By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
The recent changes to the Tibetan Charter have potentially changed the very foundation of Tibet’s political struggle, and yet these changes happened so quickly that many questions are left unresolved. Some are practical questions about what exactly these changes mean. Others are deeper questions about whether these changes were carried out in a properly democratic manner.
On 14 March 2011, His Holiness issued a statement to the exile Tibetan parliament stating his wish to devolve all his political authorities. His Holiness expressed that this “all the necessary steps must be taken, including the appointment of separate committees, to amend the relevant Articles of the Charter and other regulations, in order that a decision can be reached and implemented during this very session.” As a result the Parliament unanimously passed a resolution to form an ad hoc Drafting Committee to propose amendments.
The five-member Drafting Committee presented their proposals, which were discussed during the Second Tibetan National General Meeting (21-24 May 2011). Over 400 Tibetans from around the world gathered in Dharamsala to discuss key issues related to amending the Tibetan Charter to implement the devolution of His Holiness’s political authorities among the elected Tibetan leadership. In order to have better discussions and to come to manageable conclusions, the participants were divided into ten groups, which then debated and discussed the entire proposed amendments for two days.
The General Meeting was an important landmark in Tibetan history. It would hardly be an exaggeration to compare its importance to the founding of the Ganden Phodrang Government of Tibet by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1642, the declaration of Tibet’s independence by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1913, and the Tibetan people’s re-assertion of their independence in 1959.
Some of the key issues that received overwhelming majority support were to maintain the name of the exile administration as Tsenjol Bod Zhung (Central Tibetan Administration, a/k/a Tibetan Government-in-Exile), specifically rejecting the proposed change to Tsenjol Bod Meyi Zhung gi Driktsuk (Institution/Organization of Government of Tibetans in Exile). Eight of the ten groups said that Tsenjol Bod Zhung must be used to maintain continued legitimacy, unity, and hope of all Tibetans in and outside Tibet. This was the Tibetan people’s aspiration and their collective decision through their representatives to the General Meeting. In addition, the General Meeting also voted to maintain His Holiness as the Head of State, while delegating executive political powers to the Kalon Tripa.
The Results: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
On the morning of 27 May 2011 (four days before its term was to expire), the 14th session of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile met in a special session. In attempting to judge its actions in a balanced way, it should be said that the Parliament blatantly violated the expressed will of the Tibetan people on one critical point, but did better on two other points.
1. Name Change: Most importantly and most negatively, the Parliament decided to rename the exile Tibetan administration Bod Meyi Drik Tsuk (Institution/Organization of the Tibetan People). This not only goes against the Tibetan people’s aspiration and collective will, it also compromises on the long-term vision of Tibet as a nation. His Holiness clearly expressed in his statement that “I wish to devolve authority solely for the benefit of the Tibetan people in the long run. It is extremely important that we ensure the continuity of our exile Tibetan administration and our struggle until the issue of Tibet has been successfully resolved” [emphasis added]. It is beyond imagination how re-naming the exile Tibetan administration Bod Meyi Drik Tsuk would help ensure its continuity.
On the contrary, the name change reduces the administration’s historical legitimacy and lessens its power as a unifying element around which every Tibetan, in and outside Tibet, revolves around to struggle for our freedom and to protect our culture and identity. This new title not only implies the end of the Ganden Phodrang Government of Tibet, but also the end of the legitimate Tibetan government-in-exile. In effect, it appears, the 14th Parliament has voted to dissolve the Tsenjol Bod Zhung and turn it into a non-governmental organization (NGO).
If so, there is danger that Bod Meyi Drik Tsuk may no longer be able to represent the Tibetan people as a whole, or represent the continued existence of the occupied country of Tibet. Indeed, it may no longer be any sort of government at all. In all this, the 14th Parliament has acted contrary to the democratic wishes of the Tibetan people as expressed by the General Meeting.
2. Head of State: On the issue of His Holiness as head of state, the Parliament did about as well as could be expected. His Holiness made emphatically clear that he would refuse to sign any Charter amendments that made him the ceremonial head of state that the people wanted. By calling His Holiness the “protector and symbol of Tibet and the Tibetan people,” this is about as close to His Holiness being a de facto head of state as one can hope. Was this result enough to excuse Parliament’s terrible blunder on the name change? In our personal judgment: no.
3. Other Changes: The Parliament should be congratulated for rejecting the unwise proposal to do away with term limits for the Kalon Tripa, and the unwise proposal to eliminate the Parliament’s right to approve Kashag (Cabinet) ministers. Again, in our judgement this result is vastly overshadowed by the terrible name change blunder.
Some Important Questions:
The truly troubling thing about this process has been the lack of democratic informed consent by the Tibetan people. Parliament’s rushed decision demands many questions to be asked, most importantly why the changes were pushed through so quickly and against the people’s expressed wishes. Were the changes because of pressure from India, an attempt to further the Middle Way, or something else?
1. Indian Pressure? There are indications that the name-change may have been motivated by pressure from India. It may be that some in the Indian government (to improve relations with China) are becoming less hospitable to having a Tibetan "government" on their soil. If this is true, we sympathize with the Tibetan leadership's dilemma. However, the solution should not have been to force through a change that was emphatically against the wishes of the Tibetan people. Surely some middle ground could have been found that did not reduce the Tibetan government to an "organization."
As an example, Palestine is not yet a state, so the government there is called the Palestinian Authority; why not a “Tibetan Authority” (Bod Meyi Wangzin)? Given adequate time, and consulting the Tibetan people and experts in international law, surely the Parliament could have come up with a better name that satisfies Indian requirements without suggesting that the Tibetan government has become an NGO. In the unlikely event that there was absolutely no middle ground possible, the people deserve at least an explanation.
2. The Effect of the Middle Way? We also have a nagging fear that this self-inflicted wound on the Tibetan Government-in-Exile was yet another compromise in furtherance of the Middle Way. If this is true, the elected leadership should have been honest with the people and said: “we plan to give X concessions to China, in exchange for Y deal, with Z mechanism to enforce the deal.” Then the Tibetan people could have evaluated the matter and made an informed choice. With an informed decision, the apparent split between the people and the government might not have been necessary.
As part of this informed decision, Tibetans need to remember that the Middle Way approach is a political strategy that the Tibetan Government-in-Exile pursues now. But it should, under no circumstances, lead to compromise on Tibetans’ history and long-term collective aspiration to have a distinct national identity. The Middle Way approach as a political strategy could cease any time the people and their elected leaders decide it is fruitless, but any historical compromise that Tibetans are making now in order for this policy to succeed is a blunder that cannot be easily undone in the future.
3. Other Questions: There are other important unanswered questions, including:
As is clear from the above questions, Parliament may have felt it was doing what was necessary in its judgement, but it manifestly failed in its duty to ensure the informed consent of the citizenry, thereby creating a split between the people and their elected representatives.
Were the Changes Democratic?
One must ask whether the Charter amendment process was democratic, given the dramatic split between the resolutions of the General Meeting and the Parliament. As always, it depends on one’s definition of the word “democracy.” His Holiness has often been an advocate of democracy. In 2008, the Dalai Lama wrote:
In 1993, His Holiness stated “No system of government is perfect, but democracy is closest to our essential human nature. It is also the only stable foundation upon which a just and free global political structure can be built.” In 1963, His Holiness promulgated the proposed Constitution of Tibet, which stated that “Tibet shall be a unitary democratic State founded upon the principles laid down by the Lord Buddha…” (See Art. 2 of the Constitution of Tibet). (In fact, Art. 29(2) of the Tibetan Constitution refers to His Holiness as the Head of State; or at least it used to until the Parliament voided the 1963 Tibetan Constitution.)
But what does “democracy” mean exactly?
Does “democracy” mean instituting the will of the people, as in the ancient Greek concept of rule by the demos? If so, the changes to the Charter were clearly not democratic. Or does “democracy” mean representational democracy, akin to the ancient Roman res publica, where citizens select representatives to make decisions on their behalf? If so, changes to the Charter were not necessarily undemocratic. In reality, the situation is more complex, because democracy is more than simply voting.
If one conceives of democracy as carrying out the expressed will of the people, then the 14th Parliament manifestly failed the Tibetan people. It is abundantly clear that the majority of Tibetans, including the majority of participants in the Second General Meeting of Tibetans wanted to 1) keep His Holiness as Head of State, and 2) not change the title of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Parliament should have followed the democratic will of the Tibetan people. Judging by the switch in the name of from people’s choice of Tsenjol Bod Zhung to Bod Meyi Drik Tsuk, it seems that there was no room to truly respect the people’s aspiration.
If, on the other hand, one conceives of democracy as the people’s elected representatives making decisions on behalf of the people, then the changes to the Charter were not undemocratic. Still, this is problematic because the people’s representatives should ultimately be accountable to the people.
What we then have, therefore, is a disconnect between the representatives and the people. This is certainly not unique to Tibetan democracy: consider Tony Blair and his Labour party’s unpopular decision to join George Bush in invading Iraq, despite the British public’s overwhelming opposition.
The Solution is More Democracy
The wonderful thing about a democracy (as opposed to, for example, a communist dictatorship) is that the system can be self-renewing and self-correcting.
The British people were opposed to Blair taking them to war in Iraq, and the people’s response was to defeat the Labour party and vote in the Tories. Today, Britain does not have any troops in Iraq. This shows that the solution to a failure of democracy is more democratic engagement by the people.
Similarly, if the Tibetan people are unhappy with the changes to the Charter, then the solution is to become more engaged in our Tibetan democracy. Citizens can lobby the incoming 15th Parliament to make corrections. There is no reason the 15th Parliament cannot change the government’s name again, perhaps to “Tibetan Authority.” While they are at it, they could also institute some better checks and balances like giving Parliament a right to override the Kalon Tripa’s veto, and make elections more frequent and give parliamentarians staggered terms. And in five years, citizens can vote for the 16th Parliament based on candidates’ stand on these issues. Democracy can be self-correcting, but only with the involvement of the people.
Perhaps, therefore, the current unfortunate gap between the people and the government is one that can be bridged through greater public participation in the democratic process. Those in the Tibetan government who believe that the Charter changes are necessary should be called upon to make their case (which they should have done far in advance). Those citizens (the majority, it appears) who oppose these changes should exercise their right to democratic participation to make their government accountable to their collective will. That is the power of democracy. Despite these major disagreements, the Tibetan people should be proud that our policy disputes can be sorted out in a democratic way. Bod gyallo, and bod zhung gyallo.