I faced a storm, I surfed it through: Dhardon Sharling

Dhardon Sharling poses for a photo at her office on the second day of her term as Information Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration, in Dharamshala, India, on 5 October 2016.

Dhardon Sharling poses for a photo at her office on the second day of her term as Information Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration, in Dharamshala, India, on 5 October 2016. Tibet Sun/Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 6 October 2016

Ms Tenzin Dhardon Sharling is one of the few younger-generation Tibetan women who has achieved so much in a short time. After earning two Masters of Arts degrees from India and the UK, she served in the Tibetan Women’s Association and International Tibet Network, and was elected to the 15th and the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

In June this year, she was proposed as minister by Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. The Parliament approved the proposal, but later on found that she did not quite meet the age requirement in the Tibetan Charter of 35 years. Sangay had to dismiss her from his cabinet for the same reason. As soon as she turned 35 on 23 September, Sangay proposed her to the Parliament for the Information minister post on 24 September, but she was voted out. After this, Sangay appointed Dhardon to the post of Information Secretary.

Dhardon la, congratulations on your appointment as Information Secretary of the Central Tibetan Administration. Could you say a few words about the appointment?

I got a phone call from Kashag on the 26th of September, asking me if I would like to serve DIIR. I have been mentally prepared to do that for the last couple of months, and I immediately said yes.

It suits my interests, and it’s giving me a platform to hone my skills that I have developed in the past years, through my experience in universities and in the work space.

On the 30th of September I was given a letter saying that I am being appointed to post of Secretary of DIIR, and that the procedure had been completed. This has a precedent, people have been appointed before as consultant and given a certain position.

But I do know that at a later point this position as consultant will be regularised as a part of the special appointees that Kashag is allowed to make — up to 18 staff for a five-year tenure.

My first concern was, does this follow legal procedure, because I’ve had a brush with the law and I’ve dealt with the consequences. I do see that the Kashag has taken prudent steps to ensure that this was very much in sync with CTA procedure and the rules. And that encouraged me to accept the offer. My appointment date was from October 4. So I ended up working here.

The nomination came as a surprise to me, as I have in the past voiced some criticism of Sikyong’s first administration, and particularly I do regret making a comment about Sikyong’s appointment of officials during a media debate before the elections. However, on the whole I have been appreciative of his work during his first term. I recognise and appreciate his respect for a diversity of opinions and his commitment to
champion a unity of purpose, and I look forward to a successful tenure under Sikyong’s leadership.

Can you tell us about the fallout from the first proposal — what actually happened, and why did Sikyong have to withdraw you from the post later on?

Two days before the nomination on June 1, I got a phone call from Sikyong saying that he would like me to work for the Cabinet. We didn’t know which position, which portfolio yet. So I immediately said yes, it comes as a huge honour definitely. They went ahead with the nomination, and it got approved.

Then there was discussion on social media platforms which attracted a lot of attention — that I would be the youngest ever. That stirred some debate as to how old I was, and there was debate over whether I met the age requirement.

I was confident that I am 35, because of when I was born.

But honestly speaking, even to this day, having completed 34 and entered 35, that didn’t really strike me, honestly. So when I realised that, immediately Sikyong and I had a discussion and we said, this is breaching the rule of law. Let’s withdraw the nomination, and wait until I am actually 35.

That was a mutual decision, and respects the Charter.

What happened later, it’s clearly in everybody’s mind that my nomination would come again. A lot of times when people know who the nominee is, there’s a tendency to charge that plan. It’s not unique to Tibetan society or politics, but in a lot of areas it does happen.

The members of the Parliament are my close and respected colleagues. I think they all had to make a certain decision — they were all performing their duty as elected representatives, under an entirely twisted scenario, unlike the June nomination. Even if I was a member of Parliament, I can’t say what I would have done in the same situation. I would be reacting to circumstances, to certain pressures. So I do respect the 27 members of Parliament who voted me down. Because it was by their reasoning, the logical arguments, they had to vote me down, in their role as parliamentarians.

So I have no grudges against anyone. If someone has to be responsible, that has to be me. I am the one who overlooked the age requirement. That’s the consequences, and I think this comes as a major lesson for all of us. The Charter is above any individual.

Unintentionally or intentionally, if the consequences are such that it points towards a disregard of the Charter, any individual will have to face the consequences. So I stand as a testament.

So I have a sense of pride, I respected their decision, I don’t doubt their intentions. I would like to believe that whatever they did was to uphold the significance of the Charter.

So then the logical conclusion was that I would be out of the scene. But opportunity came knocking again, and I ended up as Secretary of this department. And information is my forte, my educational qualifications, experience in journalism, as media coordinator. So I do hold this position with a sense of confidence, I don’t feel like I am a novice at this.

The last four months made me a better and wiser person. I faced a storm, and as we say, the waves never stop coming, and you need to learn to surf, and I think I’ve done that. So I think this will set a good example to the Tibetan community.

I hope to encourage the younger Tibetans, the youth and women, to always just go ahead no matter what. It’s your call, it’s in your control how you want the story to end. When everything turns back against you, if you are really committed to something, it will come. When one door closes, the other door really does open. I really hope that this will encourage people.

If someone accuses you as someone who tramples on morality and ethics, because they feel you disregarded the Charter … and because of that, in the second proposal, you lost — how would you answer such an accusation?

A dramatic turn of events took place, it definitely was not in my control. And the public should step in, in a democracy. There were a lot of positive comments coming my way, and also there are a lot of people with a critical frame of mind.

But it shows the public involvement in a case such as this — 10 years ago, the public didn’t care what was happening, they did not get involved.

If people want to accuse me of intentionally trampling on the Charter, my conscience is clear, I know what really happened. If I had intentionally done that, I’m the type of person who would admit it and apologise. But I stand by what I said on June 3rd. It was sheer oversight, a major oversight, it shocked me also.

But I think when you become a public figure, there are certain tags that come along with it, and one is public criticism. And I think true leadership is being able to rise above all this. This will keep coming. The next four or five years, this will be part and parcel of my life. People will not always say good things about me.

I think for me to be able to take this in my stride, and learn from the kinds of criticism that is coming my way — that’s something that I will be doing.

After you were proposed by Sikyong Sangay the first time in June to be a minister, you were approved by the Parliament. With what kind of imagination did you step in — what were the first things you thought you would change? And now you have the opportunity to do that again, now you are holding the second-highest post in the department. What are the things that you want to change?

I’ve been a vigilant observer of DIIR since 2004, when I first was working as an intern with VOT. I would come and interview the senior staff of DIIR. It interested me what DIIR was doing. I had a liking for the work that they do. I think that this is the single most important department that speaks of the political struggle of Tibet.

One of the former secretaries, Kalon Tenpa la has been a father figure to me. He also served as the DIIR kalon, he’s one of my role models in life. So people I look up to had been at the helm of affairs in this department.

When I was initially asked to handle this portfolio, my first reaction was to feel completely overwhelmed. And then later, you have to sit in a practical frame of mind, and get to work. All I really cared about is that this department is the political spokesperson for the Tibetan struggle, for His Holiness, for CTA, for people inside Tibet.

One thing that China is really annoyed about, with His Holiness and us, is the internationalisation of the Tibetan issue. That is the pressure point for China, and they don’t like it. That’s why they are having to make adjustments and accommodations.

So this department works in terms of maintaining the Tibet Support groups, in terms of amplifying the Tibetan voice in the global arena. So I was thinking more about the larger picture. We need to sustain this movement. The Tibet story needs to go out to the world at the time that the Middle East story is taking centre stage, and Tibet remains the most under-reported story for years and years now. The sacrifices that people make in Tibet is only a one-day news story, and it doesn’t go beyond that. How do you translate that into action?

And secondly, how to we bring China to the negotiation table? How do you make a level playing field for both the key actors: The Tibetan government-in-exile and the Chinese government?

My key priority, is having a good communication strategy, how you win supporters, and how you make people who are hesitant about touching the Tibetan issue to hold it up with a badge of honour. And secondly, dialogue, we really need dialogue, but we shouldn’t sound very desperate.

The ball is in China’s court, but I think there are a lot of weapons in our hands that China doesn’t have. The fact that we have been historically independent. That we have His Holiness as the key champion for our cause. That we have held the mantle of truth for the last 70 plus years. So to be able to re-strategise the whole resolution of the Tibetan issue. And what do we mean by that, we all have different connotations, how do we come to an understanding. So to put in a vision to that, and bring every actor to that, governments, world leaders, to that understanding. That definitely was in my mind, that is the broader picture.

But more specifically, this department, the communications departments like Tibet.net, Tibet Online TV, have made a lot of progress in the last 5, 6, 7 years. They live in the information technology era, and they’re living up to it. We live in an age where there’s so much happening in the clouds, not on the ground. So how do you harness the potential that technology provides you?

China is spending billions, but I think that as long as we have a good message, a good channel, a good audience, I think we can far supersede the propaganda war that China is waging against us. So strengthening the technology capacity of this department is definitely on my mind.

Now that I am a secretary, I cannot undermine the importance of this position. It’s not just a title, there’s a responsibility that comes along with it. So the vision I had for this office, I’ve been thinking very hard day and night, and networking with people, writing to people, having my own set of advisors. So all the things I’ve been thinking of, I really hope to put it into action, and realise it for the next four years.

The kind of vision and the strategic plan that I had for the kalon position remains the same as Secretary. What matters about all this is the work, the results, the output.

Thank you, congratulations again, and wish you a very successful tenure as Secretary of DIIR.

Thank you.

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