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Opening of the Political Eye
Tibet’s Long Search for Democracy

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Friday, Nov 30, 1990
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Lu Xun, China’s greatest modern writer, occasionally had doubts about trying to open the eyes of the Chinese people to the reality of their situation. In a conversation with the editor of New Youth he put it:

Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. Since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel any of the pains of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake up a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?

Similar doubts have assailed me whenever I have attempted to write anything critical about Tibetan society or politics. I feel the doubts even more in writing today’s article about events which have raised the hopes of many in the future of a democratic Tibetan government, as I cannot share their hopes entirely. Yet to remain silent is to accept despair, to accept that our government can never be reformed and that our society can never be regenerated. Lu Xun, in spite of his doubts, kept on producing those short, sharp, critical essays (zawen) that were his stock-in-trade until his death in 1936. So, perhaps the least I can do is finish this piece.

On hearing of the unprecedented election of Kashag (cabinet) ministers this May, I, like many other Tibetans who have long worried about the steady degeneration of the Tibetan government into muddle, defeatism and reaction, was initially elated to realise that some democratic reforms, however modest, had, at long last, come to Dharamshala. Yet the initial euphoria could not survive the depressing realisation that although, for the last thirty years the Tibetan government-in-exile had been based in the world’s largest democracy, very little had been done to learn about it, or to promote any of its ideals and institutions within Tibetan society in exile.

Moreover, it does not say very much for the sincerity of our commitment to democratic ideals (which we have been espousing since the beginning of our exile in 1959) that we have only now begun to consider the actual election of cabinet ministers, some thirty years later. This is well after most Communist countries in Eastern Europe have become fully democratised and even Outer Mongolia, to which we considered ourselves to be a sort of cultural mentor, has had free elections. It is not as if we have not had the time and opportunity to bring about steady systematic reforms in our government and society in exile.

Our situation in India provided us with the ideal opportunity to experiment with democracy, since we did not have to worry about the basic problems that most governments face in running an actual country. The government of India was taking care of the defence of the area in which we lived, its public order, transport, electricity, communications, education, and the thousand and one other problems that usually frustrate the development of fledgling democracies. We had our problems, of course, but they were far from insurmountable.

Yet we did nothing, and only in May this year, absolutely out of the blue; in circumstances which I gather could even generously be described only as impromptu, were the first elections (of a kind) ever held for a Tibetan cabinet. Such hurried improvisations do not really inspire one with confidence in the long-term stability of the institution.

One other aspect of the new reforms caused me not only concern, but acute bewilderment as well. Revision of our present draft constitution of 1963 is certainly necessary, but I do not see the logic of entrusting this job to a committee headed by a reactionary ex-minister, Juchen Thupten Namgyal, who does not possess even primary school knowledge of modern political thought or jurisprudence, and who was the main inspiration in the previous Cabinet for the censorship of books. As bizarre appointments go, this is not quite in the class of Caligula’s appointment of his horse Incitatus as consul, but it is close.

Still, one mustn’t carp. At least some changes have come about, though only time will reveal how fundamental and permanent they are. Nonetheless, it would be beneficial to our understanding of the present state of affairs to review the brief history of democracy in Tibetan society in exile, and to reflect on the events that have shaped our political culture to this day.

After the revolt in 1959, it was driven home to any Tibetan with even a minimal appreciation of public affairs, that his old political system was clearly incapable of sustaining itself in a modern, and, what is more relevant, hostile world. For those who escaped into exile in 1959, it was abundantly clear that we had to learn from India and the West — one of the most important lessons being democracy. The Dalai Lama himself declared, “The very thought of democracy, though I couldn’t put it in words, was with me in Tibet.”

Just about one year after his arrival in India, in the summer of 1960, His Holiness called for the first free elections for the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies. A year later, he announced the outline of a constitution which was formally promulgated in March 1963. But there were limitations. Though popularly elected, the Assembly had no real legislative function, and since it was not influential in the appointment or removal of ministers of the Dalai Lama’s cabinet, its role was essentially symbolic. Such gelded assemblies also existed in monarchist Nepal and Bhutan, and could in no way be said to be organs of representative governments. The constitution too had its limits. Executive power rested solely with the Dalai Lama and the Cabinet that he chose. Moreover, the powers of the elected legislature were severally circumscribed. But a provision for the impeachment of the Dalai Lama by the National Assembly presumably gave the document some bite. The constitution itself was considered to be a draft and only to be finalised and implemented when Tibet was independent. So no clear democratic principles were propounded nor a democratic framework constructed for the actual running of the government-in-exile.

Yet, however inadequate it was in practice, the inspiration of democracy and reform was a genuine one for many Tibetans in the first decade of their existence in exile. The feeling was pervasive that our old institutions had failed us, and that it was vital to learn from the outside world. Though people’s faith in Buddhism had not diminished, it was felt that the ultra-conservatism of the church and the apathy of the aristocracy had been largely responsible for the disaster that had befallen Tibet. The Dalai Lama himself acknowledged how much Buddhism in Tibet had become mired in arid rituals and ceremonies, and set about trying to put his house in order. Symbolic of his intent was the design of the new temple in Dharamshala, which was simple to the point of starkness. A number of incarnate Lamas also disrobed to become laymen.

A premium was put on modern education, especially scientific. There was something of the spirit of turn-of-the-century China, with its “Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science”. One Tibetan school started a children’s parliament and permitted its elected representatives some responsibility in the administration of the school. Magazines and newspapers were published. Sheja, or “Knowledge”, an informative and educational magazine, became popular with the Tibetan reading public, even though it was only mimeographed.

In spite of the enthusiasm, there was a pitiful dearth of knowledge about democracy, or, for that matter, any political system other than the traditional. The little that Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, had learned politically, that could be termed modern, had come from the Communist Chinese. So right from the beginning there was an unfortunate distortion in our appreciation of such concepts as egalitarianism, freedom, free speech, reform and so on.

In Dharamshala “Behaviour Investigation” (kunchue dhakter) meetings were held for government officials, in the manner of the self-criticism sessions in Communist China. Children at the Mussoorie Tibetan school were addressed in the honorifics formerly reserved for aristocratic children. But where it mattered, in the accountability of government, or the safeguarding of the rights of individuals, there was little change.

Yet, out of this muddle, one of the most important events in the development of Tibetan democracy took place. The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), since its inception in 1970, has had an uneven history, but alone among all the various organisations in the Tibetan world, including even the government-in-exile, it is the only one that has been consistently democratic, and sometimes progressive. Its role in Tibetan politics was in the beginning a commanding one, and it saw itself as a kind of loyal opposition to the government. But the Tibetan government did not want any kind of opposition, loyal or otherwise, especially not one that was more aware than the government of the modern world, and loud in its criticism to boot.

The Cabinet gradually worked at undermining the TYC, and was for a time very successful. It managed to get compliant people elected into the leadership of the Congress. The Security Office of the Tibetan government once even attempted to dislodge a strong presidential candidate it did not like by offering money and support to one of his opponents. It did not help matters when a succession of youth leaders used the TYC as a springboard to a career in Tibetan government service, rather than working to transform the TYC into the kind of revolutionary organisation that would uncompromisingly struggle for its goal of an independent and democratic Tibet.

Gradually the novelty of modernism wore thin in Dharamshala. Everyone was unhappy with the elected representatives of the people, who invariably gave the impression that they were either opportunistic or stupid, sometimes both. It was difficult for even intelligent people to see that it was not the individuals but the system, with its built-in resistance to change or independent thinking, that was at fault. There was a sense of disillusionment with democracy before it had even been tried, or for that matter, even studied properly.

The arrival of Western travellers to Dharamshala did not help matters. They were, in the words of V. S. Naipaul, “The hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own, all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.” (The Return of Eva Peron). Democracy was, in their vocabulary, a “rip-off”; science: nuclear weapons and agent orange. It was the age of Aquarius and the One-Dimensional Man, and the fashionable ennui with nearly every development in the West that had till then been considered progressive.

The influence of such people on Tibetan society was essentially obscurantist. They patronized everything traditional; the more magical, superstitious and primitive, the better. The forces of reaction in Tibetan society in exile were given a new lease of life. I even know of an incarnate Lama who, having disrobed and married in the earlier novelty of modernism, now resuming his clerical activities because they were profitable with foreigners. Religious fundamentalism began to supersede any idea of learning from the West.

Great effort was expended at translating many hundreds of Tibetan religious texts into English and other languages. But, as far as I am aware, not a single book from the West, aside from the Bible, has been translated into Tibetan. A large number of Dharma centres were also set up to teach Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners (a particularly grand one is being constructed at the moment near Dharamshala by the Tibetan government). For many years now a number of people, including myself, have called for the establishment of a modern university in Dharamshala for Tibetans (to be founded and run on liberal humanist principles like Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia) but nothing has happened.

I am on no account trying to put the entire blame for Tibetan political regression on our Western friends, but they did substantially contribute to it. Usually the presence of such tourists and visitors have only a marginal effect on the society they are passing through, especially in such large countries as India. But Tibetan society in exile was very small, poor, and because of the tremendous dislocation it had experienced, extremely impressionable. Through their constant disdain of Western rationalism, democracy and science, Western travellers effectively discouraged Tibetan curiosity about the West, and encouraged Tibetans to revert to their old and fatal way of dealing with reality by burying their heads in the sands of magic, ritual, and superstition.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his recent visionary message to the Russian people, printed in Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Communist Youth League daily, complained: “The Iron Curtain protected our country against all that the West has that is good: civic life without fetters, respect of the person, diversity of individual activities.” In Tibetan society, too the purdah of religious fundamentalism has for some time now discouraged us from seeking “all that the West has that is good”, and instead directed our vision backwards.

What little we did manage to pick up was, more often than not, the superficial and vulgar aspects of Western civilization as exemplified in the popularity of Rambo and Michael Jackson among many young Tibetans, even monks. Solzhenitsyn also mentions such “manure” seeping through the cracks in the Iron Curtain, “the manure of a straying and fallen mass culture and deeply vulgar fashions”.

The decline in democracy was accompanied by a period of fascination with Communism. The Dalai Lama held forth on a number of occasions on the similarity between Mahayana Buddhism and Marxism. The formation of the first Communist Party of Tibet was actively encouraged and sponsored by the Dalai Lama. Lamas travelled to the Soviet Union and praised the achievements of the Communist Party. On a trip to Ulan Bator, one Tibetan geshe even denounced the unfairness of the old system in Mongolia, where monks and lamas had in the past lived in palatial monasteries while the common people lived in yurts. [1]

The strictly hierarchical nature of Communist society, the idea of a ruling élite formed of a specially initiated group of people, must certainly have appealed to many in a church which increasingly saw Western democracy as go-shug mae-pa, “without head or tail”, i.e. disorderly and irreverent. It was especially hard for Tibetans to keep a clear ideological head at a time when everywhere in the world intellectuals and artists were embracing the vision of “revolutionary” societies, and even Westerners involved with Tibetans, mostly in Dharma circles, considered Maoist China to be a utopian, or at least a progressive, state. In fact, it is only in fairly recent times, with the Chinese leaders themselves acknowledging the excesses of their Maoist past, that such Westerners have involved themselves in any political activity on behalf of Tibet.

In the eighties things got worse in Tibetan exile society with organisations drawn along regional and factional lines gaining power and influence at the expense of genuine national organisations like the Tibetan Youth Congress. These regional and factional organisations were basically reactionary, and their influence on society unhealthy and divisive. There was practically no one with any modern education in their leadership, which tended to be made up of former monks, petty businessmen, mahjong players and the like.

In the early eighties a Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) was created, largely on His Holiness’s insistence. An earlier women’s organisation had fallen into decline and disbanded in the late sixties. But this fresh opportunity to create something forward-looking and liberating for Tibetan women was not taken up by the leaders of the Women’s Association, who instead concerned themselves with such issues as the maintenance of traditional hair styles among Tibetan women.

As readers of Tibetan Review will know, association members also took to throwing rocks or assaulting Tibetans who met with their disapproval. The initial suspicion among Tibetan intellectuals that the TWA had been created by the establishment essentially as a loyalist pressure-group began to be confirmed.

The atmosphere of Tibetan politics became murky and unpleasant during these years, commencing with the political murder of the Amdowa leader, Gungthang Tsultrim (who opposed the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup) and the mysterious death of Mr. Gyalpo, husband of the Dalai Lama’s sister. Known drug smugglers and gangster types were welcomed into the political scene by the Tibetan government, which wanted to use them against its critics. With the addition of some new arrivals from Tibet, who supplied the Chinese-style rabble-rousing and denunciation techniques, a period of unease and intimidation commenced in Dharamshala.

For a controversial letter in its journal, Rangzen, the Tibetan Youth Congress was denounced for having Chinese spies in its leadership. Any statement that in any way could be construed to be against the Dalai Lama was pounced upon, its author denounced, and, if physically available, violently assaulted. Intellectuals were the prime target. A well-organized and extensive official hate-mail campaign was launched against a Tibetan academic in Japan, who was alleged to have criticized the Dalai Lama in one of his books. Hundreds of death-threats were sent to him and letters to the Japanese government and to his university to expel him.

For a couple of my plays I was assaulted by a large Dharamshala mob (with the inevitable contingent from the TWA) and subjected to a “struggle”, complete with experienced denunciators and the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution. All these excessive displays of devotion to the Dalai Lama, of hysterical patriotism and religious fanaticism were actively promoted by the Tibetan government and eagerly taken up by the lumpen element in Tibetan society. Dr. Johnson’s observation about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel, could, in our case, certainly be extended to areas of religious devotion and leader worship.

The Cabinet took to censoring books, banning a number of important academic works on Tibetan history. Magazines like Sheja began to print nothing but hagiography, propaganda and official speeches (in their entirety). Even within government circles, criticism was not tolerated, and fault-finding officials were dealt with in a number of ways, one of the more lenient being a transfer to a remote and undesirable posting.

Then, in 1981, after a long squabble about election procedures, elections were suspended altogether, and it was decided to have the Dalai Lama select Deputies to the Assembly through a kind of divinatory process called yeshe emche; the word “emche” meaning to sort out and “yeshe” meaning either gnosis or primordial awareness, according to the dictionary.

I spoke out against this as being not only politically retrogressive, but also damaging to the Dalai Lama’s credibility and prestige. It didn’t work. The next batch of Deputies proved no better than their predecessors. In fact, some of them broke existing Dharamshala records for arrogance and stupidity. But worse was to follow. In 1987 a hitch developed in this novel system when everyone selected by the Dalai Lama for a new Assembly declined to serve. Tibetan democracy hit a depressingly all-time low.

Old-fashioned elections were called once again for the People’s Assembly. Few Tibetans of any outstanding quality were now willing to stand for the elections. The lack of any real power in the Assembly to begin with, the years of the Cabinet cynically using the Assembly as an instrument for suppressing criticism and popular sentiment, and the selection of Deputies by the Dalai Lama, had completely eroded whatever little dignity and hope had been reposed in the Assembly at its inception.

Last year saw the political situation in Dharamshala degenerate to a depth never quite plumbed before. No doubt readers of the Tibetan Review will remember the “Taiwan Affair” that rocked Tibetan society. I will not go into it as it is a depressing tale, and marginal to the point I am trying to make. But the magnitude of the scandal, and the resultant loss of public confidence in the government probably prodded the Dalai Lama to take the steps he has taken: to suddenly calling for the elections of ministers this year, and fresh elections for the Assembly.

These are undoubtedly steps in the right direction. Tibetans, for all their pious and old-fashioned ways, are, on the whole, an individualistic lot, and the only way I can see to extricate everyone from the prevailing mood of cynicism and exhaustion is by genuinely and actively involving the people in the process of government. I have long felt that this would not only be a remedy for present ills within the system, but also a solution to the endemic problem of maintaining the loyalty of the people to the government, in the dangerously uncertain interregnum between the reign of one dalai lama and the next.

I am no trained political thinker, but for what they’re worth, let me offer a few thoughts as my small contribution to the furtherance of the Dalai Lama’s programme, and prepare the grounds for further discussion.

First of all, we must realise that it is not enough just to use democracy as a kind of emergency treatment for a political ailment, with the treatment being discontinued once the patient shows any sign of recovery. Democracy must become a way of life with us. There must be no turning back, even when democratic values come into conflict with religion, as they have done in the past, and will continue to do so on future occasions. On the whole, Buddhism, with its basis in egalitarianism, rationality, tolerance, and spirit of enquiry, may seem admirably suited to the temper of democracy, but the Tibetan version of it with its many magical elements, its political ideology of Choe-sig ni-den or “Religion and Politics in One”, and its insistence on unquestioning obedience to the guru figure, certainly is not.

Therefore, we must have an absolute commitment by our leaders to democratic and humanist principles. Without that, the mere mechanical process of elections ensures nothing. Pakistan does, strictly speaking, now have free elections, but whether Benazir Bhutto or her opponents come into power, changes little in that country. Pakistani politics are basically feudal, elections being a concession to modernity whereby the Pakistani people are permitted to exchange one set of feudal land-owning chiefs for another, under the aegis of the generals and the mullahs.

For elections to have any meaning, for them to produce genuine representatives of the people and not the usual contingent of knaves and fools (at least in our case) they must be conducted in an atmosphere not only free from repression, but one charged with debate. People must be allowed full vent to express their opinions, hear those of others, criticise and discuss freely. Right at the moment this is not possible, for statements of any originality or boldness could quite easily be construed as seditious or against the Dalai Lama, and their authors vilified.

The principles of “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” no doubt serve to protect the integrity of representative government, but democracy can also be undermined when people are cowed and have no confidence in the future. One could not really call the Tibetans a “cowed” people, but because of their extraordinary devotion to the Dalai Lama, they easily lose heart when they feel they may cause him offence, even through no fault of their own. It is this weakness that the government has used very effectively till now to suppress dissent.

Therefore it is imperative that His Holiness ensure the freedom of speech of his subjects, if his experiment with democracy is to succeed. He must unequivocally and publicly announce that not only are Tibetans free to criticise his government but the Dalai Lama himself as well. He must also actively discourage and disown all vigilante groups professing to act in his name. Criticism must not only be tolerated, but welcomed as vital, fulfilling the same function as pain in the body, calling attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. Debate must be encouraged at all levels of society, and also the publication of independent newspapers, journals, and books to inform and instruct the public.

If you discount the occasional scurrilous poster and the turgid and often mendacious government proclamations, all that the Tibetan public has in the way of a news service is rumour and gossip. More often than not, this tends to be wildly inaccurate as well as vindictive and pernicious. It is difficult for anyone who comes from a country with a free press (with all its drawbacks) to realise how deleterious it is to the social fabric not to have some kind of trustworthy source of regular and reliable news.

Vital, too, is the translation of literature of all kinds from the West, which as I mentioned earlier, has never been attempted, except for the limited contribution of Christian missionaries, and strangely enough, in Tibet itself, in spite of Communist Chinese control. Since Tibetan society in exile is too small to sustain any kind of publishing venture, other than religious, the Dalai Lama and the government must provide funding for such undertakings, without seeking to control them.

Another important factor in laying the foundation of democracy and developing the future leadership of Tibet is the creation of a University of Tibet, as mentioned earlier. This is not the place to go into details about the project; suffice to say that one of its spin-offs would be the presence of hundreds of highly argumentative and hopefully irreverent college students in Dharamshala, contributing generously to the surging volume of unrestrained debate and discussion in restaurants, tea-shops, chang-shops, homes and auditoriums, once the Dalai Lama has opened the floodgates of free speech.

It will certainly be noisy, probably even unsettling. At least it will be exciting. A lot of nonsense will be talked about and written, of course, but a great deal of positive ideas will also certainly be generated. Most important of all, it will be a process of learning for the people; and who knows what beneficial, inspiring and even profound contributions might come out of it all in the end? Whatever the drawbacks, and I am sure the die-hards and better-notters will see all too many, it will definitely be a vast improvement on the present political climate; something that can be described as sullen silence broken occasionally by sycophantic gibbering.

Tibetan Review

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Reference notes

1. A Tibetan overhearing the comment asked the geshe where else but in yurts did he expect the people to live since they were all nomads.

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