most voters still believed that the Kalon Tripa was to function under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Today, Sangay, the new Tibetan leader faces a different job description. Had the Dalai Lama’s decision been communicated earlier; it would have put the stakes of the elections in a different perspective.
Now, it will not be an easy task for Sangay to ‘replace’ the Dalai Lama. Many Tibetans in Dharamsala (mainly the older generation) are doubtful. Youth who elected the good-looking and articulate Sangay believe that he can breathe a new life into exile politics. Only the future will be able to see if they are right.
A serious legal hurdle remains, the amendment of the Charter.
A five member 'Constitutional Amendment Drafting Committee' was asked to suggest a legal solution to the tricky situation.

The Proposal
The Drafting Committee has chosen the Middle Path, keeping in mind both aspects of the issue: the past historical role of the Dalai Lamas and his personal status vis-a-vis the Tibet Nation as well as his request to be relieved of all day-to-day responsibilities.
Having completed its job, the Committee will present the outcome of its deliberations to a National General Meeting scheduled to be held at Dharamsala from May 21 to 23. This enlarged consultative group comprises of a few hundred ‘senior’ Tibetans such as ‘former ‘prime ministers’, members of the Cabinet, former ministers, present and former members of Parliament, officials above joint secretary rank, representatives from the local assemblies of Tibetan settlements and eminent members of the civil society.
The 'draft' which will later need to be ratified by the Assembly, gives the legal background and the dual role of the Dalai Lama: “The Charter provided that the successive Dalai Lamas shall exercise their responsibilities as head of the Tibetan nation and as chief executive of the Tibetan administration.”
However, “in deference to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's irrevocable decision to relinquish his administrative and political roles and in the face of His Holiness' rejection of pleas to reconsider that decision”, the Assembly should adopt the necessary amendments to separate the Dalai Lama’s two roles and take care of his recent request, while safeguarding the continuity of the Central Tibetan Administration as the legitimate governing body of the Tibetans in exile.
The proposal is as follows: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama fully vests the Central Tibetan Administration and in particular its democratic leadership organs with the powers and responsibilities formerly held jointly by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration to represent and serve the whole people of Tibet.”
However, a Preamble is added to the Charter in the same way as the US Constitution is amended, by adding amendments rather than by incorporating the amendments into the body of the Constitution as in India.
In a way, it is a legal Middle Path solution which should satisfy all the parties involved, except Beijing perhaps.
In Article 1, the Dalai Lama is termed as the ‘Protector and the Symbol of the Tibetan Nation’: “[as] human manifestation of Avaloketeshvara, is the guardian and protector of the Tibetan nation. He is the guide illuminating the path, the supreme leader, the symbol of the Tibetan identity and unity, and the voice of the whole Tibetan people. His authority is derived from centuries old history and heritage and, above all, from the will of the people in whom sovereignty is vested and therefore comprises the following inherent rights and responsibilities.”
Though freed from day-to-day official functions, the Dalai Lama would continue: “To provide advice and encouragement with respect to the protection and promotion of the physical, spiritual, ethical and cultural well being of the Tibetan people, to remain engaged in the efforts to reach a satisfactory solution to the question of Tibet and to accomplish the cherished goals of the Tibetan people.”
Apart from being the Protector, the Dalai Lama will also be a mentor and an advisor. This formulation takes care of one of the major legal hurdles. In any system of governance, a head of the State is required (he/she can be an elected leader in the case of a Republic, a King/Queen in a monarchy or a religious leader in a theocracy), but there can’t be a constitutional vacuum.
The elected Prime Minister (such as Lobsang Sangay now), is only the executive head of the Administration, not the Head of the State.
The Dalai Lama could continue to provide guidance in various forms “in matters of importance to the Tibetan people, including the community and its institutions in exile”, either on his own or at the request of the Administration.
The Dalai Lama could also be requested to continue to meet with world leaders and other important individuals and bodies to speak on behalf of the Tibetan people.
This clever formulation takes care of several serious issues.
For example the Government in exile in Dharamsala is known as the ‘Central Tibetan Administration of HH the Dalai Lama’, his embassies in Delhi and abroad are ‘The Office of the Representatives of HH the Dalai Lama’, the officials conducting the talks with Beijing are the ‘Envoys of HH the Dalai Lama’, etc., the proposal of the Drafting Committee should solve these issues, as the above institutions should be able to retain their respective names.
Vis-à-vis the Government of India who has a Liaison Office (Ministry of External Affairs) in Dharamsala, this should answer their queries, if any.
It solves also the problem of ‘succession’ as all the executive powers will be concentrated on the elected Prime Minister. Where then is the question of a successor taking over the Dalai Lama’s responsibilities?
Regarding the relations with Beijing, it is more difficult. But it is perhaps because the situation has not moved for the past 30 years and that the future seems rather bleak that the Dalai Lama has decided to withdraw at this point in time.
The Chinese have repeatedly said: “The Central Government will never discuss the future of Tibet with the Dalai Lama. What we can discuss with him is his [own] future and that of some of his supporters.”
The Dalai Lama has always stated that he was not bothered by his status, but was only interested in the welfare of the 6 million Tibetans in Tibet.
The present radical changes will not alter the respective positions of Beijing and Dharamsala. Unless something drastic happens within China, for example a movement à la Tunisian, nothing much can be expected on the negotiation front.
In any case, Sangay won’t have an easy job; he will need the support of all his countrymen. It is probably why in his first message after the election, he appealed to the Tibetans: “The time has come for all Tibetans to take on greater responsibility. While I will do my utmost to fulfill the responsibility you have placed in me, the success of the next Kashag will depend on the engagement of all Tibetans. Together, I am confident we will march together towards a better future.”
Let us hope that the Tibetans will remain united in these difficult times.

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