Tibetans learn the power of ballot:

A Potent Weapon Against Chinese Bullets


by : Vijay Kranti

Sorce : BORDER AFFAIRS, N. Delhi :

October-December 2001

Lay citizens demanding democracy in a monarchy or a theocracy has been a common ball game of the new age of democracy. But the head of a theocratic state offering democracy, rather thrusting it upon his subjects, must ring bells. This is exactly what has been slowly happening for nearly four decades now among the Tibetan Diaspora that reveres the Dalai Lama as almost a 'Living God'.

Election of Prof. Samdong Rimpoche in September this year to the post of 'Kalon Tripa' (Tibetan term for the head of the cabinet of ministers and equivalent to 'Prime Minister' in popular terminology) marks a watershed in this process. It is first time in past 600 years that Tibet has an executive head other than the Dalai Lama who, by tradition happens to be the ruler as well as the religious head of this land locked 'roof of the world' nation. Prof. Samdong Rimpoche's full name is Samdong Lobsang Tenzin. His religious title 'Rimpoche' comes from his being a 'Tulku' i.e. an incarnate 'Bodhisatwa' from Kham province of eastern Tibet. Among non-Tibetan friends he is popularly known as 'Prof. Rimpoche'.

The first elected Prime Minister

In a recent election the Tibetan refugee Diaspora, spread over India, Nepal, Bhutan, the United States, Europe and some other countries, wholeheartedly put its weight behind this 65-year old Monk who is known among Tibetans and their supporters all over the world as the 'Living Gandhi of Tibet'. In the preliminary round he received over 81 per cent votes among an endless list of persons nominated directly by each voter. In the second and final round over 84 per cent Tibetans opted for him as the first elected 'Prime Minister ' of Tibet. The other choice for the voters was Mr. Juchen Thubten Namgyal, a reputed Parliamentarian and a former head of cabinet in the Tibetan 'Government-in-Exile'. He secured over 12 per cent votes. The remaining votes were declared invalid by the Election Commissioner of Tibetan Administration.

Prof. Rimpoche is known as a visionary who has played significant role in shaping the political structure of Tibetan refugee community and also in giving direction to the political movement which is aimed at winning back freedom from the Chinese occupiers of Tibet. Besides being a reputed scholar in Mahayana philosophy he is also known for his impressive command over Tibetan, Sanskrit, Hindi and English. He has been a former speaker of Tibetan Parliament.

A reputed scholar

His long stint as the head of the Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies, a deemed university at Sarnath near Varanasi, reflected his administrative skills and scholarly personality. Under his leadership this institute won the distinction of regenerating, through re-translation of surviving Tibetan scripts, dozens of precious Indian classic Sanskrit volumes which were believed to have been lost for ever. His popularity among the Indian academicians expressed itself a few years ago when the Association of Vice Chancellors of Indian Universities elected him unanimously as its head. A man without worldly attachments like a private family, home and property this robed politician of Tibet is treated like a star by Tibet supporters all over the world for his logical and masterly oration. Prof. Rimpoche's election to the post of 'Kalon Tripa' through direct voting by the lay Tibetan refugees marks a long journey from a theocratic system to a modern democratic one. The contrast between the two systems is stark and revolutionary. On the one hand the old Tibet has been, for all practical purposes, run by a word-in-mouth (of the Dalai Lama or his caretaker regents) kind of constitution. And on the other, the current constitution (known as the 'Charter of Democracy for Tibetans in Exile') also includes a provision that authorises the elected Parliament to remove the Dalai Lama from the Head of State position by a two-third vote if it so believes that the sitting Dalai Lama is unsuitable for leading the Tibetan people.

A perfect theocracy

In Tibetan tradition the institute of Dalai Lama is quite unique. From religion point of view he is the supreme Guru of Mahayana Buddhists and is believed to be the human manifestation of 'Avalokiteshwar' (Tibetan : 'Chenrezi'), the Buddha of Mercy and Compassion. As a 'Living Buddha' he commands deep reverence among Mahayana Buddhists all over the world just as the Pope does among Christians or a Shankaracharya among Hindus. Politically speaking he is the ruler of Tibet. This position vests in him the authority of a President as in the American system; Prime Minister as in the Indian system; Chancellor in a democracy like Germany; and Party Chief as in a typical communist government. The powers of writ and veto vested in a Dalai Lama also put him at par with a dictator or a Monarch. But his selection is neither a matter of a democratic election, nor nomination by a group, or a title passed on from father to his son as in a monarchy. After the death of the Dalai Lama it is his reincarnation who owns the title after him. As Bodhisatvas the Dalai Lama and other reincarnate Tulkus are believed to have powers to command their own rebirth. During his life time the Dalai Lama leaves behind some significant indications about his next birth. After his death his reincarnate is identified on the basis of these clues and through a well-established religious drill. Until the new incumbent is identified and reaches adulthood, the government is run by a specially appointed regent who functions in consultation with the 'Kashag' (i.e. Cabinet of Ministers) and the National Assembly.

Identifying new god

In old Tibet the Kashag and the Assembly both were handpicked by the Dalai Lama of the day. Normally the next incarnation is identified at the age of 4 to 10 years. After his identification and authorisation the child is taken to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where he receives extensive religious and political education from the teachers of previous Dalai Lama and other senior monk scholars. This way there is a gap of 18-20 years between the two Dalai Lamas during which the Government is run by caretakers. Like any other Tulku the Dalai Lama lives the life of a celebate monk throughout. An interesting democratic aspect of this game is that a Dalai Lama can take rebirth anywhere and in any kind of family - rich, poor, peasant or nomad. The present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 14th in the series, was born on July 6, 1935 in a poor farmer family of Taktser, a remote village in the north-eastern Amdo province of Tibet. He was four and a half when he was identified as the incarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama who had died in 1933.

A democratic Dalai Lama

One wonders what the shape of things would have been in Tibet under Tenzin Gyatso had a mighty neighbour China not taken over this peaceful nation in the 1950s. But history of past 50 years indicates that the man is destined to take extraordinary decisions for Tibet. After Mao's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) ran over the Kham and Amdo provinces of Tibet in 1949 it demanded the Lhasa government to merge Tibet into the great 'motherland' that had already come under Mao's communist rule following a red revolution in the same year. In turn, an indecisive caretaker government pushed the young Dalai Lama to take over the mantle of ruler in December 1950 when he was just 16.

Soon he was forced to accept the Chinese sponsored ''17-point Agreement on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet'', that announced Tibet's 'voluntary' decision to join the 'Great Motherland'. The agreement offered complete autonomy on the paper. But what followed was successive breach of the agreement on the Chinese part and growing distrust, anger and violent retaliation on the part of common Tibetans. The events took a sad conclusive shape in 1959 when Chinese army bombarded the Dalai Lama's palace and crushed the popular upsurge with a heavy hand. The drama ended with the flight of Dalai Lama to exile in India along with nearly 80,000 fellow Tibetans. More than 87,000 Tibetans lost their lives before the uprising was crushed conclusively by the Chinese Army.

Exposure to democracy

His refuge in India offered a chance to the young Dalai Lama to think fresh. It was his first opportunity to see a big democracy function amidst all kind of crises and international upheavals. Following the mandate given by his fellow refugees in Bodh Gaya to him in the same year to lead the national freedom struggle from outside Tibet, he decided to replace the traditional theocratic system with a modern political system for Tibet. After a short stay in Mussoorie in Uttar Pradesh he was soon shifted to Dharamsala, the abandoned hill station of the British Raj officials in Himachal Pradesh. Here he established the Tibetan Administration, a convenient synonym for Government-in-Exile. The Administration Headquarters of his Government-in-Exile are located at Ganchen Kyishong, an ever growing Tibetan Secretariat complex on the hill slopes that join Mcleod Ganj and Lower Dharamsala.

On his initiative a new democratic constitution was drafted between 1960 and 1962. It was presented before the Tibetan refugees in 1963 by the Dalai Lama. A new 'Parliament' was also constituted with the help of nominated members who represented all the three provinces and five religious sects of Tibet. This constitution had a provision for an elected Parliament, known as the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (ATPD) that would function under the guidance of the Dalai Lama as the Head of State.

Power to people

During past 39 years the Dalai Lama has gradually introduced many democratic elements into this constitution. As a result Tibetan democracy has moved steadily along a path of reforms. A parliament and 'Kashag' that started on the strength of nominations by the Dalai Lama, have slowly taken a complete new look during past 40 years. In May 1990 the Dalai Lama dissolved the 10th Parliament and its 'Kashag' to introduce a new phase of democratic reforms. New constitution, designed to be finally implemented in a free and democratic Tibet, declares future Tibet as a 'federal' and a 'democratic' state. It is noteworthy that following occupation of Tibet China had reorganised Tibet in a phased manner and assimilated major parts of Amdo and Kham provinces into adjoining Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan etc. It has also renamed a part of the remaining Central Tibet as the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' (TAR). But the Tibetan constitution of 1990 clearly declares that Tibet comprises of the three traditional provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo.

Under this phase of democratic reforms a new system of one-adult-one-vote was introduced. The voting is secret and is controlled by an Election Commissioner who acts as an independent statutory authority in the Tibetan Administration. Tibetans living in the Indian subcontinent and in 33 other countries elect their Members of Parliament, know as the 'Deputies'. The House has a 5-year term and has 46 members. Tibetan refugees belonging to all the three provinces of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang elect 10 Deputies each from their respective lists of candidates. Monks belonging to all the four sects of Mahayana Buddhism, namely the Nyngma-pa, Kagyud-pa, Sakya-pa and Gelug-pa, and the ancient Tibetan religion, known as Bon-pa elect two Deputies each. In order to ensure sufficient representation to the Tibetans living in Europe and America, two major centres of Tibetan Diaspora outside the Indian subcontinent, these communities elect two and one Deputy each to the Parliament. Remaining three seats are reserved for Tibetan individuals of eminence who are nominated directly by the Dalai Lama.

Shortlived honeymoon

The Parliament sits at least twice each year and each session lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Although the Tibetan system provides space for political parties, the National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT) is the only political party registered with the Election Commission. Another party, Communist Party of Tibet, formed by a handful of young Tibetans in early 1980's went into oblivion following the end of USSR's shortlived honeymoon with Dharamsala. However, the elections to the ATPD are held on non-party lines. It is important to note that the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), the largest and the most active and influential political body among the Tibetan refugee community, does not encourage or support its members who decide to jump into the fray. The current Parliament is 13th and it represents yet another revolutionary set of reforms introduced by the Dalai Lama in 2001. The most remarkable provision of the changed constitution is the election and powers of the 'Kalon Tripa'. These latest reforms aim at transferring all executive powers from the Dalai Lama to the Kalon Tripa who will be directly elected by the Tibetan people. 'Kalon Tripa' will be responsible for picking his own cabinet and execute his policies through a well established Tibetan network of offices and representatives. However, the 'Kalon Tripa' will have to take the ATPD into confidence while taking major decisions. The new election process of 'Kalon Tripa' is completed in two phases. In the first phase each Tibetan voter, belonging to an electoral school of over 30,000 voters, is to nominate his/her candidate. This means that even the choice of candidates to contest the election is left to the ordinary voter. From the list of names offered by the common voters the Election Commission shortlists the first 2 or 3 popular names and schedule the second phase after taking consent of the candidates. However, in the final phase of election the winner must get more than 50 per cent of polled votes. His democratic transformation is in sharp contrast to the initial stages when all the 'Kalons' (ministers) and their head were nominated by Dalai Lama himself. In the next revision the members of ATPD would elect a set number of 'Kalons' from a list of names offered by the Dalai Lama who, in turn would also nominate the 'Kalon Tripa'. Following further democratisation of the system the Deputies would elect 'Kalons' from amongst themselves and send the list for Dalai Lama's final approval. However, in the new system, again introduced by none other than the Dalai Lama himself, the provisions of Dalai Lama's list and approvals has been completely done away with. As the Dalai Lama told our group of journalists who visited him at Dharamsala soon after the oath-taking ceremony of Prof. Rimpoche as the new Kalon Tripa on September 18: "I think it is high time that the Tibetans should learn working in a democratic system which is independent of Dalai Lama. They should work as if there is no Dalai Lama. . I am actually preparing the Tibetans to get ready for the day when I will be no more amidst them... I don't want that there should be any break in the process or chaos after I am dead..."

Behind the scene

It will be naive to look at this democratic process as just an expression of the present Dalai Lama's love with democracy. A close scrutiny of the Chinese mind on the issue of Tibet should reveal the real nature of a great game that is going on between the deposed monk ruler of Tibet and the mighty communist occupiers of his country. Dalai Lama has a two-fold Tibetan scenario which makes him so enthusiastic about making his Tibetan 'Government-in-Exile' as a functioning democracy. In the first scenario a remote, but still distinct, possibility of China breaking up on the Soviet pattern demands that the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans must be ready to offer a viable alternative to a free Tibet. The ever increasing world support for the Tibetan cause can also offer a bit similar situation where the Western world helps the Dalai Lama to engage China in a genuine dialogue for a 'genuine autonomy' for Tibet within the Chinese system - something on the lines of 'one country two systems' policy adopted on Hongkong by Beijing.

War of nerves

The other scenario, which looks relatively more real in the light of Chinese leaders' adamant approach towards Dalai Lama, presents an unending war of nerves between the two sides. Of late, Dalai Lama has been visibly afraid of China's ongoing policy of changing the demographic character of Tibet by overwhelming the land through a large-scale settlement of Hans. The latest Chinese plans of linking the Tibetan plateau with the mainland China by three railway links appears to be the last straw on a worried Dalai Lama's back. "Chinese have already outnumbered the local Tibetans in all urban areas of Tibet. Through the railways they intend to bring in at least 20 million Chinese in Tibet in next two decades. In such a sea of Chinese the six million Tibetans will become non entity and the issue of Tibet will be lost for ever," he told the visiting journalists during our meeting with him. Driven by this fear of losing Tibet's identity permanently, and hence the cause of Tibet, the Dalai Lama has been making significant concessions to the Chinese leaders to initiate a dialogue. These concessions include leaving defence and foreign relations in the hands of Beijing and in return living happily with a 'genuine autonomy' for Tibet. It's a different matter that these overtures of the Dalai Lama have attracted strong resistance among those members of Tibetan Diaspora who don't want to settle for anything less than complete freedom for Tibet. Dalai Lama's argument that his main aim behind making these concessions is to stop the process of Sinofication of Tibet before it is too late, has found great favour with some Tibetans and their Western supporters. They have before them tragic examples of dozens of such nationalities who were occupied by the Hans at various stages of history and have since vanished into oblivion because of Han chauvinism and hegemony.

'Middle path'

However, one wonders how many of those Tibetans who support this 'middle path' concept of the Dalai Lama do so because of their real conviction to the concept and how many among them do so just out of their deeprooted respect and blind faith in him. But it has surely cut no ice with the advocates of 'Rangzen' (Tibetan Freedom). The most vocal personality among this community is the Dalai Lama's USA-settled elder brother Prof. Thubten Jigme Norbu, who is popularly known by his religious title 'Taktser Rimpche' which he carried before he abandoned robes in favour of a total freedom movement.

On the other hand China's response to Dalai Lama's offers is hardly encouraging. Initially during 1980s their response to all such ideas was that they can allow the Dalai Lama to return to China provided he gives up the call for Tibetan democracy. But since mid 1990s all indications from Beijing clearly suggest that instead of entering into a sincere dialogue with the Dalai Lama the Chinese leaders are waiting for the 66-year old monk leader to grow older and eventually die. Moreover, they seem to have more hopes in changing the demographic character of occupied Tibet through settling more and more Chinese. In the light of this Chinese attitude towards Dalai Lama's proposals for a genuine dialogue it would be interesting to recall a recent unanimous resolution of the European Parliament which simply says, "If Beijing government consistently fails to respond to Dalai Lama's proposals for solving the Tibetan problem through a dialogue beyond 2004, this House will be compelled to ask the member countries to declare the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile as the Real government of Tibet."

Beijing's design

In addition to ignoring Dalai Lama's call for a dialogue, the Beijing leaders have been also working actively on the religious front to close the Tibetan issue for ever on a suitable day in future. Recently Beijing announced formation of a committee which will be responsible for identifying the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama after his death. Their obvious intention is to be ready for the day when the current Dalai Lama is dead and they could install a puppet baby as the next 'real' incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Beijing has already made similar attempts on two very senior Lamas, namely the Panchen Lama and the Karma Pa. Unfortunately, the Chinese lost their credibility in the case of Panchen Lama's reincarnation when they refused to accept Gedhun Choeky Nyima, a five-year old boy declared as the real incarnation of previous Panchen Lama and installed another hand picked boy Gyaltsen Norbu. Beijing also arrested baby Gedhun and his parents only to invite international hue and cry. Amnesty International has announced Gedhun as the 'youngest prisoner of conscience' in the world.

In the case of Karma Pa too, the Chinese made a big event of the identification and enthronement of Karma Pa at his home monastery of Tsurphu in Tibet. Interestingly, Dalai Lama also issued his recognition to the Chinese selected boy Ugyen Trinley Dorje. Chinese leadership has been presenting the young boy at various national forums with a fan fare to show how much importance Beijing paid to the Tibetan religious leader. But as the luck would have it, the Karma Pa left the Beijing leaders dumb stuck in January 2000 when he quietly escaped from his well-guarded monastery in Tibet and joined the Dalai Lama in India.

Now one of the most serious challenges before the Dalai Lama is to develop a democratic government system in exile that could finally take over after his death and should have the recognition of the Tibetan and world community as the genuine heir to the Dalai Lama's legacy. As far as the question of Chinese attempt to install a puppet baby as the real Dalai Lama after the current Dalai Lama's death is concerned it would be interesting to quote his answer in response to the same question put by a journalist of our group. His reply was, "I will not be reborn in a Chinese occupied area. Because the current Dalai Lama ran away from Tibet to free Tibet from Chinese occupation, how can he take rebirth in the Chinese controlled area before completing his mission?"

And on the front of leaving behind a healthy and credible system to continue his unfinished agenda a democratically elected and universally acceptable Tibetan government-in-exile is surely the best option. Moreover, with a Gandhian like Prof. Samdong Rimpoche as the Prime Minister at its head, a democratically elected Tibetan Parliament can he trusted to handle the situation by constitutionally rejecting any 'unacceptable' or Chinese puppet Dalai Lama. This will be the minimum guaranteed fruit of Dalai Lama's 40-year long experiment with democracy.

*The author is an acknowledged expert on Tibetan affairs.

[Your reactions to the authors are welcome: Vijay Kranti: vijaykranti@vsnl.com


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