By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
The Regionalism Game
On 28 January 2016, Central Executive of Ngari Chithun Association announced Penpa Tsering, the current Speaker of the exile parliament, as its candidate for the final lap of 2016 election for Sikyong (Prime Minister). The news itself, of course, is nothing surprising as each association can put up its own candidates, both for members of parliament and the prime minister. However, it is a question how Ngari Association came to the decision and what went on behind the scenes, including involvement of local politicians and regionalism or maybe even electoral pacts. These were nearly absent in the 2011 election.
In the preliminary round Ngari’s prime ministerial candidates were Tashi Wangdu and Lobsang Sangay. Wangdu hasn’t qualified for the final round. But Sangay did. Under normal functioning, Ngari’s candidate should have been Sangay. However, after receiving a letter from office of Utsang Cholkha, which supports Tsering, and a personal request from the Speaker himself requesting Ngari Association to support him, the executive members of Ngari decided to put Tsering’s name as their candidate for Sikyong. Ngari Chithun Association selected as its final candidate someone who wasn’t even a preliminary candidate, which sounds bizarre.
Of the three provinces, Utsang has the largest population in exile. Interestingly, it is estimated that over 60% of Utsang’s population in exile is from Ngari. Hence this association becomes important as an electoral base. There are unconfirmed reports that in exchange for its support, should Penpa Tsering win, Ngari Association demanded two Kalons from Ngari.
The Tibetan Election Commission (EC) created a new rule that ‘officially recognized’ groups can spend as much money as they want for campaign activities of their candidate, and this amount will not be considered as part of Rs.8 lakh allowed for each Sikyong candidate’s campaign expenditures. Since Utsang Province, Ngari Association and the National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT) endorse Penpa Tsering, Tsering has unrestricted funds for his campaign activities giving him great advantage over his sole rival Lobsang Sangay. Sangay, the incumbent prime minister, is endorsed only by NDPT.
Some may call this a shrewd political move by Tsering. It is, if one divorces it from principle and morality that Tsering often talks about during his campaign tours. He has capitalized on the EC’s lame and impractical rule that gives undue freedom to some ‘officially recognized’ associations. Much has already been written about it, including in our last editorial.
Office of U-tsang Province’s letter to Ngari Association requesting it to endorse Tsering seems unscrupulous. Ngari is a part of U-tsang Province, and Utsang endorses Tsering, therefore the argument goes so must Ngari. Many years ago Ngari demanded to be recognized as a separate province and did not want to remain under U-tsang. Today it has its own Head Office in Dharamsala and regional branches in exile Tibetan communities. Hence recent U-tsang Cholkha’s official letter to Ngari is a tacit formal recognition of Ngari Chithun Tsogpa on par with U-tsang. This opens old sores of regionalism that plagued exile politics decades earlier when Ngari wanted to be recognised as a separate province. Furthermore, the letter was sent not with approval or consensus from the people of U-tsang but under the direction of the current Head of U-tsang Cholkhas, who is a staunch supporter of Tsering.
Is Penpa Tsering’s willingness to exploit regionalism a sign of how he would act as Sikyong? If he governs the way he campaigns, this is not a good sign.
Talks Minus Vision
Both Sikyong candidates have travelled to most of the countries where there are sizable Tibetan exile communities. They continue to hop from one place to another in India making promises, talking about their achievements and trying to prove who is more dedicated to His Holiness. Each public talk is hours long and much of the time is spend on making clarifications on allegations and rumours that supporters of each candidate have flooded the social media with, most prominently in WeChat (which has its main servers in Shanghai, and is highly unsafe to use).
What about the candidates’ future vision for Tibet? Sadly not much. Each time this important question is raised, Sangay talks about his achievements and regurgitates some tired words such as innovation, unity and people’s aspiration. Tsering’s bilingual election manifesto basically makes the same promises that Sangay has made or claims to have fulfilled.
On the most important issue of solving the Sino-Tibetan conflict, Tsering says that we should strive to improve Sino-Tibetan friendship groups and “enhance the roles of officials” of CTA posted overseas to enable the Chinese people “to gain an appreciation of the problem of Tibet and the Tibetan people thereby gain their sympathy for Tibet and the Tibetan people.” This is wishful thinking. It is about as well-thought-out a plan as Donald Trump’s idea to “win” trade negotiations through sheer force of will (Trump’s own, of course).
Worrisome too is the fact that Tsering’s booklet claims that self-immolation in Tibet started in 2010 – “142 Tibetans who have over the period of 2010 till now carried out self-immolations in Tibet…” What can we realistically expect from such officials? This is made worse by fanatic supporters of the candidates engaging in pointless, baseless, senseless and inane mudslinging on social media.
On the issue of unity within the Tibetan exile community, the more demagogic campaign has been run by Penpa Tsering. He has not hesitated to pander to the basest nature of ultra-conservatives in our society, for example by his shameful attacks on a rival candidate as being “anti-Dalai Lama”. Once this card is played, there is little hope for civil discourse. Tsering knew that, and regardless he was willing to go there for the sake of votes. Again, we are reminded of Donald Trump’s divisive and damaging tactics.
Politicians often cannot be expected to speak the truth or to perform their service without prodding by people and the media. As responsible people and particularly as people struggling for freedom, we Tibetans must ask hard questions and demand honest answers. We simply cannot afford to allow candidates to come and speak at their will and at times even to slight those who ask questions.
So far the Sikyong candidates have enjoyed their campaign trips with grand welcomes and sing-a-long send offs. The speaking sessions are long (lasting up to four to five hours) followed by questions that invariably are skewed towards either candidate’s personal affairs or controversies that have very little to do with the greater future vision or Tibet’s struggle for freedom.
If only …
It appears that both the candidates focus not on principles – based on which they must conduct and function – but on easy to catch slogans and I-am-better-than-him claims that they broadcast at each public forum. The incumbent Sikyong says he has over four years of experience and hence he is better suited for the top office, whereas Penpa Tsering, in his manifesto, states “I will be firm and clear in my policy and stand. I will be fair in carrying out my duties without any kind of bias…” etc. etc.
Young Tibetans are setting themselves on fire for Tibet’s freedom struggle as we have seen in the last few days. On 29 February 16-year-old Dorjee Tsering set himself on fire in northern India and on the same day 18-year-old Kalsang Wangdu self-immolated in occupied Tibet. Both demanded independence for Tibet. Under such circumstances we expect the two candidates to talk about their concrete plans and strategic actions displaying their leadership qualities. However, disappointingly their super-hectic campaign schedules are filled with public talks that revolve around a mortgage payment, a drinking problem, a supposed murder, the Kalachakra cancellation, Sung-dang-lay-mo etc. This is getting nauseating.
If only our candidates had a little more vision, integrity, and strategy. If only the current EC had not gotten away with arbitrarily killing any chance for the people to elect fresh leadership. If only the candidates had more principled strategic plans for Tibet’s struggle for freedom. If only they crisscrossed India and beyond during their official tours as they are doing now for their election campaign. If only they would provide simple answers to simple questions without resorting to glorifying His Holiness, who absolutely does not need lionization by politicians pandering for votes. If only they refrained from mudslinging and throwing accusations at each other as if each were entirely clean. If only they stood a little taller and saw a little farther. If only …