SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, US, 28 October 2016
Tibetan democracy has evolved thus far only due to the long-term vision and far-sighted democratic principles held by His Holiness the great 14th Dalai Lama. As early as 1952, His Holiness formed a Reform Committee to bring about judicial and educational reform, mainly in the interest of commoners in Tibet. The system of inheritable debt was abolished during that time, and loans unpaid by the poor had been written off. The democratic reform of governance and society was kicked off then, and has been developed single-handedly by His Holiness for the past six decades.
With the devolution of political power to the elected Tibetan leadership in 2011, and His Holiness calling for the Tibetan people to shoulder responsibilities, it is upon us to initiate the next democratic and electoral reform that calls for a good change.
Achievements of the past
It would be most appropriate to remember the achievements made in the past under the leadership of His Holiness before I deliberate on some of key reforms needed in the future.
In 1961, a draft constitution was published and input was collected from Tibetans. His Holiness included the very clause to remove himself from office by a two-thirds majority vote in the National Assembly — which of course came as shock to many Tibetans who couldn’t fathom the idea of removing His Holiness from the title of Dalai Lama.
The first Tibetan People’s Deputies was inaugurated on 2 September 1960, with representation from the three provinces and four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The creation of the democratically-elected highest legislative body had been one of the major changes in his efforts of the democratization process.
The Tibetan Charter was drafted and constituted in 1991 at the 11th Tibetan Parliament under the key initiative and leadership of His Holiness, based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees everyone’s rights as equal before law. This reform was soon followed by direct election of the Kalon Tripa and semi-retirement of His Holiness in 2001.
The year 2011 brought the most historic development in Tibetan polity and administration in Tibetan modern history. On 10 March 2011 — the 52nd anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising — His Holiness announced the introduction of amendments to the Charter reflecting his decision to devolve his political role to Tibetan leaderships in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). His Holiness rejected a unanimous plea made by the Tibetan Parliament and 2nd General Body Meeting requesting him to represent as Head of State in a ceremonial role. However, the new Preamble and Article 1 of the Tibetan Charter enshrined His Holiness as “the protector and symbol of the Tibetan nation.”
Need for further reform in strengthening our democracy
The process of complete democratization of the Tibetan administration and society by His Holiness has to be taken forward by the Tibetan people and leadership. We should realize that there is scope and need for further reform in strengthening our democracy. With the recently-concluded Sikyong and Chitue elections, and from the experience of the past five years after His Holiness’ retirement, let me list the constitutional reforms necessary in the CTA administration and electoral system.
- For the long-term benefit and sustenance of a Tibetan Nation and democracy, His Holiness should be approached again requesting him to reinstate as the “Head of State” in a “ceremonial role”. This is very much part of a democratic process and governance as seen in democratic nations such as Japan, England, Thailand etc., where kings and queen assume roles of ceremonial Head of State. In fact, the largest democracy in the world, India, indirectly elects its president as the head of state and he enjoys ceremonial authority, while in practice, the prime minister and his council of ministers exercise all executive authority. While we still have Sikyong as the head of government, we have no head of state under the 25th charter amendments. This I believe is a most unusual and unhealthy omission and it is crucial to fill that gap. The Tibetan Parliament-in-exile has the key responsibility and need to bring about a fresh proposal requesting His Holiness and make the needed amendment.
- While we have a provision to impeach Kashag, and even to remove His Holiness from office — reform pushed forth by His Holiness himself in the interest of full democratization — there is no provision to dissolve our Parliament under the recent amendments. This authority used to rest on His Holiness before his complete retirement. The constitutional lapse can be also resolved along with the former omission if His Holiness can remain as head of state. The fact is that only the head of state can dissolve a parliament in any democratic nation.
- The most important electoral reform needed is to amend the election based on provinces and religious traditions of Tibet. While I do clearly understand the significance and symbolism of Tibet constituting three provinces, the current electoral system, in fact, divides and separate Tibetans on the basis of Choekha and Choelug every five years of elections. The solution lies in the introduction of an electoral system based on constituency and population, not Choekha and Choelug. The successful election of chitue in North America and Europe is testament to the practicality of constituent election. The number of seats of members of Parliament can be distributed based on the population of the area.
- While elections based on reserved seats of religious traditions should be off the table, any sangha or rinpoches should be given equal rights to run for elections as an individual running from a constituent area, not from the reserved seats of sects.
- To run for Sikyong and Chitue elections, there should be qualifications on the basis of minimum level of education and years of service to CTA/Tibetan community to be qualified to run for election on top of the already existing ones. Same goes for the nominee to be appointed to Kashag/Kalon.
- The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) could be directly elected by Tibetan people to bring more credibility and transparency. CEC should be answerable to voters. The other alternative is to bring amendments barring CEC from holding any office in the executive branch in CTA after they complete their term. This would bring free and fair elections, not influenced by any individual or groups running for Sikyong or chitue elections. This is definitely not to imply current CEC is unfair in his discharge of duties.
- Any Sikyong or Chitue election campaign should be firmly based on the policies of CTA and realistic plans of action; not misleading voters with lies, Choekha Choelug shengok, and rhetoric lacking in honesty and meaningful content.
- The election duration between the preliminary and final elections should be less than two to three months. The long gap fuels nothing but lies, rhetoric, disunity, and deception of voters.
About the author
Tenzin Tsedup is a graduate in biochemistry from San Francisco State University, and currently employed in a pharmaceutical company. He is a former president of Tibetan Association of Northern California, and currently serves as board VP of the Tibet Oral History Project and on the advisory board of Bay Area Friends of Tibet.