PARIS, France, 28 September 2019
Today the Tibetan cause is in a critical situation, and the extent of support available in the future is unknown. The lawsuit (Case no 20) brought to the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission (TSJC) raises crucial issues for the Tibetan cause. The coming verdict will be a clear answer to the question “Will the rule of law be respected?” and will reveal the quality of Tibetans’ ethical commitment to their international supporters.
In order to understand the current issues, it is necessary to be clear that the international public is much more aware of the Dalai Lama himself than of the situation of Tibet. Also, for decades, the Tibetan cause has been incarnated and mediatized by His Holiness. It is to him personally, a world spiritual figure, that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded 30 years ago, not to the Tibetan people.
In 2011, given his commitment to the implementation of a democratic organisation for the Tibetan people, he decided to step down from his temporal role. This has led to the strengthening of the institutional role of the CTA and of its head of government, the Sikyong.
Resistance to Beijing is no longer only embodied by the emblematic resistance of the Tibetans. The issue of suffering and repression of the Tibetan population in China may seem less blatant than in the past. The great wave of self-immolations, started in 2009, reached its peak in 2012-2013 and virtually died down after 2017. In terms of intensity of violence, the situation in Tibet appears less dramatic, also because of China’s enormous pressure on its commercial partners. This is reflected in the number of foreign parliamentarians and politicians who are openly committed to the Tibetan cause, which is now much lower than it used to be.
Furthermore, visible foci of protest have developed in other parts of China and even beyond. Added to the rising tensions with Taiwan and the repression of Hong Kong’s protesters, the situation of the Uyghur people has become objectively much more dramatic than that of Tibetan people, with more than two million people in forced-labour camps. The US Congress now pays as much attention to the Uyghur situation as to the Tibetan question.
Distancing of the Indian host
In India, the situation is also modified, especially since the accession of Narendra Modi to power. It has become much more complicated for Tibetans living there, especially since they have strengthened their administration in exile and established themselves as a “pseudo-State” with its “capital” in Dharamshala. They are still protected — the exact word to describe their situation would rather be “tolerated” — largely because His Holiness, in the withdrawal that he operated towards his religious function, has worked hard these last years to highlight the direct affiliation between Tibetan Buddhism and Ancient Indian Knowledge.
The tense relations that are developing between the Indian host and the Tibetan community are reinforced by the fact that, obviously, in the eyes of the welcoming power, the current Sikyong does not have the same legitimacy as the Dalai Lama. In addition, he has made multiple diplomatic errors towards it.
Fearing a rapprochement — or at least a normalisation — of the tense and complex relations between Modi’s India and Xi Jinping’s China, at the expense of the Tibetan community, Lobsang Sangay ran the risk, several times and publicly, to alert the Indian authorities to the danger posed by Beijing for New Delhi. This was seen as an interference, which Prime Minister Modi and the Indian authorities did not much appreciate.
By choosing to give up his political prerogatives, the Dalai Lama wished to democratize in depth the political organisation of the Tibetan people where the weight of the Buddhist religion and his own power could appear excessive.
Despite this, in recent years we have witnessed a strengthening of the Sikyong’s and the CTA’s power to the detriment of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. While he is officially the “Sikyong” (political leader), he unilaterally chose to call himself “President” — a function that does not actually exist in the institutional organisation of Tibet in exile.
Some ministers who did not like this kind of development resigned on moral grounds. By contrast, other people were imposed by the Sikyong, suppressing ministries and replacing them by administrative directorates fulfilling the same functions, thus making it possible to appoint them without going through the Parliament’s approval. In fact, having reclaimed the mandate of one minister, he holds not only the role of Sikyong but also manages all the mandates of this ministry.
Likewise, the Dalai Lama’s traditional diplomacy with his personal representatives stationed in a few major capitals — while still known as the “Representation of His Holiness” — has progressively fallen under the direct control of the Tibetan government and its Sikyong.
The Tibetan Parliament in Exile — which meets only twice a year for short sessions — has largely lost its power of initiative in political decisions. Despite the resistance of some of the parliamentarians who do not like Lobsang Sangay’s solitary and sometimes brutal exercise of power, the Tibetan Parliament now looks more like a validation body for the choices made by him alone.
By taking positions which reduce the prerogatives and the power of control of Parliament, he tries to subdue and control the whole administration and, in a way, to present himself not only as the head of the Tibetan community but also as the universal representative of the Tibetan cause in substitution for the less active Dalai Lama.
Thus, we are witnessing a form of illiberal drift of the exiled Tibetan democratic institutions that, until now, had been held up as a model for experimentation towards a democratic transition in Asia.
“Internal crisis” opened by the 2016 elections
The last general election highlighted the institutional, political, and societal contradictions that are currently pervading the exiled Tibetan community, especially during the second round of the Sikyong nomination in March 2016.
No precise rule in the electoral regulation had been previously enacted to define who was entitled to stand for the second round. Did Lukar Jam, a supporter of the Independence trend (“Rangzen”, and therefore opposed to the Dalai Lama’s Middle-Way Approach), who arrived in 3rd place with 5.6% in the first round, have the right to stay in the second round? After long discussions, the Electoral Commission decided “no”, even if the institutional texts did not say anything specific about it.
Similarly, Lobsang Sangay, the outgoing Sikyong who had obtained 66.7% of the votes in the first round, was institutionally forced to a second round; he faced Penpa Tsering, incumbent speaker of the Parliament in Exile, who came in second with 23.5% of the votes. Considering the results of the first round showed his popularity with the public, Lobsang Sangay reluctantly agreed to this second round. He avoided most of the adversarial debates with his challenger, while his supporters engaged in sometimes violent attacks on Penpa Tsering on social networks. The final result between the two men was much tighter than expected: Lobsang Sangay was only re-elected with 57.3% of the vote, after a rather impressive “comeback” by Penpa Tsering.
The Dalai Lama received the international delegation of parliamentarians who came to observe the elections; he did not hide the impression of mediocrity he had felt towards the campaign that came to unfold.
Concerned about repairing the fracture that had just opened in the exiled community, and also expressing his confidence in Penpa Tsering, the Dalai Lama promoted Tsering’s appointment to the post of Representative of His Holiness in Washington in May 2016 (effective end of August 2016). Very active in his new position and highly appreciated by US parliamentarians, Penpa Tsering soon became the target of Lobsang Sangay’s supporters, who feared a return of his rival during the elections scheduled for 2021, and for which the re-elected Sikyong cannot run again after two consecutive terms.
Penpa Tsering had the misfortune to ask the CTA for clarification for a grim affair involving the purchase of the Washington office before his appointment in the US capital. In return, all he received were attacks concerning his effective activity in his new functions. On 6 November 2017, he was fired from his post and replaced by a close associate of Lobsang Sangay, without any precise and reasoned explanation for this unprecedented decision in the functioning of Tibetan institutions in exile.
Deeply affected by the unfair accusations of incompetence made against him, Penpa Tsering first chose to be silent and re-energize himself in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, before embarking on a long path to restore his honor.
Personal and political issues of trial in TSJC
Having exhausted any amicable form of recourse, and most of all, eager to hear Lobsang Sangay explain clearly the basis of his decision to dismiss him, Penpa Tsering decided to appeal to the TSJC on 18 May 2018. After a couple of delays, his query was finally considered admissible by the Court, and the first hearings of the parties began on 5 June 2019.
Penpa Tsering’s obvious aim is to clear his name, which he considers to be discredited. All over the world, wherever legal defence procedures exist, this approach is considered perfectly legitimate, if not commonplace. While this right has indeed been established within the Tibetan Community in Exile, and while the Dalai Lama has personally seen to it when he laid the foundations of the rule of law and the institutions that accompany it, this approach is sometimes strangely criticised by those who declare themselves defenders of the Tibetan cause.
These critiques go well beyond the civil and private framework, taking a more political dimension. “Questioning, even by law, a decision is to play the game of the Chinese”, “we must not display our divisions”, “Sikyong has been democratically elected, he has every right.” These are some of the arguments circulated within the Tibetan community and its supporters whenever Tibetan officials are criticised.
Beyond the still-imperfect democratic organisation of the Tibetan institutions and the tendency to the arch-presidentialization of the regime impelled by Lobsang Sangay, we must not fail to stress the responsibility of the Tibetan people themselves in this relative drift. Tibetans’ political immaturity is quite flagrant. It must be made clear: the democratic process has been, since the beginning, wanted and carried by the Dalai Lama himself. Given the Tibetan tradition, this revolutionary choice continues to shake up many Tibetans who accept it more by faith and loyalty to His Holiness than by deep democratic aspiration.
Aside from the fact that this issue regarding the appearance of unity has already been seriously undermined by multiple defamatory comments on social networks during the election campaign, it is not exclusively an internal affair of the Tibetan community.
The issue is also external. The Tibetan pseudo-State in exile has always derived most of its resources from private donations and public aid given by the West. The CTA has virtually no resources of its own: It does not levy taxes on its citizens, and many of them make a living thanks to jobs provided by the CTA or by the myriad of organisations abroad promoting the Tibetan cause. Fund-raising for the Tibetan cause is extremely dependent on His Holiness’ image and international outreach, and while every Tibetan is genuinely concerned about the health of their spiritual leader, some more prosaic people are worried about consequences that his disappearance could have on the international visibility of the Tibetan cause and also on its financial and political support.
The lawsuit brought to the TSJC, in front of which Lobsang Sangay did not wish to testify personally, raises two crucial issues for the Tibetan cause.
The first is whether or not there was an illegal financial arrangement in the USA — the purchase of the Office of Tibet in Washington — from a fund powered by private donations, to finance the purchase in question. Some American supporters of the Tibetan cause have, like Penpa Tsering, been worried about this fact. If a hijacking took place and the leaders hid it, without making amends for the fault, it would have important consequences in a country which is by far the most faithful supporter of Tibet. The transparency requirement carried by Penpa Tsering and others is certainly an ethical and political pledge by the Tibetans to those who support them.
But the most fundamental issue is undoubtedly the loyalty of the Government in Exile and its institutions to the process initiated by the Dalai Lama, namely the Tibetan people’s evolution towards democracy and the rule of law. Beyond the epiphenomenon that this trial seems to be, it is not a question of loyalty to the Dalai Lama — because everyone claims to be loyal! — but a question of loyalty to this process and the dialogue he initiated. And, of course, a question of respect and compassion between leaders. What we see today is a non-compassionate logic, as the way in which Penpa Tsering was “dealt with” is worrying.
The democratic impulse came from above, from the one who had all the powers and who chose to abandon certain prerogatives that some could call theocratic and quasi-feudal. Beyond His Holiness’ status as an internationally0recognized spiritual leader, the extraordinary respect which he has received and which have carried the Tibetan cause worldwide are precisely related to his just, pacified, and non-violent vision of power.
What is democracy?
Democracy is not limited to holding elections by universal/general suffrage; it is also found in the respect for civil liberties and the rule of law.
The question today is whether the Tibetan people and their institutions fully integrate this aspiration to democracy and are willing to implement it.
Tibetans must ask themselves the same question which, even today, plagues the most consolidated Western democracies: How does one resist the illiberal temptation to reduce Democracy to the sole result of elections by “universal/general suffrage”? For Democracy is not limited to holding elections by universal suffrage; it is also found in the respect for civil liberties and the rule of law. The winner of the election must also submit to the game of balance and separation of powers, and must respect fundamentals such as the Right to Information, the Right to Truth, and the Right to Know.
In the medium and long term, the requirement — including honest legal arguments and transparency in the decision process — posed by Penpa Tsering’s lawsuit is the only one that guarantees international support for the Tibetan cause in compliance with the Dalai Lama’s intended approach for his people.
About the author
André Gattolin is a French politician and academic. Since September 2011 he has been a member of the French Senate, currently serving as vice-chair of the European Affairs Committee. He is also vice-chair of the parliamentary group on Tibet.