McLEOD GANJ, India, 23 December 2020
While the larger world is gripped by the pandemic, the small Tibetan community in exile is engrossed with their five-yearly elections. The path to full democracy for Tibetans was achieved in stages, as envisaged by the Dalai Lama, whose lineage ruled Tibet for 360 years. The rule of this government, the Gaden Phodrang, formally came to an end in 2011, when the Dalai Lama relinquished his political powers completely, fulfilling his vision to totally democratise Tibetan society.
Starting from his days in Lhasa before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Dalai Lama worked for decades for transformation, for Tibetans to one day embrace democracy. It was democracy coming from top down, rather than from the bottom up, without Tibetans having to ask for it — unlike other cases where bloodshed is common when overthrowing an old system to establish democracy.
With education and exposure to various democracies, particularly the Indian system, Tibetans adopted a Charter in 1991. In 2001, the very first election of their political leader (now known as Sikyong) was held. The Dalai Lama, who had been both spiritual and political leader, assumed a semi-retired position, totally giving up his political powers in 2011.
In 2020, heated campaigning has been going on to elect a new Sikyong and the 45 members of the Tibetan Parliament, who are the lawmakers. The first round of voting, in which candidates will be nominated, is scheduled for 3 January 2021. Sixty years into exile, the stakes are high for the Tibetan cause, as the Dalai Lama, the father figure of the six million Tibetans, is catching up on his age, China’s influence is becoming ever stronger, and divisions among the small Tibetan community in exile are becoming ever bigger.
I have been asked who I am endorsing for the next Sikyong, like I did in 2011 when I helped bring Lobsang Sangay into the public eye. He won the elections by an overwhelming majority. Before I name the person I endorse now, we need to look back on recent events in the exile Tibetan community to get an idea of what was happening, and why the person I endorse will be imperative for Tibet and the Tibetan people.
After the 2016 elections, the rifts in the community deepened. Our politics took a tribal turn, as if Tibetans had turned their backs on reasoning. The two Sikyong candidates Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering hurled insults at one another and the campaigns were full of malicious attacks. At the swearing-in ceremony of the winner Sangay, an obviously pained Dalai Lama intervened to reconcile the two opposing parties, and the dust subsided at his behest. But before too long, the division between the two sides widened after Sangay dismissed Penpa Tsering from his position as the Representative of the Dalai Lama to North America in Washington DC.
Soon after, the mess really hit the fan. Supporters of Penpa Tsering created a rowdy scene during the handover to the new Representative Ngodup Tsering in Washington DC. Penpa Tsering failed to calm his supporters, but rather said that they were not protesting against him personally, and hence he wouldn’t stop them.
Months later, Sangay unexpectedly brought up the issue, and said Penpa Tsering should go to court if he was not satisfied. Tsering responded by filing a case, which came to be known as “Case no 20”. Not that Tsering wanted to go to court, but he had no choice, because if he didn’t he would be regarded as guilty. The case lingered on for more than a year, and in the end Sangay lost the case. The exile Tibetan community saw the worst social divide since the development of this unfortunate event, and it is still dragging on to this day.
A shift in mood, and a desire for change and to move on, is palpable in the current campaigns. Barring a few rowdy comments, and some defacing or tearing down of posters, the campaigns have largely been conducted with some sense of decorum. The aspirants speak of their plans, and refrain from any negative comments about the other contenders. Ditto the supporters, who help present and promote their candidates for the election, using social media as well as the usual means of pasting posters and distributing pamphlets.
It’s new and nascent, but a thriving democracy is visible through the hectic campaigning and the large number of people standing in the Sikyong and Parliamentary elections. Many among the contenders in the Parliamentary elections are from the younger generation, a good sign of owning their responsibility to fight for a Free Tibet. However, tribal politics is still rife and the card is still being played to influence the voters. Though many are seen taking the bait, many others are pushing for choices based on eligibility for the important Sikyong post.
Whomever one chooses is of course a personal decision. But in the spirit of choosing the most eligible person, as opposed to a choice based on tribal affiliations, I have decided to choose my Sikyong based on their qualifications rather than anything else. And that is how I have come to choose Penpa Tsering as my choice for Sikyong. He’s from Amdo, I from Kham, no question of tribal politics here. I didn’t support Tsering in the 2011 elections, but did in 2016, after I changed my mind based on facts, reasons, and common sense. The biggest factor being that my expectation from the incumbent Sangay was something better, but instead found him seizing every opportunity for self-aggrandisement.
Penpa Tsering is someone who has had a typical refugee upbringing in a Tibetan settlement, enduring the bare minimum of facilities and opportunities. Like everybody else in that situation, it made him strong, creative, and resilient, nurturing him as he grew older to take up responsibilities and face challenges. In education he’s what Tibetans would say dab shok nyi dhen (well trained in both modern and traditional education). He has over 20 years of service and experience in the Tibetan community, holding top posts such as Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile and Representative in DC. He has even been called the “Prince of Umey-lam” (the Middle-Way) — the policy aimed at resolving the Tibetan issue with China through dialogue — because of his firm belief in and commitment to that policy, first propounded by the Dalai Lama.
Campaigning with an impressive manifesto that has solid vision and planning, with the slogan “Equitable, Co-Effort, Moving Forward”, Tsering is assuring no false promises such as “I will bring the Dalai Lama back to Tibet in five years.” The Middle-Way Approach will be the heart of his focus, while efforts towards course-correcting the dissension within society; improving the welfare of people in the settlements; better education and health facilities; and programmes to make the scattered Tibetan clusters around the world inclusive and cohesive will be on the top of his list.
His personal qualities of hard work, dedication, humility, and commitment are expected to be translated into votes for him. The ousting of Penpa Tsering from DC had the appearance of character assassination, as it feels like there was a larger conspiracy behind it — to banish him from exile Tibetan politics. If that’s what Sangay planned, he failed. The charges against Penpa Tsering turned out to be bogus, and he came out clean and strong. Seeing injustice meted out to Penpa Tsering, many of those who disapproved earlier of Tsering’s behaviour at the DC handover episode, are now are going to support Penpa Tsering, as an act of reposing faith in truth and justice.
Without any doubt, his background and qualities make Penpa Tsering the most eligible and deserving of all to become the next Sikyong. Under his leadership, we will have a mature, progressive, and calibrated new administration. CTA will be seen once again as having self-respect and self-esteem. New Delhi will repose its confidence back in CTA, and more importantly there will be no babbling. If nothing else, the idea that Penpa Tsering will not brag about himself — that alone will be gratifying.
Giving Penpa Tsering the charge will be a victory for Tibet. And it will be truly acting on the mantra of unity, if those clinging to the tribal fabric find the courage and wisdom to shun those useless affiliations, and seek the opportunity to leave behind the bickering from 2016 and move forward to focus on our freedom struggle. That will heal and overcome past dissensions, and move toward a future full of hope.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, and edits the Tibet Sun website.