Tibet is learning the tricks of democracy
Claude Arpi, Mail Online | April 5, 2016
The ballots have spoken. Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent Tibetan prime minister, has been re-elected as ‘Sikyong’ (Political Leader) to lead the Tibetan refugees during the next five years.
In the old days, the State Oracle would speak to the ‘Spiritual Leader’, that is, the Dalai Lama, and give him directions on how to conduct state affairs.
Now times have changed, and though some might miss the past democracy is more fitting for a modern state – so the Dalai Lama decided in March 2011.
The uncontested leader of Tibet thought that the time had come for Tibet to become an ordinary democracy led by a leader chosen by the people, instead of a divine incarnation ruling by virtue of his birthright. It was a great move from the Dalai Lama – and it annoyed Beijing immensely.
The current Chinese leadership does not believe in democracy. Though the Communist Party rules on behalf of the ‘people’, the masses’ participation is absolutely unwarranted.
The official results will only be declared by the exiled Tibetan Election Commission on April 27, but private websites give Lobsang Sangay 33,234 votes, while his opponent Penpa Tsering gets only 24,752 in his favour — out of some 90,000 registered voters.
The beauty of democracy is often the anti-incumbency factor against politicians in power. But things are different in Tibet, where there is immense respect for the established hierarchy. In fact, many believe that the Dalai Lama had to ‘force democracy’ down reluctant throats.
During the recent campaign, Tibetans realised the not-so-nice aspects of the process. This probably explains the reaction of Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the first directly elected prime minister. He told a Delhi newspaper that he boycotted the election process because the campaign had moved away from the ideals.
“The exiled government was based on the principles of Swaraj of Mahatma Gandhi. It didn’t involve competition or opposition,” he observed.
Well, democracy is democracy, with its good and bad intact. The Dalai Lama laughed when he asked the two candidates during an audience: ‘How is the boxing match’?
At the end of the campaign, out of the blue, Dicki Chhoyang, the Canada-based minister of information and international relations, resigned and declared her intention to vote for Tsering.
In her statement, she enumerated ‘some personal character traits’ which she considered important for the Sikyong. Her list was interesting: Motivation and dedication to the collective interest, the ability to think holistically and with long-term vision, to be honest, a team player, to value substance over appearance, etc.
Was the incumbent prime minister lacking these qualities? Now that the people have spoken, one can only hope that the entire community will unite around the new Sikyong.
True, everything is not perfect in the exiled Tibetan society, but where does a perfect society exist? A few days after the final vote, the Dalai Lama spoke of the deplorable health conditions in some Tibetan settlements in India, and asked the new administration to provide better care and services to them.
“Feel-good appearances will not help. That will be empty glory,” he added.
Another area the Sikyong will have to take a serious look at is the happenings in Tibet.
Dissensions have recently appeared in the Chinese leadership. The South China Morning Post reported that Zhu Weiqun, the interlocutor of the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoys and a hardliner on Tibet affairs, has been accused of taking huge bribes “to grant approvals for people to become Living Buddhas”.
The Hong Kong daily quotes an overseas Chinese website, Bowen Press, which believes that Zhu is under investigation for allegedly granting the status of ‘Living Buddha’ (reincarnated lamas) in exchange for cash.
If proved true, this is a big development. Zhu, after all, had advocated that the Communist Party was the sole authority to decide the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and pledged to strictly follow policies.
In many fields, the Chinese leadership is steps ahead of Dharamsala. Take the flooding of the plateau with mainland tourists, which has irreversibly changed the ‘Roof of the World’. More than 50 million annual visitors have been the pretext for expanding border infrastructure – hurriedly constructed railways, roads and airports… all leading to India.
The new leader will have to be able to take up these issues with New Delhi and Beijing. The fact that the Dalai Lama has ‘imposed’ a democratic system is important for India. It corresponds to India’s value system. It should definitively be encouraged by Delhi, and with the Dalai Lama getting older, it is crucial to have a solid interlocutor, someone who can speak on behalf of the Tibetan community and have influence in Tibet.
Will Lobsang Sangay fit the bill? Only the future will tell.
The writer is an expert on Tibet and China