By Samdup Tenzin
This year marks 25 years since His Holiness the Dalai Lama first unveiled before the US Congress his Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet. This peace plan, along with the Strasbourg proposal of 1988, formed the bedrock of what has since been known as the Middle Way policy of our exile administration. This policy has been subjected to a number of piercing critiques over the last 25 years but despite receiving a harsh review, it has gone on to attain a monolithic personality of its own. Speaking ill of it has got people accused of disloyalty to the Dalai Lama and proposing alternative approaches has earned them reputations as extremists and radicals. Needless to say, changing this policy altogether has become a forlorn possibility. Regretably, our exile administration has not even considered making a few strategic adjustments to the current policy of reconciliation with Beijing in order to induce the latter to come to the table.
In light of this fact, I think any change in the existing orthodoxy is inconceivable so long as our veteran activists, intellectuals and emerging youth icons, who profess political views contrasting that of the policymaking elite in Dharamsala, keep on operating outside the exile institutions and choose only to episodically cry foul from the side-lines.
We have in our community quite a few charismatic personalities who, for instance, articulate the case for independence and/or self-determination with extraordinary eloquence and conviction, and who spearhead organizations and groups with followers and sympathizers running in the thousands. These community leaders (and their groups) certainly enjoy the adulation and admiration of many ordinary Tibetans, but crucially what they lack is an objectively demonstrable democratic mandate, which makes it all too easy for their detractors to downplay their alternative political visions as minor aberrations from the otherwise widely embraced mainstream policy of pursuing “genuine autonomy” within the confines of the Chinese Constitution.
One may seek to counteract this shortcoming by brandishing the seemingly burgeoning list of supporters of organizations like the TYC and the SFT but such numbers are unlikely to be deemed credible indicators of people’s political leanings. This, in my opinion, is because an average Tibetan does not see any contradiction between, for example, attending a TYC rally and backing the sporadic negotiations between our envoys and the United Front Work Department of the PRC. The common perception is that both the CTA and the groups like TYC and SFT, despite their differing political dispositions, work for the greater good of our nation, and are both worthy of our support and endorsement. This being the case, the only way our political firebrands can hope to achieve an incontrovertible democratic mandate, and with it the respect of their critics, is by electorally (for the lack of a better word) infiltrating into the policymaking institutions of our exile administration.
The foremost among these policymaking institutions is our exile parliament. It is the parliament and not the Kashag, which reigns supreme when it comes to settling issues of national significance such as charting the future course of our struggle. Unfortunately, not many of us seem to have grasped this fact. Our relatively tepid response bordering on indifference to last year’s parliamentary elections, even as we all went gung-ho about getting our preferred candidate elected for the post of Kalon Tripa, attests to our failure to appreciate the parliament’s centrality in shaping our freedom movement.
Our Chitues have to take part of the blame for the impassivity with which we have come to view the Tibetan parliament. Dwarfed, until now, by the indomitable persona of the Dalai Lama, the Chitues have only reacted to and rubber-stamped whatever political reforms His Holiness has championed from time to time. They have seldom themselves been harbingers of any real change and have rarely demonstrated the dynamism and initiative that would strike a chord with the masses. Moreover, our celebrated pundits and social commentators who are usually quite quick to point out the flaws and foibles of our exile administration have, until now, shown little interest in getting their hands dirty by contesting the parliamentary elections. As a result, our parliament has been inadvertently reduced to an institution for sustaining the prevailing orthodoxy. No wonder electorates see Chitue elections as a five-yearly ritual of little practical significance.
If put on the spot, not many of us would remember the names of all the ten (twelve in case of monastics) candidates that we voted for in the last parliamentary elections, let alone recall the details of their personal manifestos. So limited is our knowledge about the contestants that the naïve ones among us even admit to voting based on, for instance, how photogenic a candidate looked. This sadly implies that while a number of Chitue hopefuls, who are well known, have been deservingly elected on their merit and experience, more than a few have made it to the parliament by pure chance and coincidence. This is an extremely unfortunate trend, which has quite a serious knock-on effect on the quality of work put in by the parliament.
Twice in the last 25 years, His Holiness, exasperated by the lack of any positive overtures from the Chinese government, invited the Tibetan people to decide the future course of our struggle- firstly in 1996 after the Panchen Lama reincarnation fiasco and secondly in 2008 in the aftermath of the pan-Tibetan uprising. But the proposed opinion poll in 1996-97 and the first special meeting in 2008, which were both touted as occasions for political soul-searching and introspection ended up becoming more about reaffirming our absolute loyalty to the Dalai Lama and less about making strategic adjustments to our modus operandi which His Holiness himself had previously declared to be a failure. The exile parliament in the months following the aforementioned momentous events passed unanimous resolutions (in September 1997 and March 2010) backing the continuation of the Middle Way policy. But despite the worsening situation inside Tibet, neither did these resolutions attach conditionalities to the Middle Way policy and subject its continuance to a quantifiable time frame nor did they include ultimatums to Beijing to the effect that the CTA would consider reviewing the policy if the former failed to respond in kind within the set deadline. Such an act of dynamism from the parliament, as I have mentioned earlier, has been found wanting.
Last year when, after publicly announcing the decision to relinquish all his temporal powers, His Holiness advised that we collectively refer to our democratic institutions in exile as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and not as the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), an in-depth critical dissection of the proposed name change ensued in our community, which was expectedly initiated not by our Chitues but by netizens and activists who were acutely concerned by the impending development. Outrageously, when the moment of truth came, it took our parliament as little as 3 days to approve the amended Charter and, with it, the name change recommended by the Dalai Lama. In doing so, the parliament conveniently disregarded the consensus reached on the issue at the last year’s special meeting. One would think that the delegates to the special meeting (which consisted of representatives from various settlements and grass root level organizations) who had come to Dharamshala to attend the meeting after having solicited the views of ordinary Tibetans in their jurisdiction, would be better placed than many of our fortuitously elected Chitues to make a call on this issue. But our lawmakers obviously didn’t think so.
Many prominent rangzen activists and Youth Congress leaders continue to object to this name change. But since they have no representation in the parliament, their protests and remonstrations have had little practical impact. Had these individuals walked the talk and contested last year’s parliamentary elections, I think many of them, given their reputation for calling a spade a spade, would have won hands down. Once in the parliament they would have been able to more decisively influence the draft of many a legislation including the one to change the title of our exile administration.
It is worth mentioning here that in March this year another opportunity to reassess the name change went begging when during the budget session of the parliament an amendment motion introduced specifically to review this change narrowly failed (by just 6 votes) to achieve the required two-thirds majority (a total of 23 votes were cast in favour of the motion). Had the aforementioned individuals electorally entered the parliament instead of persistently operating outside it, we may have had a different result altogether.
I advocate the active participation of unorthodox and proactive Tibetans in exile politics because I think this is the only way through which the prestige of our parliament and other democratic institutions in exile can be salvaged. The disconnect that seems to exist between the general populace and our policymakers can only be bridged if these individuals take it upon themselves to champion the concerns and grievances of the masses in Dharamsala. It would be a mistake if one regards our so-called three pillars of democracy as off limits just because one holds opinions and visions, which contradict the majority. I think that the participation of individuals attuned to critical thinking in these institutions is extremely important to, inter alia, enhance the system of checks and balances, which judging by the number of unanimous and supermajority resolutions that our parliament manages to churn out every year, appears to me to be in quite a weak state. Besides, their involvement will, in all likelihood, make the parliamentary race a tad more exciting and thought provoking. This would have a positive impact on the political psyche of the Tibetan masses and even influence them to accord a degree of importance to our Chitue elections.
The next parliamentary elections are four years away but I think it is never too early to zero in on a list of probable candidates not just from the rangzen faction but from across the political spectrum. I personally would like to see the likes of Shingza Rinpoche, Tenzin Tsundue, Tenzin Dorjee (Tendor), Lukar Jam and Bhuchung D Sonam contest the elections in 2016. Their service to our community, of course, needs no legitimation. However, if elected to the parliament, their rational voices will receive the much-needed democratic mandate, and with it the due attention of our policymaking elite, who will find it difficult to casually ignore them like they are doing at the moment.