Tibetans have shaped and sustained their lives for more than 60 years under the leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader turned 88 in July, and as his longevity is discussed amongst his followers, there is also concern about Tibet’s future without his physical presence.
In 2011, the Dalai Lama divested himself of all political authority, yet, as the architect of democratic governance, he continues to remain a larger-than-life figure for Tibetans.
Along with that come other challenges; safeguarding the democratic system he initiated, engaging younger generations in the cause for Tibet’s freedom, protecting the country’s environment, the influence of external forces and the possible geopolitical fallout of India’s continued support of the Tibetan cause.
Ever since the Lhasa uprising of 1959, and the setting up of a government in exile in Dharamsala, India, the first Tibetan Constitution introduced by the Dalai Lama in 1963 has undergone many changes.
In 1991 the Supreme Justice Commission was added to the other two pillars of democracy, the Legislature and the Executive. Along with that, an Independent Audit Commission, an Independent Public Service Commission and an Independent Election Commission were set up, and women were assigned two seats in the Legislature. The current operational body of the Tibetan government in exile is known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).
The debate on Tibet’s sovereignty, which fell under the control of the Chinese in 1951, is ongoing, with the Chinese government terming it the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ and the CTA and Tibetan diaspora referring to it as the “Chinese invasion of Tibet.”
Despite the reforms and the Dalai Lama divesting himself of all political power the spiritual leader exerts considerable influence and therefore there is still, a heavy dependence on him, notes MP Youdon Aukatsang. Speaking at a webinar titled “Tibetan Democracy in Exile’ organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, South Asia, on September 15, Ms Aukatsang pointed to a recent constitutional crisis which was finally resolved following the Dalai Lama’s intervention. “Tibetans must take full responsibility for political matters as envisaged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” she said.
There is also the challenge of dealing with the internal dissent amongst Tibetans, which she claimed is spearheaded by China.
The webinar moderated by Ms Tenzin Peldon, the Director and Editor-in-Chief of Voice of Tibet, included Ven Geshe Lhakdor, Director, Tibetan Library and Archives and honorary Professor, University of British Columbia, Gondo Dhondup, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress and Sujeet Kumar, an Indian parliamentarian and the Convenor of the All Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet.
The current Sikyong, Tibet’s political leader Penpa Tsering and Dr Jurgen Murtens, a member of the German Bundestag also addressed the webinar.
The democratic model, Aukatsang states is successful, yet it is a work in progress. The current make up of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE) has 45 members representing the three provinces of U-Tsang, Do-med and Do-tod, the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the traditional Bon faith, Europe, North America and Australasia. It is headed by the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.
Aukatsang would like to see a modification in the composition with more representation from the diaspora, and less from the provinces to better reflect the changing demography. She also proposes an increase in the number of members of the Standing Committee from 11 to 15 and calls for the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism rather than the direct impeachment process, which is the current practice.
Though the 1991 reforms made way for women’s representation in the TPiE, (currently 10 ministers and the Deputy Speaker are women), Aukatsang is hopeful there would be “more meaningful engagement of women in leadership roles,” for, as she points out, they are the custodians of Tibetan culture and language. Women have also distinguished themselves as founders of several non-governmental organisations and in the field of education.
Her sentiments were reflected by the Sikyong, Penpa Tsering when he said that unless the administration is ready to adapt to demographic and social realities, its relevancy will be challenged.
When the Buddha was on his deathbed, and his followers were fearful of being on their own, the Buddha had advised that the focus should be on his teachings and not his physical presence. Likewise, says Ven Geshe Lhakdor, Tibetans must continue to abide by the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and not worry about his absence. When Tibetans were prohibited from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama, they hung up empty picture frames, he said, aware that the Dalai Lama remains within them.
Ven Geshe Lhakdor also advocates a separation of Church and State, pointing out that clergy must involve themselves in the spiritual upliftment of society, rather than in politics. The idea of the religious ruling a country is outdated, he points out, adding that once clergy get into a “political mindset” they are unable to send out good signals to the people. He adds that their responsibility is to safeguard culture and harmony and be role models.
The principles of democracy are a reflection of Buddhist teaching the Venerable noted, pointing out its time to extricate oneself from a tribal mentality. The focus must be on a long-term, robust vision, rather than quick fixes. He also believes that Tibetans must safeguard themselves from internal fragmentation, even more than external threats.
One unique feature of the administration is that it is free of corruption, the Venerable notes, despite being surrounded by corrupt systems.
Even though Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, sought and had the cooperation of all Chief Ministers to offer refuge to Tibetans in 1959, MP Sujeet Kumar is of the opinion that the current Indian Parliament is rather diffident in openly rooting for Tibet against China.
While acknowledging that Indian parliamentarians have huge constituencies and are busy, he is hopeful his colleagues would take more interest in Tibet and her issues.
Tibetans alone have the right to decide on the Dalai Lama’s successor, says Kumar, and India must back that. India should also rally the support of other nations to help Tibet charter her own course in a post-Dalai Lama scenario.
Kumar would like to see more Tibetan youth become part of India’s trillion-dollar digital industry.
He is concerned, however, at the lack of enthusiasm amongst the youth to use social media to fight disinformation being circulated about Tibet.
Acknowledging that youth could be more engaged in social media to fight disinformation, Gondo Dhondup says all Tibetans are “born to be activists” and to the cause, even though it is difficult to envisage a freedom movement without the Dalai Lama.
Youth are the agents of change, and Tibet’s future citizens, therefore they must stay informed. The TYC organises leadership training, and Tibetans, even those scattered around the globe must take advantage of the programmes, Dhondup says.
While calling on India to introduce a national policy on Tibet, Dhondup cautions that India’s waterways that originate in Tibet are under threat. The rivers are either “diverted or polluted” affecting downstream villagers, and India must ensure her water security, Dhondup explains.
The recently concluded G20 summit was themed “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, and that gives India an opportunity to be more vocal about the environment, he says.