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Waiting for Mangtso II
The Missing Piece of Our Democracy Puzzle

Thursday, Oct 8, 2009
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Popular legend has it that Louis XV of France declared “après moi, le deluge”, in a possible prediction of the French Revolution and the end of the French monarchy. The remark can be translated as “after me, the flood,” or if you want things spelled out “after my reign, France will be plunged into death, destruction and chaos.”

His Holiness, of course, cannot be accused of saying anything so crassly vainglorious, but a similar pronouncement about (not by) the Dalai Lama has taken on the stature of a doomsday mantra in exile society: “kyapgon rimpoche shing la phebna tsangma tsarpa ray” or “after the precious protector passes away everything will be finished.” I am sure that many who voice this are sincere but simpleminded devotees, unaware of Tibet’s long history. But other such doomsayers are nothing but cynical courtiers and politicians trying to outdo each other in displays of abject loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

Some of these politicians have been known to use this fear mantra as a starting point for pitching the Middle Way policy and for perpetual negotiations with China. “We must get a deal with China now when His Holiness is alive, no matter how bad a deal it is. After His Holiness passes away everything will be finished and we will get nothing.” Ironically, these negativists, whether they realize it or not, are in lock-step agreement with China’s leaders who are on record as declaring that after the death of this present Dalai Lama the whole Tibet issue would be finished.

I discussed this in a piece “After the Dalai Lama”, for Newsweek in 2002, so I won’t go into it again. I brought it up this time to highlight the extreme personality basis of Tibetan politics. This predominance of personality is not just limited to matters relating to the Dalai Lama but also to secondary players on our political stage; even on the issue of the Kalon Tripa elections which are coming up in 2011. It is clearly visible in the way discussions on the subject are proceeding. They are almost exclusively about personalities. Is it going to be Gyari Rimpoche, or Lobsang Sangye or Lobsang Nyendrak, or Tempa Tsering? There is no debate on what national policies these people actually advocate, or at least favour. There has been even less talk on what the duties and responsibilities of the Kalon Tripa are, and on actually how much power he has constitutionally to initiate or influence policies.

I am not saying that personalities don’t matter in politics. I am all for finding an honest and competent person to be the prime minister of our exile government. But first of all we have to put in place that one indispensable (but missing) institution in our incomplete democratic set-up, the lack of which makes the role of our current Kalon Tripa resemble that of a chanzoe (manager) of a monastery or labrang, and not the prime minister of a democratic nation.

That missing institution is the party system. As I pointed out in my previous posting, what we have is officially described as a “partyless” system, but is in practice a backroom one-party dominance by a religious-loyalist-right wing coalition. The necessity of a party system (which could be a two-party or multi- party) in our governance is not an earth-shattering discovery on my part. Readers have already posted a number of comments on my blog and on calling for the introduction of political parties in exile politics. When I was in Dharamshala this summer and the conversation (inevitably) drifted to the Kalon Tripa business, a surprisingly large number of people told me the Kalon Tripa elections were pointless unless we had them in the framework of a party system.

Samdong Rimpoche was questioned on the need for political parties, in the panel discussion in Dharamshala on June 21 (organized by Gu Chu Sum, TWA and SFT) that I mentioned in my previous posting. He did not sound too enthusiastic in his reply. Rimpoche reiterated the official line about our system being a “partyless” one, and then attempted to put up a justification for that system. He informed the audience that “partyless democracy” was now being discussed everywhere (absolutely not true), and mentioned that Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and some other Indian political leaders had declared partyless democracy to be a superior system and called for its adoption in independent India. Rimpoche is right about JP’s idealistic vision, but Rimpoche neglected to mention that when JP led the broad movement against Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule and defeated the Congress party at the polls in 1977, he did not even offer a tentative proposal to make India a partyless democracy, but instead presided over the victory of the Janata party which become the next government of India.

It might be mentioned that JP started his political life as a Marxist and took inspiration from the great Indian Communist leader M.N. Roy, who also advocated a partyless democracy. The idea of a partyless or one-party democracy (which pretty much comes to the same thing) is a logical outcome of Marxist elitist thinking, and of course leads to states like the PRC, the Soviet Union, North Korea and so on, where the privileged members of the one party or the partyless party hold unchecked power in perpetuity.

A present day Indian political thinker and electoral reform activist, (coincidently) a Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan, has written of the efforts by JP and others to promote partyless democracy as “unalloyed idealism”. In a three-part essay, “Civil Society and Political Parties”, he writes, “it is unimaginable to think of a liberal democratic society without influential political parties. There is no genuine democracy in which parties do not play a dominant and decisive role in both elections and governance. The well-meaning but somewhat naive attempts of idealists to promote partyless democracy have floundered in all countries, including in India.” [1]

More than merely floundering, this “partyless” model has been used by autocrats and dictators to subvert democracy and the electoral system. In my previous essay I discussed Nepal’s “Partyless Panchayat” democracy, but advocates of such a system should note that they are keeping ideological company not just with royalty as King Mahendra, but with crude dictators like Pakistan’s General Ayub Khan, who launched his “partyless democracy” in 1965. In the eighties, the sinister Zia-Ul-Haq (who resembled the English comic actor Terry Thomas) maintained that a Western-style democracy was unsuitable for Pakistan, and eventually held “party-less” elections in February 1985. Even America’s great ally in the war on terror, General Musharraf, had a go at partyless elections after sending the top leadership of all major parties into exile.

Some Tibetans argue that we have so many problems within our exile political system, that the lack of political parties is only a marginal bit of trouble. For instance our election system, based exclusively on provincial and sectarian lines, contributes significantly to the disunity and conflict in our society. Then there is the dismal lack of public interest and participation in the national elections – especially by the young. According to official figures only about twenty-two percent of Tibetans in exile above the voting age of 18, voted in the last Kalon Tripa elections. There is also the contention that Tibetan society lacks people with leadership qualities and we should therefore accept whoever His Holiness appoints or approves. Another dilemma, and a sore point with educated lay people, is the matter of two votes for monks, and the un-secular nature of our government. Finally there is the very worrisome and critical matter of His Holiness’s age (he is seventy-four) and the fact that he will not be with us for very long. Isn’t it more important that we address these questions before bothering about political parties?

I feel that the introduction of political parties in our national elections for the exile parliament and the prime-minister, is the “wedge” solution to nearly all of our other political problems. By that I mean the introduction of political parties will act as the thin end of the wedge that will force open barriers that at present block not only solutions to, but even discussion of, our many political predicaments and stumbling blocks.

Under the present system none of our fundamental political problems are honestly or seriously discussed by members of parliament or officials, much less confronted and worked out. I am not saying these are dishonest or unintelligent people, but the system is such that in order for them to gain and retain their position, they have to actively resist change, prop up the status quo, and faithfully echo the official line. Merely changing the members of parliament or the Kalon Tripa in 2011 will accomplish nothing.

The much needed changes can only come from outside, through a new national party committed to bringing about the necessary reforms. Of course, this party has to gain a clear popular mandate and win the Kalon Tripa elections and a majority of the seats in parliament. This is of course the ideal scenario. We might end up with a coalition of two or three parties, which would not be as desirable an outcome. But it would still be workable, and definitely a vast and fundamental improvement on the present state of affairs.

If we look at the transformation of former authoritarian states as South Korea and Taiwan to liberal democracies, we can clearly see that the entry of a new outside political party or opposition force, into a previously exclusive and autocratic system, was the turning point for the advent of democracy in that nation.

When a capable Kalon Tripa backed by a progressive political party (with a majority in parliament) should take power, we could, without straining ourselves, envision a bill being introduced into parliament to change our present provincial and sectarian election system. Ditto for the matter of two votes for monks and the question of secular government. Perhaps a national referendum or referenda might be held on those issues, since they are fundamental constitutional questions.

My suggestion for an alternative system (which also has been put forward by others) would be a bicameral parliament with two chambers. The upper house, with representatives of the three provinces and five religious sects would be symbolic of a future independent and democratic Tibet. It would have a limited “review” and advisory role. The members of the lower house would be elected on a proportional basis from every community and center in the exile world, and through a one-person-one-vote electoral system.

The problem of voter apathy might be resolved to some extent by the political parties themselves. They will, of course, have to campaign and create interest among the electorate if there are to be competitive, much less victorious. They will, furthermore, like parties elsewhere, have to enroll and register new voters supportive of their platform. At the moment absolutely nothing is being done by the exile government; only the usual blaming and scolding by officials about how Tibetan youth have no patriotism or simshug etc.

The allegation about our society not having anyone with leadership qualities is also a pathetic canard that can easily be refuted. Perhaps people with such attributes aren’t conspicuous in the administration, because the very requirements of leadership: curiosity, initiative, boldness, courage, intellectual rigor and independent thinking are actively discouraged in such circles. But once young Tibetans escape from the confines of mainstream exile society they appear to be capable of great self-motivation and enterprise. In my travels and talks I regularly come across young Tibetans, men and especially women, who appear confident, professional, outspoken, progressive and challengingly intelligent. If you were demanding the ideal leadership resume, you could perhaps point to little little gaps here and there, but nothing, I unreservedly maintain, that a little time and experience would not fill in and smooth over nicely. Such meetings and encounters always leave me with a reassuring feeling about our future, which is not a normal experience for me in Tibetan politics.

Even the flood of new refugees (sarjor) from Tibet, some of whom though possibly traumatized in one way or the other by their experiences, are at least not burdened with the culture of subservience that the exile education system (for all its impressive achievements) has imposed on our children. The educated newcomers provide a fresh pool of potential leaders with the crucial emotional proximity to Tibet (which many of us earlier exiles have lost in some ways) and with the invaluable knowledge and (welcome) distrust of China’s leadership.

However critical I am of His Holiness’s policies, I am convinced (and I have said this before) that the institution of the Dalai Lama is absolutely necessary, not only for the continued functioning of our exile government but even more as a living symbol of our national struggle. Yet I believe that the survival of this sacred institution is dangerously uncertain, especially when we consider the decline of our religious institutions and the progressive weakening of the exile government. The only way to turn this around is through the democratization of our exile-government and the political empowering of our exile society – starting with the introduction of political parties. I wrote an article “The Jewel In The Ballot Box” for, quite a few years ago where I discussed these questions. I will reissue it on this website very soon.

Which leads us to the most important question of how our Rangzen Struggle relates to the democratization of our exile society. I wrote in Rangzen: The Case For Independent Tibet that: “To the oppressed people of Tibet, democracy represents not only a goal of eventual freedom from Chinese tyranny but also the best hope for a truly just and equitable government of their own choice. As such, the promise of a true democratic Tibet will be an effective repudiation of Chinese propaganda claims that Tibetan independence would mean a reversion to theocratic feudalism. Hence democracy becomes a potent weapon for the cause and its genuine and effective implementation in our exile-society an absolute necessity for the credibility of the Freedom Struggle.”

Yet, many national liberation and independence struggles have been successfully conducted by organizations and societies not necessarily democratic. A case could be made that in such struggles the priorities are discipline, focus, and obedience to a single commander rather than parliamentary debates and democracy. On the other hand, freedom struggles, even violent ones, have been waged successfully by essentially democratic movements as in the case of America, India, and Israel. These movements also avoided the subsequent chaos, internecine violence, oppression and mass murder of its citizens, which invariably followed the “liberation” of Communist China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and other totalitarian and authoritarian countries.

The idea of strong leadership, discipline and obedience is an attractive one to many young activists. For a time I was an enthusiastic follower of Gyalo Thondup. GT (as we called him) undeniably made a major contribution to our struggle in the fifties and sixties. Yet his capriciousness, absence of the democratic spirit, and a “my way or the highway” operating philosophy, created much of the political confusion and stagnation we are mired in now. Tibetans need to mature and look to themselves rather than strong-men (miwang), high-born lamas (kyebhu-dhampa), scions of the yabshi, or “a-man-on-a-white-horse” (as Americans might put it), to save them, or at least take care of their political problems.

Right now the Struggle is effectively emasculated since all organizations and groups worldwide, working and struggling for Tibetan freedom, lack any political power, and have absolutely no input in the decision making process of the exile-government. The Tibetan Youth Congress, Students For A Free Tibet and many other Rangzen-based groups are doing tremendous work but their operating budgets are minuscule and they find it increasingly difficult to raise support and money for their campaigns. On the other hand, a completely self-serving agency like the International Campaign For Tibet (ICT), with fancy offices (more suited to a corporation) and generous salaries for senior functionaries, essentially vacuums up whatever funds there are available for the Tibetan cause, and ensures that no one else gets even close to it.

Rangzen activists are fighting Communist China not just with one hand tied behind their backs (as the expression goes) but more precisely, with both hands and feet hog-tied behind them – and their mouths effectively gagged and taped shut.

Much of the international impact of the tremendous revolutionary events in Tibet last year was simply neutralized by the self-serving comments of China’s foreign propagandists and “barefoot” experts, and squandered away by the confusing and insanely self-destructive statements and actions originating from Dharmshala, and retailed in the west by the International Campaign for Tibet and others. Those who believe in Rangzen must reclaim the debate on Tibet so that the actual aspirations of the people inside Tibet are clearly represented to the world.

It is quite possible, the way Communist China is intensifying its repressive ethnocidal policies in Tibet, that another major, even critical, uprising could take place in Tibet in the foreseeable future. Because of this year’s conflict in East Turkestan, there is a possibility that events in Tibet could overflow into Central Asia, and perhaps even into China proper, where income gaps are ever widening, corruption is pandemic, and the once illusory hope of reform, rule of law, possibly even eventual democratization, has been irrevocably lost.

The only possibility for such a far-reaching, once-in-a lifetime strategic opportunity to be seized and acted on, not frittered away like last year, would be if a strong national party, committed to Rangzen and democracy, were to win the Kalon-Tripa and parliamentary elections and, with the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, legitimately takes over the government-in-exile.


Jayaprakash Narayan “Civil society and Political parties” India Together Mon 28 Sep 2009. (Dr. Narayan is founder and coordinator at Lok Satta, the people’s movement for governance and electoral reforms.)

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