By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
The Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woser has written a sharp critique touching on the future course of Tibetan democracy. The context of her article is the controversy sparked by Woser’s criticism of the new Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay, for repeatedly omitting Tapey’s 2009 self-immolation in official lists of such self-immolations, despite repeated criticism for doing so.
(It remains unclear whether Sangay’s initial November 2011 omission was a simple mistake or a policy decision, because it was never explained, but it was a position that he stuck with for several months. Starting around March 2012, however, the Tibetan government-in-exile began including Tapey in such lists, apparently without comment or explanation).
The Critique by Woser
Woser starts out her article describing the fallacy that “unity” requires not criticizing elected leaders:
Her next sentence is chilling, comparing this demand for Tibetan “unity” with the reasoning of an authoritarian system:
She rebuts this nascent authoritarianism, arguing that criticism is inherent to democracy:
Woser returns to the specific case of Tibetan democracy, arguing that citizens’ free criticism of leaders is essential to help avoid mistakes:
Woser’s corollary to the right of citizens to criticize is the need for the elected leadership to listen. Without naming any specific Tibetan leader, Woser issues a scathing critique of the “arrogan[ce]” of any leader who implies that constructive criticism damages “unity”:
Woser closes by pointing out that the exiled Tibetan leadership should recognize that, since they were not chosen in an election by all 6 million Tibetans, their legitimacy as Tibet’s representatives must be built on “close exchange and communication” with the Tibetan people inside Tibet. She suggests that these leaders “show their modesty, benevolence and active engagement”, specifically by “providing Tibetans living in Tibet with real guidance and useful methods and by performing an effective role as leaders”.
Lobsang Sangay’s Dissertation
Any Tibetan voter will recall that “unity” was the first part of Lobsang Sangay’s three-part campaign slogan (“unity, innovation, self-reliance”). In his inaugural speech on August 8, 2011, he went further, stating that “Unity is paramount and it simply cannot be compromised; it is the bedrock of our movement.”
Interestingly, Sangay’s 2004 S.J.D. dissertation examined the tension between “unity” and democracy in exile, so passionately spoken to by Woser’s article. In Sangay’s dissertation, he came down in favor of democracy as opposed to unity. His dissertation emphatically embraced the position that the Tibetan freedom movement needs “diversity” and “free speech”, over what Sangay called “unity” and “speaking with one voice”.
Sangay’s dissertation, entitled Democracy in Distress: Is Exile Policy a Remedy?: A Case Study of Tibet’s Government in Exile -- available from the Harvard Law Library -- examines the “inherent paradox between the goal and function of governments-in-exile as a freedom movement and as a democratization process”. (This quote and the following ones are from the section entitled The Debate: Can There be Democracy in Exile?) Sangay notes:
Sangay then asks: “Are democracy and the national freedom movement mutually exclusive and can they be compatible?” Sangay recounts the opinions of numerous individuals he interviewed, including Tashi Wangdi, Sonam Topgyal, Namgyal Wangdu, and Chajoe Ngawang Tenpa. He concludes that democracy, rather than forced “unity”, should triumph:
The principled views in Sangay's 2004 dissertation are curiously inconsistent with his more recent statements about unity being “paramount”. It is unclear whether his views on the tension between free speech and "unity" have changed, now that such free speech is directed against him and his administration. Certainly anyone is free to change their mind, although in that case an explanation would be useful. However, to the degree that Woser's description of attacks is accurate, her experience is incompatible with the progressive ideals described in Sangay's dissertation.
We believe that Woser’s recent article and Sangay’s S.J.D. dissertation are entirely correct in their embrace of political plurality, free speech, and the essential need for elected leaders to listen to the citizenry. We believe that democracy benefits from – and in fact depends on – a vibrant political discourse in which
citizens are free to criticize their elected representatives, and representatives listen.
We also believe that, from a practical perspective, free criticism helps prevent leaders from making mistakes (as Woser pointed out), because no politician is infallible. Even for a politician’s self-interest, magnanimously accepting free criticism shows that he or she is secure, confident, and democratic.
Any attempt to stifle democratic discourse in the name of “unity” is therefore both profoundly anti-democratic as well as misguided on a practical level. Conversely, a vibrant political debate by an informed citizenry, such as Sangay endorsed in his 2004 dissertation, will “strengthen and sustain the government in exile.” It is the unfortunate use of "unity"-based attacks, rather than the exercise of free democratic speech, that is the true culprit in harming Tibetan unity. It is the responsibility of all Tibetans – including the Kalon Tripa and every other citizen – to strenuously disavow such tactics.