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Further Musings on the Upcoming Elections

Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010
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Readers must forgive me for nit picking, but the term “kalon-tripa”, literally “the enthroned minister” bothers me. It doesn’t exactly sit well (no pun intended) in a democratic system. Thrones might be okay, these day, for titular sovereigns as the Queen of England or the King of Thailand, and certainly for His Holiness who Tibetans (especially those in Tibet) desperately hope to see one day back at the Potala on the golden throne that the people of the three provinces (led by Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang) offered him on the 4th of July 1957. Everyone else, prime-ministers included, should, even in a figurative sense, not be entitled to anything more than a chair. The term kalon-tripa also has an unsuitable religious association. The highest-ranking geshe in the Gelukpa church is called the Ganden tripa or “the enthroned of Ganden”. Why don’t we just use the clear, concise and standard term “si-lon” which every Tibetan/English or English/Tibetan dictionary defines as “prime-minister”?

But moving on to the discussion on the candidates for the coming prime-ministerial elections, I absolutely want to say how tremendously impressed I am with Gyari Dolma la for stepping up and throwing her hat in our political ring. In any traditional society (even in a not so anti-feminine one as ours) it is always so much more difficult for a woman to take such a public initiative than a man. The fact that Dolma la just did it, without any sort of affirmative action entitlement, the support of the Tibetan Women’s Association or the endorsement of her powerful brother, Gyari Lodi Gyaltsen la, is particularly admirable and praiseworthy.

She has a legal education and has in fact has worked pro bono on a number of occasions to help the Tibetan community in Delhi in the Indian courts. She has also been a long time member of the Tibetan parliament and because of her parliamentary experience and debating skills she has been elected deputy-speaker three times. That her colleagues appear to have consistently valued her talents and energy as a deputy-speaker but never took the logical next step and elevated her to the speaker’s chair, might indicate some residual sexism among the largely male membership of that body. But I am speculating here. Her critics sometimes tend to raise their eyebrows at her emotional outburst. But I for one would actually welcome a leader who showed anger at injustice and tyranny and shed tears when our people were being tortured and executed. I am fed up with the fearful and flaccid official reaction, generally of the lets-not-upset-the-Chinese variety, whenever some response to Chinese atrocities is required.

Former Kalon Tashi Wangdu-la is also highly qualified to be the next prime-minister. I am not too sure he is running. I heard sometime ago that he was not, but I see an ad for him in so I am assuming he is. Besides his higher education in Britain and his many years of government experience Tashi Wangdu-la brings a really strong and uncommon democratic virtue to his resumé. Among the few Tibetan officials I have known he has been very tolerant and genuinely understanding of dissent. When I was a director of the Amnye Machen Institute our newspaper Mangtso was often critical of government policies, but Tashi Wangdu-la (who was kalon then) never let that get in the way of appreciating the many works of the Institute, which he publicly supported and unstintingly praised on numerous occasions. Tashi Wangdu-la may not be an exciting candidate for some people’s tastes, but he has a solid track record. And right now we need leaders who can listen to the ideas and grievances of all the diverse groups in our society, especially those that are at presently marginalized or feel themselves to be – and hopefully bring them back into the national fold.

Another former government official running for the kalon-tripa seat is Lobsang Jinpa-la. His is not a high profile candidacy but he is someone who has many years of hands-on experience in the various departments of the TGIE, lastly in the Private Secretariat of the Dalai Lama. But he has one outstanding quality that requires me to tell this story. In 1976 the Tibetan Youth Congress went through its most critical life-and-death crisis when in the face of TGIE opposition it organized the Coordinating Committee for Tibetan Freedom, with Tibetan communities in Delhi and elsewhere in India and Nepal. After demonstrations, large-scale arrests, a hunger-strike, great deal of lobbying and vigorous PR work, the Coordinating Committee managed to get the new ruling party of India, the Janata Party, to call on the United Nations to take up the issue of Tibet. It also secured the Janata Party’s preliminary recognition of Tibetan independence.

Because of the opposition by the TGIE and His Holiness, all TYC Centrex leaders had to resign from their posts. The TYC went into a dangerous decline and there was some fear of the organization falling apart. But Lobsang Jinpa-la became president in 1977 and in a slow, methodical and quiet manner he went about putting the organization back, piece by piece. And it must be said that he not only succeed in doing that, but made tremendous improvements in TYC’s financial and organizational strength. Would he be able to do the same for TGIE? Why not give him the chance?

I think another candidate, Phurbu Dorjee-la, deserves more recognition than he is getting right now. He is probably the least well-known of all the candidates I am discussing, but he brings a dogged earnestness and untiring civic sense to his candidacy, that is unusual in Tibetan political circles, where big name connections and extravagant rhetoric serves as a regrettable substitute. Phurbu-la has a solid legal resumé, first studying law in India (LLB) and later obtaining his LLM in International Legal Studies from Washington College of Law at Boston. In fact, of all the Kalon Tripa candidates he is the only one who has actually practiced law, which is the definition of “lawyer”. He registered as the first sherpang (legal adjudicator) in the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission in Dharamshala, and if I am not mistaken, he has even practiced for a time at the Indian courts at Lower Dharamshala.

The point I am trying to make here is that Phurbu-la is one of those unassuming people who seem to have no problem starting at the bottom of the ladder and working their way up step by step, on their own steam; not politicking or looking for some sinecure or short-cut. He is a joiner, one of those people who tirelessly attends all Tibetan meetings and participates in every community event. Too many of us fail dismally on that score (I plead guilty also) but I don’t think there can be any doubt that such people are indispensable to our society. Hares may be exciting to watch but the tortoise has definite virtues that we need right now.

In terms of sheer volume of accomplishments Tenzin Namgyal Tethong is hard to beat. He is one of the three founding editors of the first Tibetan exile magazine (1968). Sheja (Knowledge), modelled after the Readers Digest, was very popular with the Tibet exile public in the 60s & 70′s, and is still running (the last time I checked) after all these years. He is one of the four founders of the Tibetan Youth Congress, and also served in the Information Office where he was briefly the editor of the Tibetan Review, He also worked at the Kashag Secretariat and the Education Department. In the latter he put together the first detailed proposal for the creation of a University of Tibet. He probably did that in the early seventies, but I obtained a printed copy later on which I took up with the late Gyatsho Tshering la, director of the Tibetan Library. The two of us re-worked the project and Gyatsho la presented it to His Holiness somewhere around 1983, if I remember correctly. The University of Tibet project, drafted at least a decade before the present Lhasa University was set up in occupied Tibet, shows, in a real sense Tenzin Namgyal la to be someone with vision, and not merely an accomplished bureaucrat.

He was posted as the representative of Dalai Lama in New York, after the American government had discontinued their financial and political support for the Tibetan issue. In spite of this complication, a severe shortage of funds, the absence of a significant Tibetan community (I recall only about 20 or 30 Tibetans in New York in 1975) and dismally few Western supporters, he managed to pull of a few coups. He organized the first ever international tour of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in USA, Europe, South East Asia and Australia in 1975-76. Prior to this no Tibetan organization, including monasteries had toured the West. But more significantly, Tenzin Namgyal-la managed to bring about the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the USA in 1979, a project which had till then been bedeviled by cold-war politics. Those were the days the US was cultivating China against the Soviet Union, and there was none of the official (and public) sympathy for the Tibetan issue, that we received from the mid-eighties onwards.

Tenzin Namgyal la was instrumental in setting up Potala Publication, The Tibet Fund and especially the International Campaign for Tibet in 1988 to lobby for the Tibetan issue in the American government and society. He also played a key role in the formation of several Tibetan initiatives in the U.S. and Canada among which are the U.S. Tibet Committee, the Tibetan Association of New York and New Jersey, and Tibet House – New York. He was also the leader of the second delegation sent by the Dalai Lama to Tibet, in 1980.This delegation of young and Western educated Tibetan officials created a sensation throughout Tibet for their outspokenness and boldness. John Avedon quotes Tenzin Tethong in his book In Exile From the Land of Snows, “The Chinese took one look at us and realized we were not the type of Tibetans they were used to dealing with. We were very outspoken. We challenged every statement they made, pointed out all their lies and mistakes … The fact that we were well educated yet still had faith in our religion and traditional culture was incomprehensible to them. It didn’t fit in with their dogma.”

From 1990 to 1995 he served as a kalon and later kalon-tripa. When he resigned, Mangtso the newspaper of the Amnye Machen Institute that I edited with my two colleagues, published an editorial commenting on his tenure. We had earlier published criticisms and comments on his administration (as we had of other administrations) but in the editorial we noted that though he had served in the cabinet for five years he had not completed his kalon-tripa term and we expressed our disappointment with his departure. We also noted that during his tenure as kalon-tripa the Tibetan government had run up the first deficit in its history. The Tibetan word we used for “deficit” was “chas-lhag” literally “missing-left over”. I admit the choice of the Tibetan word was not a good one, but it was exactly the same one was used by the Tibetan parliament in their Hansard like official publications of its proceedings, to mean “deficit”.

There was some genuine misunderstanding but certain Tibetans, unfortunately took it upon themselves to misinterpret the word “deficit” as meaning to steal or embezzle, and spread rumours to that effect. Two leaders (since passed away) of a Chushigangdruk faction at the time worked particularly hard to spread that rumour as they had earlier been in some trouble with the TGIE for their acceptance of money and the leadership of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission of the Taiwan government. The fact that Mangtso had first uncovered this Taiwan connection and even printed a facsimile of the agreement between the Khampa leaders and the MTAC, provided a double incentive to these people to persist in the misinterpretation – which was repeated again and again in their organization’s news-journal. This same misinterpretation of the word was also used by those hostile to the Amnye Machen Institute as evidence of its journalistic irresponsibility and reason why the Mangtso newspaper and the Amnye Machen Institute had to be shut down.

From information I came across much later it appears that that the deficit had been run-up over a fairly long period of time, covering a number of administrations, but had largely been unnoticed because of faulty accounting practices. When changes were made to accounting practices during Tenzin Tethong’s tenure, the deficits showed up for the first time. Because of this unfortunate incident Tenzin Namgyal la (who is a cousin of mine) and I have not been on speaking terms for a long time.

Considering the many failed and controversial programs of the present administration it might be a morale-booster for Tibetan voters to realize that all the projects that Tenzin Tethong has been involved in setting up: Sheja Magazine, The Tibetan Youth Congress, Potala Publications, Tibet Fund, Tibet House New York, International Campaign for Tibet and others are still carrying on quite successfully (although in the last instance, under Gyari Lodi la, not exactly in the way it was intended). Tibetans will also be reassured to note that when Tenzin Namgyal la resigned his official position as North American representative, and later Kalon Tripa, he transferred all his related projects to his successors and did not hang on to any of these undertakings (many with considerable funding and sinecure prospects) as a part of a “personal retirement plan”, as has unfortunately been the case with a few of our senior officials.

Of course all the candidates I have discussed earlier are Middle Way followers. But as far as I can make they hold that view largely because of their faith in the Dalai Lama, and not because they have an independent or intellectual stake in the Middle Way. So I am unable to discuss their ideas on this fundamental issue as I have done with Lobsang Sangay la, who has expressed his support for the Middle Way in articles and talks.

Tenzin Tethong has staked a somewhat different position for himself with his emphasis on Self-Determination (rangthak-rangchoe) for the Tibetan people as a resolution to the issue of Tibet. He and his supporters even organized a conference on this issue in 2006 in Switzerland. The UN resolution on Tibet (of 1961) that acknowledged the right of Tibetan people to self-determination, appeared to be the driving inspiration for the participants. I strongly feel that any refashioning of our fundamental goal of Rangzen, because it does not appear immediately viable or because is politically inconvenient, is extremely short-sighted and damaging to national unity. Self-determination like negotiations is acceptable, maybe even necessary at certain moments in our struggle, but only as a means to achieving Rangzen, and not as the fundamental political goal in itself. Hence when I attended the Self-Determination conference I expressed my views clearly to the participant and did not sign their resolution.

Nonetheless, since it does not appear that Tenzin Namgyal-la desires to make Tibet a part of China, without at least first getting the consent of the Tibetan people in a national plebiscite supervised by the UN, I think he might provide the Middle Way Policy a restraining influence, and could prevent any more disastrous negotiation trips to Beijing for the time being.

Hence, though I absolutely maintain that a rangzen-based national party must be created to contest future elections, for the impending elections I support Tenzin’s Namgyal-la’s candidacy. I think he will bring in a period of calm rebuilding of our exile government, which will give His Holiness and the Tibetan people time to rethink national policy. During his debates with other candidates Tenzin Namgyal-la was careful not to make extravagant promises and claims, which seems to have disappointed many in the audience. But his restraint reassured those more aware of the truly frightening problems confronting us right now, and also aware there are no quick and fancy solutions to any of them.

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