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Lobsang Sangay: The Man and the Moment!

posted Mar 6, 2011, 6:18 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 7, 2011, 5:55 AM ]

By Tashi Phuntsok, Toronto, Canada (Mphil in International Law, JNU)


This article is not intended to be political campaign rhetoric in favour of Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s candidacy, but it’s more of a personal observation (socio-political) on the democracy in exile, significance of Kalon Tripa election in society, and Dr. Lobsang Sangay la’s likely place in this historic period of our democratic renaissance. It’s not just about the man (LS) himself, but rather it’s about the ‘Man and the Moment’ based on the narrative of the Change.

As it is quite apparent that whoever comes to the top in this election race has a very crucial and pivotal role to play in leading our Tibetan national struggle. The reasons are largely threefold:  
  1. Advanced age of HH Dalai Lama – The advanced age and semi-retired nature of the role of HH Dalai Lama in the day to day political functioning of the government. Even though his permanent retirement from the political leadership role (his personal aspiration) looks highly unlikely taking into account - recent Tibetan parliamentary (ATPD) appeal in this matter; permanent constitutional role of the institution of the Dalai Lama; and most importantly, emotional connection (spiritual, cultural and personal) between the Tibetan people and their beloved leader. Nevertheless what looks certain in such a scenario (his other commitments being promotion of human values and religious harmony, and his initiative of the concept of Secular ethics, besides his advanced age) is the diminution of the Dalai Lama’s role in the actual affairs of the state (imaginary Tibetan state) which leaves him primarily a figure head role. Thus in such a case, it gives a huge space, role and prominence to the next most constitutionally powerful figure in the Tibetan society, namely, popularly elected Kalon tripa.
  2. Growth of Democracy – The full credit for the growth and development of democratic tradition in exile is given single-handedly to the vision of the Dalai Lama. After coming into exile, the other most crucial step which His Holiness took, besides modern education, was to lay down the foundation of modern democratic system in exile. The Tibetan Charter (constitution) was amended several times (1960, 1991, and 2001) in order to give more and more democratic rights and powers to the common people of Tibet. Thus the story of growth of democracy in exile cannot be written without taking into account its root and genesis in the vision of the Dalai Lama. Today, this vision has grown to such an extent that it starts questioning (if not undermining) the very role of the visionary. According to recent controversy in the society, there emerged a question: Which one is more important, Institution of Dalai Lama or Democracy?  Or in other words, the Vision or the Visionary? But such an understanding of the issue is, I believe, too simplistic and untenable. Theoretically, the road to true modern democracy (Tibetan polity) is impaired by the current Chosig-Sungdrel system (combination of religion and politics) which is deeply rooted in the constitution, represented at the highest level by the institution of Dalai Lama. The true modern democratic system of Secularism (Cholug-Rimey) was rejected in the constituent assembly debate in 1990. But in reality, strong legitimacy of the institution of the Dalai Lama (based upon reasons which are historical, religious and cultural) among majority of Tibetans render the very institution inevitable. Nevertheless true modern democracy (based on the principle of secularism and popular sovereignty) shall be the ultimate aim once Tibet regains its freedom from the Chinese occupation. The office of Kalon Tripa, which truly represents popular sovereignty, becomes central element in this development.
  3. Resolution of Tibet Issue – It remains the central issue upon which our national struggle is based. Historically and legally, Tibet’s case of independence (de facto), before Chinese occupation, remains quite strong. Since 1959, our government in exile (CTA) had tried everything it could to resolve the issue based on the policy of complete Independence. Tibet’s case was raised in various international forums including United Nations General Assembly (early 1960s) where numbers of resolutions were passed, in one of which Tibetan people’s right to self-determination was strongly affirmed. Our case was presented to the world based on the principle of Justice and Idealism. But neither international community (UN) nor major powers came to the rescue of Tibet. It became apparent that the international politics didn’t thrive on these just principles, but rather it’s dictated by the needs of real politik. And besides, the case of Tibet, by that time, had already become fait accompli (in the eyes of international community). Nevertheless a new direction was made during the reign of Deng Xiaoping (who offered his willingness to resolve the issue within the framework of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet) in 1979 and subsequently formal contacts were established between the two governments. The early 1980s saw a positive environment for negotiations, where numbers of Tibetan exile delegations were allowed to visit Tibet, for the first time since 1959 uprising, on fact finding missions. The leadership at the highest level in Beijing was directly taking note of the direction of each step, and Tibetan exile government, on the other hand, was forming a new policy (based on the new reality) which would eventually leave out Independence (sovereignty) as the key demand. Thus in 1988 in the European parliament at Strasbourg, HH Dalai Lama proclaimed his new policy based on the genuine autonomy for Tibet. By the late 1980s, major protests and uprisings shook Tibet, which resulted in the declaration of martial law. And with this, ended the possibility of any formal dialogues and talks between the two governments. Since then, the policy of Middle Way which accepts Tibet within the framework of the Constitution of the PRC, but seeks out a strong and genuine right to self-government (autonomy) for all the Tibetan nationalities within China.  This policy was unanimously affirmed by the ATPD (Tibetan parliament) in 1997 and furthered by nine inconclusive rounds of dialogues (talks) between them from 2002 to 2010. In Retrospective, twenty years of this inconclusive policy didn’t bring any concrete result and thus leaves many of us much frustrated and disillusioned. Even though November 2008 emergency Tibetan representatives meeting in Dharamsala affirmed His Holiness’ policy of Genuine Autonomy, but the voice of Rangzen (Independence) is echoed, especially among youth, at much louder and stronger pace. There were other alternative policies being thrown in, such as ‘Self-determination’, Hong Kong style ‘One country Two systems’ (SAR) etc. Nevertheless the debate is strongly dominated by the ‘Rangzen vs. Middle Way’ conundrum. And thus, it seems that we have reached a cross roads in our national struggle where we first need to unite ourselves and then firmly upheld a single policy (whether new or old) and pursue to its rightful conclusion. Thus at such a critical time, a strong leader in the office of Kalon Tripa is an essential requirement, who can unite all the sentiments and political believes.

The Man and the Moment! 

As we all know that this upcoming Kalon Tripa election will be a landmark event in Tibetan democratic history, which shall be remembered in the times to come. It has raised the eyebrows of almost entire Tibetan citizens (young and old) and had been a constant subject of discussion, interest and enthusiasm. Lobsang Sangay, the Harvard research fellow, has clearly emerged as a leading candidate for the post and won the preliminary votes by a landslide margin. This article does not argue why LS ‘should’ win, but rather, it’s about why he ‘will’ win this election. It is because this narrative is not just about the Man himself, but rather it is, in the end, about the Man and the Moment.

There are at least three momentous factors to be noted, namely:  

    (1) Inconclusive and failed (arguably) policy of the Middle Way - Today it is a fact that the policy of the Middle Way has proved to be inconclusive and has not managed to bring any concrete political results to the Tibetan issue. Despite our full sincerity and willingness (faithfully) to resolve the issue within the constraints of Chinese constitution, it became sufficiently clear that the Chinese government didn’t have sincere political will to resolve the Tibet problem. Therefore many quarters from our community, young and old, feels extremely frustrated, angry and disillusioned with the whole dialogue process. Especially it is so because we reached a political dead end after two decades of the policy which eventually compromised (rejected) our key demand of ‘Rangzen’. As a result of it, many people today seem to strive for a change or a new direction, and in such a period there is a high possibility of attributing this freshness to a new face (leader) that has no direct connection or link with the previous failed administrations. In this scenario, Tenzin Namgyal Tethong la and Tashi Wangdu la had spent major parts of their government service in the fulfillment of this failed policy. Thus their faces are very much known and linked to the policy of Middle way. Lobsang Sangay la, merely being an outsider (politically), seems to have the upper hand in this regard.  

    (2) 2008 Tibet uprising and its impact on the Tibetan youth – The revolution of 2008 in Tibet has revived and raised the consciousness of ‘Political Tibet’ in the minds of a generation, which has grown up in the nineties and had no direct connection or experience of the independent Tibet. This generation, unlike their forefathers, has no direct experience of the upheavals of 1950s and perhaps too young to remember the uprisings (in Tibet) of the late 1980s. Thus most of us had been far too removed from the reality of ‘Political Tibet’ and remained primarily cultural Tibetans. Nevertheless the events of the 2008 shook the consciousness of young Tibetans who for the first time directly witnessed the historical events in Tibet and had instantly found the connection, will and determination to strive for the cause. This important generational development which has sustained and reinvigorated the flame of Tibetan national struggle must be acknowledged. In this light, LS (first Tibetan to be accorded doctorate in Law) had been a role model for many younger generations much before he became the candidate. His thinking, messages and approach has found a perfect match and resonance in the minds of the awakened youth. In a way he seems to represent this important generational shift. 

    (3) The Rise of the Rest - For most of the common Tibetans, whether it was in old independent Tibet or in exile, politics and governance are matters primarily a prerogative of the elite class (old aristocratic, old chieftains and religious elites – rich and powerful). Here, LS coming from a very humble background and rose to his stature purely on the basis of merit has found his acceptance and resonance in the unheard voices of Aam aadmi. So in a way, he comes to represent Change not just from the point of generational shift, but also from the point of view of class distinction.  

    LS: The Man – Perhaps his personal life and background has also played an important role in his upsurge. He was sometimes condemned for his inexperience, and to which he responded by putting his faith in the virtue of knowledge. Thus began the whole never ending saga of ‘Experience vs. Knowledge’ debate stalemate. Nevertheless his humble background, his proven intellectual credential with the help of Fulbright scholarship just like any other common Tibetan students, non-sectarian and non-regional in outlook, an outsider to the established Tibetan political elite class, relatively young  and somewhat comes to represent ‘Change’ in this distressful period in our politics with the failure of Sino-Tibetan negotiations led by outgoing kashag. He had inspired many young Tibetans to take interest in Tibet issue in general and Tibetan politics in particular through his lectures and talks, and thus had been a role model for many younger generations much before his candidature. His exemplary, trend setting and sincere effort to catch the nerves of various Tibetan settlements and its people are inspiring and put the ball back in the court of common Tibetan citizens. Therefore all these development and reasons are so apparent that it had overshadowed his personal lack of experience in the government. Nevertheless even Obama gets elected not much upon his past experiences, but broadly upon what he comes to represent in the modern US democratic polity. His credentials come second to it.  

In the end, it is clear that the wind of change is blowing in exile democracy and LS has emerged at a right moment as an agent of that change. Whoever has not got wind of it, will be crushed under it. Thus rests the narrative of Change.  





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