The New York Times on Tibetan elections
Mudslinging Trumps the ‘Middle Way’ in Tibetan Exiles’ Election
By GEETA ANAND | MARCH 23, 2016
DHARAMSALA, India — It is often said that the lower the stakes, the more vicious the politics. And so it might be said of the just-concluded campaign for political leader of the Tibetan government in exile, which, given the exalted status of the Dalai Lama, was a bit like voting for the vice president to a sitting president.
The final round in the second election for a leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, as the exiled Tibetan government is known, concluded last weekend, though the results will not be known until April. Still, the proceedings showed just how hard it is to build a democracy under the leadership of a man who, though 80 years old, semiretired and dedicated to democratic principles, is revered as a Godlike figure by Tibetans.
Largely absent from the discussion in the campaign was the question of how to win freedom for the nearly six million Tibetans living in China, an issue that has consumed the exiled Tibetan community for almost six decades. It is viewed as disrespectful to the man the Tibetans call His Holiness to question the “middle way” strategy that he set in motion nearly 30 years ago, in which he softened his demand for independence, instead seeking self-governance within the Chinese government. It has been an effort to draw China into a dialogue that by most accounts has failed.
Instead, the election devolved into mudslinging and sycophancy. The hot topics were the audacity of the current political leader, Lobsang Sangay, who is running for re-election, to have his portrait displayed in the Washington office, and the drinking habits of his opponent, Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the exiled parliament.
The campaigns “have been tearing each other apart, harping on petty, trivial issues,” said Dhardon Sharling, 34, a member of the parliament, “when all we should be talking about is how we will resolve Tibetan’s issues, how we’ll take the Sino-Tibetan dialogue forward.”
Mr. Sangay, 48, was on the defensive from the start of his re-election campaign, forced to answer at every stop why he had put his own portrait on the wall of the group’s new Washington office instead of a picture of the Dalai Lama. It did him little good, it seemed, to explain that his portrait had been hung in the basement, and that there were 13 other pictures of the Dalai Lama in the Washington office.
The current Dalai Lama, who is part of the lineage of spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people that dates back to the 14th century, has been championing the cause of democracy for his people since he fled to India in 1959 after China claimed Tibet and began a campaign to repress its religion and culture. (He has refrained from commenting in this campaign, and few people know how closely he was following the dialogue on the elections. His secretaries did not respond to requests for interviews.)
He set up his residence and an exiled government outside of Dharamsala, in northern India. And as he promoted the cause of freedom for the people he had left behind, he gradually relinquished his own political authority. An exiled parliament was set up, a cabinet, and finally, in 2011, the job of an elected political leader, known as the sikyong, a role similar to prime minister.
Even as he gave up his political role, the Dalai Lama retained his position as the spiritual and cultural leader of the Tibetan people. A democratic election for a people without a country is a complicated affair, with voting in more than 40 locations in India, and dozens more around the globe. Registered voters number about 88,000, fewer than in most mayoral elections in the United States.
Mr. Sangay, in an interview in his Dharamsala office, where a life-size picture of the Dalai Lama hangs behind his desk, lamented the endless controversy over the portraits in Washington. “It’s the number one question I’m asked, the number one issue I clarify,” Mr. Sangay said.
In an interview, Mr. Tsering, 50, criticized Mr. Sangay for allowing his own portrait to be displayed, saying his opponent had been “brought up in a very Western style,” in which “image is very important.”
Mr. Tsering blamed his opponent’s supporters for circulating a picture of him at a book party years ago, drinking with friends. “They made it seem like I am always drinking, creating the impression I have a problem,” he said. Someone demanded at a campaign event that he pledge to give up alcohol if elected political leader, which he refused to do, he said, because he does not have a drinking problem.
Even as the free-for-all ensued in the election, a 16-year-old killed himself in early March by settling himself on fire in Dehradun, India, an eight-hour drive from Dharamsala, a reminder of the deep frustration in the exiled community over the lack of progress in winning any measure of freedom in Tibet. One hundred and forty-four Tibetans have killed themselves in this way during the past 20 years.
Despite the absence of their candidates in the election final, there is a vocal minority of voters who refuse to support the middle way strategy, favoring a fight for full independence.
Lukar Jam Atsok, 44, a writer who was imprisoned in China before escaping into India years ago, ran in the preliminary contest for political leader, arguing that the Dalai Lama could be considered a traitor for having given up full independence for Tibet in his negotiations with the Chinese.
“If a person does not believe in independence, whether he’s my father or the Dalai Lama, I do not agree with that person,” he said in Tibetan in an interview. “I am not saying the Dalai Lama is a traitor, but if you consider the political history, then he is one.”
But far from promoting a dialogue, Mr. Atsok’s comments prompted his public condemnation from Mr. Sangay and Mr. Tsering, and he was removed from the final vote. The election commission announced the day after the preliminary ballot that only the top two candidates would remain in the final election, eliminating Mr. Atsok. Sonam Choephel Shosur, the chief election commissioner, said that the only concern was to make the final a two-way runoff, and that the commission had decided on that before the votes were counted in the preliminary round.
Ms. Sharling, the lawmaker, said regardless of the motivation, the election commission’s behavior “made the election smell foul.” She said that Mr. Atsok had gone too far in his criticism of the Dalai Lama, but that pro-independence voices needed to be heard.
“This is binary thinking and is wrong,” said Ms. Sharling. “I fight against it and I get labeled anti-Dalai Lama.”
The New York Times recently published this article providing succinct coverage of the ongoing Tibetan elections. Unlike the Reuters special report, the New York Times coverage was accurate and balanced, using easily identifiable sources of information to highlight aspects where the Tibetan electoral process has fallen short.
The way in which the campaigns have been carried out reflects the petty nature of those involved. Instead of focusing on real issues which affect the Tibetan people, for example education and the preservation of Tibetan culture, the campaigns degenerated into exercises of character assassination.
One would expect that an event of such importance for the Tibetan people would be conducted with some decorum. If however an event of such importance can degenerate into mud-slinging and name-calling, where none of the pertinent issues were discussed, do we need to wonder how day-to-day proceedings in the Tibetan parliament are conducted? Do we need to question why the Tibetan leadership have failed to achieve any of their socio-political objectives over the last 60 years, and have failed to secure the welfare of their people?
Supporters of the Tibetan leadership may argue that democracy is new to Tibetan society, hence the struggle to implement it among their people. If we examine this statement from another angle however, it can also be said that the current state of Tibetan politics reflects an ongoing pattern of corruption and scandal that was brought over from Tibet. After all, pre-1959 Tibet was hardly a model of democracy and there are reports aplenty of a feudally-led, medievally-minded system of punishment and justice.
Hence in the 21st century, the Tibetan leadership are still unable to implement any markers of democracy – for example, elections – without incorporating some aspect of corruption. The chief election commissioner, Sonam Choephel Shosur’s statement is evidence for this – he stated that his only concern is to ensure a two-way runoff, where his real concern should actually be to ensure free and fair elections.
The New York Times article was also a platform for those who have been silenced by the Tibetan leadership. The article highlighted what is probably the most damaging accusation that can be directed against any Tibetan – anything that does not match the views of the establishment is labelled as anti-Dalai Lama, and therefore deemed evil, disloyal and unfit to succeed or lead.
The most prominent example of this is the case of Lukar Jam Atsok who had run his campaign on a platform of full independence for Tibet. This was in stark contrast to the other candidates, who made it known they supported His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. After the preliminary ballots, Lukar Jam was removed from the election race, having already been publically condemned by the other candidates as being anti-Dalai Lama.
Similarly, Dhardon Sharling, an incumbent member of parliament, spoke about her experience in speaking up against the election commission’s behaviour. She too noted that she had been labelled as anti-Dalai Lama for daring to speak up against their rulings. Even the incumbent Sikyong himself, Lobsang Sangay, experienced this when it was intimated he is anti-Dalai Lama for not hanging His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s portrait in his Washington office.
In countries with a more mature understanding of democracy, this portrait topic would be a non-issue, being so small, insignificant and irrelevant to the welfare of the people. So the fact Lobsang Sangay even had to defend himself on this point, saying he had 13 other portraits hanging elsewhere in the office, is ridiculous. It speaks for the lack of maturity in the Tibetan leadership’s understanding of democratic principles, that such a petty topic could be used by the candidates to distract their people from the lack of discussion of the real issues. It was nothing more than a manipulation of the Tibetan people’s loyalty for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, exploiting this loyalty against them so they would be distracted from asking tough questions like “What are you actually going to do for us and our wellbeing?”
Ms Sharling’s experience also suggests a potentially growing internal conflict among members of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. Ms Sharling’s criticism is not the first by an incumbent member of parliament. Another recently-former member of parliament, Kalon Dicki Chhoyang, recently resigned from her position as Minister of Information and International Relations so that she could freely express her dissatisfaction and opinions with the way the elections were being conducted. Ms Chhoyang’s feelings towards the elections, her passion for the Tibetan people’s future and her lack of faith in the leadership were all so strong that she felt she had to RESIGN from the leadership in order to speak freely!
For anyone to feel obliged quit so that their views can be taken seriously, and so their views can make a difference, is not a good reflection of the state of the Tibetan leadership.
Given this understanding of the state of the Tibetan leadership, it is clear to see that there is little future for the Tibetan people in exile after His Holiness the Dalai Lama enters clear light. Broad-minded, well-spoken candidates like Ms Chhoyang do not want to get involved with the establishment and do not want to run for the leadership position; those who are broad-minded, well-spoken and DO want to become a leader like Lukar Jam are ostracised and rudely denied the opportunity.
So what is in it for Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering then, since other intelligent and broad-thinking individuals are opting out of the race? Why do they cling so hard to the potential to become leader of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile? One cannot help but consider the possibility of benefits and kick-backs from being in the Sikyong position, benefits which Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering apparently value more dearly than other incumbent members of the Tibetan leadership-in-exile.
It would certainly explain why these two fight so hard to retain and / or acquire the Sikyong position, to the point of employing tactics like arbitrary rules designed to exclude other candidates from running. Their motivation is not for the welfare of Tibet and her people. Unlike Ms Chhoyang who quit the leadership to make an impact with her intelligent, incisive speeches to HELP the Tibetan people to decide, Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering continue to fight tooth and nail for the position, strangely without ever uttering a word about what they will do for the Tibetan community!
As the New York Times points out, their manifestos and what they will do for the Tibetan community has been sidelined by petty issues like Lobsang Sangay’s lack of Dalai Lama portraits and Penpa Tsering’s supposed alcoholism. This is also how the welfare of the Tibetan community has been sidelined by the Tibetan leadership for the last 60 years. After all, if there were no perks to the position, the focus would have been the Tibetan people’s welfare. And had their welfare (and not the perks) been the focus, the Tibetan communities throughout India today would not continue to languish after 60 years with poor literacy rates, employment opportunities, and medical and social welfare.
Supporters of the Tibetan leadership should keep in mind that all of this is the result of their investment in the leadership for the last 60 years. Is it wise to continue investing in a regime that has made such little progress in their political and social goals, and a leadership that continues to malign, suppress and ostracise their own people who are deemed to be against the status quo like Lukar Jam, Ms Sharling and Shugden practitioners? If the Tibetan leadership continues to approach divergent views with hostility (much less apprehension and suspicion), they will soon find their supporters decreasing in number, virility and influence.
For more interesting information:
- The Dorje Shugden category on my blog
- China officially supports Dorje Shugden
- Reuters Anti-Dorje Shugden Report Backfires
- Reuters Investigation on Dorje Shugden Inaccurate?
- Dalai Lama, China & Dorje Shugden
- Dorje Shugden: My side of the story (多杰雄登：我这方面的说法)
- To Sum It Up
- Dorje Shugden people
- This happened in the USA
- I can speak up now about Shugden
- Mr. Lukar Jam
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