Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tibetan Democracy: random thoughts

Democracy: something one may not see in Tibet soon
Some thoughts about the recent Tibetan elections

Elections for the post of Sikyong (Prime Minister of the CTA) as well for Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies were recently held.
As someone who has been following ‘Tibetan affairs’ for the last 45 years, I wish put down in writing some my thoughts on the recent election of the Sikyong, which has attracted a lot of ink in the media (and keyboarding on the Net).
Let us start by a small telling observation: the social networks have played a role like never before in the election process. This can have negative or positive features, but, overall, it should be seen as a sign of growing awareness and active involvement of the Tibetan society in their leader’s election. As Tibet-in-exile is a free society, this should be encouraged, with self-restraint, of course.
Looking back, since 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) can claim, in my opinion, three great achievements in the political field:
  • HHDL reunited the different parts of Tibet (let us not forget that in October 1950, when the Communist troops entered ‘Tibet’, they crossed the Upper Yangtze (Drichu). It means that, territories east of the Drichu were not de facto under the control of Lhasa). Today, the map of Tibet with the 3 provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo is accepted by all Tibetans; it was not the case in the 1950s. It is a historic achievement.
  • HHDL reunited the different schools of Buddhism. Historically, Tibet has witnessed a lot of conflicts between the different religious schools. HHDL has given a voice to all the schools (including the Bon faith). This is an important progress.
  • In March 2011, HHDL offered full democracy to the People of Tibet. This is an earth-shaking change for the Tibetan nation.
The recent elections are the result of this gift from HHDL.

Democracy as a system
Democracy cannot be said to be a perfect system, but it has good features as well as not so good ones. It is however far superior to the one-party system prevalent in Modern China.
Beijing is often pointing to the failures of the Western democracies, but its own system is today on the brink of collapsing; as a result, more and more repressions have to be applied to keep it going.
Democracy is sometimes chaotic (we can see this every day in India), but it ultimately brings a sort of stability in the society and the possibility for what Communist China calls ‘the masses’, to express themselves and change their leaders when they are unhappy or deceived. In other words, the voice of the ‘common men and women’ can be heard.
The system of rule by reincarnations was a poor system of governance:
  • It left a gap of 20 odd years between two reincarnations/political leaders
  • It was subject to manipulation by external forces (eg: the cases of the 10th and 11th Panchen Lama)
  • In the interregnum, Tibet has often had mediocre regents, unable to give a lead to the nation (during the interregnum of the 14th Dalai Lama, the power struggle between 2 regents was so bad that it nearly lead Tibet to a civil war).
  • Just take the 19th century, the Manchus fully used the fact that the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas passed away too early to rule, to ‘return’ to Tibet.
A modern nation can't afford such an antiquated system.
Therefore ‘democracy’, though imperfect, is the best system until the human society reaches the level of a Gnostic or Spiritual Society, where the ‘wisest’ will automatically come to the fore to organize the public life. It may take some time.

Present Sikyong Elections
  • Tibet had the good luck to have a remarkable man elected as the first Kalon Tripa. It was Tibet’s good karma.
  • It is important to keep in mind that this does not mean that the ‘best man’ is automatically and always taking the right decision for his people (remember the Greek Gods who often led their people to their doom).
  • On the other hand, even if an elected leader is not perfect, it does not mean that the system is not good and in this particular case, that Tibet should not continue with this system of governance.
  • Usually, in other societies (for example in India), anti-incumbency plays an important role to bring fresh blood into the system.
  • Things are different in the Tibetan society where there is an immense respect for the established hierarchy. In fact, many believe that the Dalai Lama had to ‘force democracy’ down reluctant Tibetan throats; everybody was quite happy to depend on their wise leader to guide and tell them what to do with their lives; ultimately, it does not empower the ‘people’.
  • It is true that even in exile, a deep veneration for the leader/lamas has remained ingrained in the Tibetan psyche. It should not stop people to have an independent thinking of their own.
  • At the beginning of the campaign of this election, it is interesting to note that there was no anti-incumbency vote; this partially explains Lobsang Sangay’s high score in the first round.
  • During the campaign for the second round, it is regrettable that the debate did not reach the expected level; however, on the positive side, it has been one of the few opportunities for the Tibetan society to debate the functioning of its administration and point a finger at what was considered wrong or unacceptable.
  • At the same time, the election process should not be an excuse for ‘regionalism’ to return as a plague for the Tibetan nation. Regionalism apparently played an important role in the recent election. There is nothing wrong in regional representation, but regional favoritism should be avoided at all cost by the new leadership. It has not always been the case. I believe HHDL said this to the 2 candidates in no uncertain terms.
  • To an outsider, the CTA seems to be a very opaque organization. Instead of openly debating serious (and sometimes negative) issues facing the society in general, these problems are often kept under wraps (I remember the case of a Tibetan who had raped a girl in a Tibetan settlement; the first ‘official’ reaction was to hush up the incident, because “it is not good for the cause”. But a rape is a rape, whether committed by a French, a Chinese or a Tibetan and it should be denounced with full vigour). One could give many other such cases.
  • It is true that some of the arguments/points mentioned during the campaign should have come out earlier during the term of the Sikyong (particularly the issues raised by Kasur Dicki Chhoyang). However, apart from the debate at the Assembly, there are very few opportunities for the ‘common man’ to express himself or know what is happening behind the opaque curtains of Gangkyi.
  • In this context, it is interesting to note that the incumbent Sikyong did not fare well in Gangkyi area. There is obviously a trust issue which needs to be looked at and ironed out.
  • In the future the press should take a more active role and openly speak of the thorny political issues facing the society. For example, the problem of ‘health services’ recently brought up by HHDL should have been raised long ago by a vibrant media.
  • Old Tibet had ‘street songs’ making fun or criticizing the leaders/lamas, what is replacing this today?
  • Personally, I feel that it is wrong for the gods or the ‘protectors’ to interfere in the ‘common man’s elections. Without judging the former’s competence and knowledge of geopolitics (or just in politics), the time has come for ‘common men’ to think for themselves; keeping in mind that in some cases they may take the wrong decisions, the ‘masses’ should be empowered (even if that means having different perspectives than HHDL). It is what China will never be able to do; the present regime can built beautiful modern airports, safe highways or comfortable five-star hotels, but people are not allowed to think on their own.
  • More important than to take the right or wrong decisions, it is essential to learn from past errors and avoid the same mistakes in the future.
  • The Buddha taught his disciples: 'As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it on a piece of touchstone, so are you to accept my words only after examining them and not merely out of regard for me."
  • Democracy likewise should be burnt, cut, rubbed and tested again and again and ultimately perfected. External interference cannot help much the empowerment of the Tibetan society.
It may be possible to avoid the ‘boxing’ encounters during the campaign; it is happening in most democracies: just look at the present US Presidential Elections campaign. It is part of the ‘imperfection’ of the system, simply because our societies (and the human composing them) are imperfect.
One has to make with it, and just get the best of it.

How to make the Tibetan Administration more transparent?
  • The Tibetans should have a vibrant, independent and fearless press (including investigative journalism). For this, the Tibetan mindset has to change; criticism should be taken as an occasion to ‘change’. The society does need to wait to receive ‘critics’ from HHDL or other religious leaders; the Tibetan should become more ‘positively’ critical.
  • Take the example of the recently released ‘Panama Papers’, it is ‘positive’ criticism, which will hopefully help the world to be more just.
  • Implement an RTI Act for the CTA. It would go a long way to better understand the opaque functioning of the CTA. Once again, cases such as the one mentioned by HHDL for the health facilities in the Tibetan settlements could have been raised much earlier and taken care of.
  • Women should play a more important role in the Sikyong elections (why not have 50% female Kalons?). In a modern society, women are often able to give a lead that a man is unable to provide.

Tasks in front of the new Sikyong
  • Hopefully the new Sikyong will be able to fit the description given by Kasur Dicki Chhoyang at the time of her resignation. The Kasur also raised the issue of regionalism vs unity of Tibet; this should be taken seriously.
  • The new Sikyiong’s choice for the next Kalons should be dictated only by what is the best for the Tibetans in exile and the Tibetans inside Tibet and not by personal acquaintances or personal preferences.
  • The new Kalons should be role models for the Tibetans inside Tibet (and the Chinese government).
  • The new Sikyong should establish a close connection and understanding with the Government of India at all levels, in all domains.
  • He should be in touch with what is happening in Tibet and China and provide an alternative to the Chinese schemes or at least comment on it (for example when the Chinese provide a database of the ‘Living Buddhas’ or when the Chinese invade Tibet bringing tens of millions of tourists on the plateau).
  • Why not have a Department headed by a Kalon for ‘Inside Tibet’ Affairs?
  • And if the Chinese do something good, why not say it!
  • Since several years, the Chinese have always been a few steps in advance on Dharamsala in terms of information/propaganda. It is sad.
  • The new Sikyong should take more responsibilities; since HHDL has delegated his political power, the new elected leader should act as a leader on his own (always keeping the general good in mind).
  • Human resources should not vanish under the US/European sky, but remain in India and work for the general good of the Tibetan community.
  • The CTA needs to have a think-tank which ‘thinks’ of solutions for the future of the Tibetan nation
  • The CTA also needs a good professional spokesperson who will be able to articulate the policies of the CTA (after these policies are decided); particularly the policies vis-à-vis China. He should also be able to tackle difficult questions on the life of the society in exile.
These are some of my thoughts.
Tibetan democracy is clearly going through a period of apprenticeship; overall it is doing fairly well.
The most important task is to empower the ‘common man/woman’.

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