Lobsang Sangay, new Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, an irritant for Beijing
by Vijay Kranti
The election of a Harvard scholar as the new Kalon Tripa marks the separation of politics from religion, a decision taken by the Dalai Lama who will only remain as spiritual leader. Beijing’s claim that it wants to protect “Tibetan traditions” is a ludicrous attempt to protect itself from democracy. Here is an essay by Vijay Kranti.
Dharamsala (AsiaNews) – Lobsang Sangay, 43, is the new Tibetan prime minister-in-exile. He will replace Samdhong Rinpoche as Kalon Tripa. The Election Commission made the announcement today after Sangay won the 20 March elections. A Harvard professor for the past 15 years, Lobsang Sangay is the third democratically elected Tibetan prime minister. Almost 50 per cent of the 89,339 eligible voters in 30 countries cast their ballot. Sangay won 55 per cent of the vote.

His democratic election rubs against the grain of China’s dictatorship. It is even more important since for the first time the Tibetan government will now exercise all political power following the Dalai Lama’s decision to renounce his political role and remain only as spiritual leader.

In a message released after the announcement of his victory, Lobsang Sangay thanked the voters. “I urge every Tibetan and friends of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] to his rightful place in the Potala Palace,” he said.

In order to understand the significance of the Dalai Lama’s decision to give up his political role and the consequences this can have for relations with China, we publish an analysis* by Indian journalist Vijay Kranti.

Dalai Lama has always loved to introduce and present himself as a ‘humble monk’. To those who are not blessed to respect, or even appreciate humility as a human virtue, this statement might present this Tibetan monk statesman as a ‘weak’ or a ‘timid’ person who is always available for shaking and shoving. Ironically, this has been more true with the Chinese Communist leadership who have been dealing with Dalai Lama since he was the teenager ruler of the country that eventually became their colony. As history has proved in due course, China would have gained far more had its leaders understood this man better and accepted him at his face value. Instead of writing a thesis to prove this point I would rather prefer only to wonder why the rulers of a country that is armed with one of the most powerful armies of the modern world, enormous economic resources and 1.3 billion people should present themselves so miserably irritated in front of a stateless man who leads a microscopic bunch of 150,000 poor refugees? The worst irony of the situation is that they go into comical fits even when this ‘humble monk’ decides to give up all those limited powers that he has been drawing as the leader of these handful people (see also “Dalai Lama gives up political role,” in AsiaNews, 10 March 2011).

On his latest proposal for discontinuation of the traditional selection process of Dalai Lama through reincarnation Beijing leaders could not go beyond presenting themselves as a bunch of jokers by choosing to give him a lecture on promoting and protecting ‘Tibetan traditions’ and ‘religious rituals’. They have humiliatingly exposed their vulnerability vis-à-vis a group of 47 elected representatives of this refugee community by opposing Dalai Lama’s decision to abdicate his political powers to the elected Prime Minister and 46 members of Parliament. Beijing used Pema Choeling, a leading Tibetan collaborator and Chinese appointed governor of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to contest and denounce the proposal of Dalai Lama. "We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism," said Pema to the Western journalists in Beijing. He also reminded the Dalai Lama that "Tibetan Buddhism has a history of more than 1,000 years, and the reincarnation institutions of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama have been carried on for several hundred years." By adding further that “I am afraid it is not up to anyone whether to abolish the reincarnation institution or not," Pema only reflected Beijing’s irritation and shock on destabilizing its plans to settle the Tibetan issue by appointing its own handpicked candidate as the next Dalai Lama when the present aging Dalai Lama passes away.

Interestingly this statement from Dalai Lama came at a time when the election process for the new ‘Kalon Tripa’ (read ‘Prime Minister’) of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the ‘Chitue’ (Parliament) was in its concluding stage. The 5-year term of the new Prime Minister and the 15th Parliament is scheduled to start in June this year.

In Tibetan tradition, the supreme spiritual and temporal authorities of the country vest with the Dalai Lama whose title shifts after his death to his reincarnation. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (75) is the 14th in an over 500 year old chain of succession. He announced his above decisions in his annual 10th March statement at Dharamsala, which marked the 56th anniversary of failed Tibetan uprising against the eight-year-old Chinese rule over Tibet and his subsequent flight to exile in India in 1959.

Desperate act?

To outsiders who have watched Tibetan scene from a distance or just as a passing reference in fast moving political developments vis-à-vis China, this decision of Dalai Lama may appear to be an abrupt one or an expression of his desperation emanating from his failure to deal with his Chinese counterparts. But to those who have been watching his political moves since his early exile days with microscopic interest, the Dalai Lama’s 10th March announcement is the logical culmination of a process which he started 50 years ago with the aim of establishing an effective and a long lasting alternative machinery to keep the Tibetan struggle alive far beyond his personal life span. That should explain the Chinese irritation and Beijing’s near comic stance of standing for promoting and protecting ‘Tibetan traditions’ and ‘religious rituals’.

A democratic Dalai Lama

For a quick review, one of the first decisions, which the exiled religious ruler of Tibet took following his exile from Chinese occupied Tibet, was to replace the traditional theocratic system with a democratic one. In 1963, he presented a draft constitution, which called for democratic governance through a Parliamentary system, and was based on UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He started with a handpicked Parliament and a cabinet of ministers who were nominated by him. Soon it graduated into an elected parliament that would choose its own PM.

In 1991, he redrafted the constitution to enhance the status of elected Parliament to one as the supreme power centre of Tibetan system. The new constitution, more known as the ‘Charter for future Tibet’, empowered the Parliament even to dethrone the Dalai Lama from his supreme executive position if it was convinced that the Dalai Lama was ‘failing in his national duties’.

In 2001, the Dalai Lama further democratized the system by introducing a directly elected Prime Minister who was answerable to the elected Parliament. He limited his own role only to a titular executive head of the Tibetan government. And now after a gap of another decade he has asked the Parliament to further revise the constitution in which the Dalai Lama will not even hold any titular political powers.

New amendments will leave any future Dalai Lama only as a supreme ‘religious’ leader, devoid of his traditional political and executive powers. Even on this front, he has called upon the Tibetan community to do away with the traditional system of selecting a new Dalai Lama through reincarnation and replace it with one that passes on the title to the next person who is acknowledged as a capable and learned scholar and leader.

A masterstroke

If applied, the new proposals of the Dalai Lama hold many political and social advantages that are very vital for the microscopic Tibetan exile community comprising of just 150,000 individuals facing an adversary with 1.3 billion population. It has the potential of snatching away most of political initiatives from the hands of Beijing leaders who are eagerly waiting for this Dalai Lama to pass away so that they can present their own handpicked incarnate puppet baby as the ‘real’ Dalai Lama.

On the home front, the new ‘Government in Exile’, empowered will all the powers so far vested in the Dalai Lama, will have a better status in the international arena. The new system holds promises of providing the Tibetans with a popular institutionalized leadership that has much longer shelf life than a living individual human being viz. the Dalai Lama as a person. The real question remains how capable and sincere the next set of elected representatives proves itself in coming years?

A safety valve?

The new system is also going to save the Tibetan political system from the fatal dangers of inertia and confusion, which come with a nearly 20-year long leadership void that follows the death of a Dalai Lama. His executive powers are transferred to his incarnate only after his attainment of adulthood. All Tibetan governments in past 500 years have suffered from this political ‘bardo’ (a spiritual term in the Tibetan system that refers to the transitional period between a person’s death and his/her next birth). There have been many cases in Tibetan history when the political and executive powers of Dalai Lama were manipulated and misused by some members of the caretaker committee of Regents during this transition period. In some cases, the baby Dalai Lamas died under questionable circumstances.

Interestingly, despite all these gains for the exile community, the new system is not going to take away the advantages that the Dalai Lama has already accumulated in past years, thanks to his sheen and charisma among the international community. Rather, his new role may give him freedom from most of the liabilities that have been weighing down on him due to his earlier political role as the executive head of a ‘government-in-exile’. His new status may come far handier to those governments and heads of state across the globe who have been keen to receive the Dalai Lama but have been reluctant to do so out of fear of antagonizing Beijing.

New role for the Dalai Lama

Turning down the requests of the Tibetan ‘Kashag’ (the Cabinet of ministers) and the Parliament to reconsider his current proposal, the Dalai Lama has already assured his supporters that his proposal does not mean that he is ‘retiring’ from his public life and that he is going to remain publicly active and available to the Tibetan cause. He will also be available to the Tibetan exile government and Tibetan people in an ‘advisory’ role. To allay fears expressed by his people and his international supporters about his future role in the Tibetan struggle he has also made it clear that he is not going to stop traveling abroad or talking about Tibet.

This new development has shocked and embarrassed the Chinese leaders who have been consistently trying to belittle the Tibetan issue merely as one limited to the person of present Dalai Lama. In their campaigns, aimed at downplaying his religious and political role, they have been trying to paint the Dalai Lama, both as an institution as well as a person, in as impolite terms as a ‘serf owner’, ‘gang leader of bandits’ and a ‘wolf in the robes of a monk’. Despite all claims about a so called ‘Beijing-Dharamsala ‘dialogue’ that ran for over a decade, the Chinese leadership never moved beyond offering safe and comfortable return of the exiled leader to Beijing (not to Tibet).

Interestingly, the Chinese side, represented exclusively by the ‘United Front’ department of the Communist Party of China (not the ‘Government’ of China) in this ‘dialogue’ process have been consistently labeling and receiving the Dharamsala representatives as the ‘representatives of the Dalai Lama’ and not of the ‘Tibetan Government-in-Exile’ (TGIE). Whether Beijing is going to continue this ‘dialogue’ with the representatives of the new ‘Kalon Tripa’ or Dharamsala based TGIE, will be a billion dollar question.

In view of Beijing’s fixation on Dalai Lama, it is not surprising that China has limited its reaction only to the Dalai Lama’s proposal about the future role of the institution of Dalai Lama. Although Beijing is striving hard to steer off Dalai Lama’s reference to the abdication of his powers in favor of the elected representatives of Tibetan community this decision of the exiled leader has only made things further complicated and confusing for the Beijing leadership. They may find it more difficult now to handle the post-Dalai Lama situation, especially on matters related to the selection of his next heir.

Roles reversed?

Dalai Lama’s new proposal has suddenly given a funny twist to the entire Tibetan issue. Contrary to his well-established role as a champion of Tibetan traditions and religious institutions, the Dalai Lama has emerged as a committed champion of democracy who is ready to sacrifice his own political privileges. On the other hand, Beijing leaders, who have been always more known for their anti-religion and anti-culture policies in their Tibetan colony, are suddenly seen presenting themselves as committed champions of Tibetan religious traditions and ritual practices.

China’s new religion strategy

To understand this intriguing role reversal of Beijing and Dharamsala, one needs to understand China’s changing Tibet strategy in recent years. Since occupation of Tibet in 1951 till late 1980s, Beijing leaders have been openly encouraging annihilation of religion and religious institutions from Tibet. It came from their sincere belief that ‘backward’ religious faith and social values were the main stumbling blocks in the way of their new Tibetan subjects towards becoming progressive and patriotic ‘Chinese’ citizens.

However, the historic anti-China and pro-Dalai Lama uprising of 1989 in Tibet and the leading role played in it by the Tibetan youths who were born, brought up and educated under the Chinese rule, forced the Chinese leaders to sit up and review their Tibet strategy. During their strategy meeting of ‘Third Work Forum’ in 1991 a two-pronged strategy of crushing dissent and using Tibetan religious institutions for improving Chinese grip over Tibet was adopted.

It was this dual approach which encouraged the Chinese administrators in Tibet to give limited religious freedom to Tibetans inside Tibet. Revival of selected monasteries and temples, closed or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution decade, was permitted.

The first bold experiment undertaken under this policy was to find the reincarnation of 16th Karma Pa of Tsurphu monastery near Lhasa who had died in exile in 1981. Chinese government invited a senior regent of the late Karma from Rumtek in India to head the search team of monks. Eventually a boy Ogyen Trinley Dorje (7) was found and was recognized by both the exiled Dalai Lama as well as the Beijing government. Beijing patronized his enthronement which was held with a big fanfare in the presence of many invited European followers of previous Karma Pa. The ceremony was also widely televised on Chinese network. For many reasons the Karma Pa has been considered as an import religious leader in the Tibetan hierarchy.

The Panchen Lama blunder

Encouraged by the success on Karma Pa the Beijing leaders decided to find the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama who had died in 1989. Panchen Lama occupies the second highest place in Tibetan system after the Dalai Lama. China had used the 10th Panchen Lama as a counter against the Dalai Lama following latter’s escape to exile. In 1995, a committee of senior Tibetan monks under the leadership of a senior Communist Party official was established to find the new incarnate boy. But the plans went haywire as some of the monks quietly informed the Dalai Lama and received his approval for the new boy Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (6) before Beijing could know about it.

Enraged Chinese government arrested the boy and his parents and installed its own handpicked boy candidate Gyancain Norbu as the ‘real’ 11th Panchen Lama. Since then Gedhun and his parents are missing and China refuses to reveal their whereabouts despite an international campaign for the ‘youngest prisoner of conscience’. This anti-China campaign is still supported by hundreds of human right groups which include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Karma pa’s escape

Things took another sad for Beijing turn in the opening days of 2000 when Karma Pa quietly escaped to India via Nepal and joined Dalai Lama in exile at Dharamsala. Though Chinese government regularly presents its ‘Panchen Lama’ on the national TV but he has miserably failed to win acceptance of ordinary Tibetans. So much so that in my many thousand km travels through Tibetan towns and villages in Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang provinces of Tibet in recent years I have yet to see the first photo of the government sponsored ‘Panchen Lama’ in a Tibetan home, restaurant, shop, rickshaw or a taxi. A Chinese woman who sells a wide range of Tibetan religious posters in the old part of Lhasa told me that she does not keep his photos “because no Tibetan wants to buy it”.

Window dressing

However, this has not discouraged the Chinese administrators in TAR or Tibetan areas in the adjoining Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Ganzu from rehabilitating many big monasteries and temples, especially the ones which fall on the tourist circuit of Tibet. These monasteries are now encouraged to have their respective ‘Living Buddhas’ (incarnate Tulku, addressed as ‘Rimpoche’ by Tibetans) and install them as heads of the monastery.

In dozens of Tibetan monasteries and temples which I visited like Ganden, Drepung, Sera, Jokhang (all around Lhasa) and Samten Ling in Shangri la, Karze, Lithang, Kirti and Robkong etc the religious compounds present colourful picture-postcard views for the tourists. The monks there live a highly controlled life but their public debates are a big draw for the camera-wielding tourists.

Buddhism : Beijing’s road show

At international Buddhist conferences too the Chinese government makes it a point to send huge delegations of its religious ‘scholars’. At many such events, the organizers are influenced or coerced by local Chinese embassies to stop Tibetan participation. In recent years, Beijing has hosted two international Buddhist conferences where its own ‘Panchen Lama’ was presented prominently but Dalai Lama and his fellow Rimpoches or scholars were kept away.

In 2007, Chinese government announced its new policy on Tibetan religious practices including the new rules on all ‘Living Buddhas’ which also include highest ranking reincarnate lamas like the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and Karma Pa etc. These rules clearly say that each ‘Living Buddha’ will require official authorization and no ‘Living Buddha’ will be recognized without the official permission.

However, the new move from the Dalai Lama has taken out the steam from the Chinese road roller that the Beijing leaders have been hoping to ride in and overwhelm the post-Dalai Lama scenario. This masterstroke from the monk statesman has once again proved that Tibet is going to stay a pain in the neck of a nation that is brooding great ambition of occupying number one place on the world forum.


* Vijay Kranti, “Dalai Lama’s new move-why china looks so miserable?” in phayul.com, 25 March 2011)