By: Shashi Kei
On June 29th 2013, the North American Regional Tibetan Youth Congress (NARTYC) held its 13th Annual Working Committee meeting in San Francisco, California. The NARTYC is part of a larger Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) founded in the Tibetan exile town of Dharamsala, India in 1970 and has since grown to become the largest international pressure group advocating for Tibetan independence.
More importantly, the TYC presents itself as a de facto platform for young Tibetans to sharpen their leadership skills and gain a profile that becomes their ticket to rise in the hierarchy of the Tibetan political establishment. The present Sikyong (political leader) of the Tibetan government in exile (known as the Central Tibetan Administration, CTA), Dr Lobsang Sangay, was himself a member of the TYC from Minnesota, USA, and it is safe to assume that more will follow in Dr. Sangay’s footsteps. Therefore how the TYC conducts itself and the values they stand for, and the integrity they display, is an indication of the caliber of Tibetan leaders of the future.
During the event, the newly elected TYC leader, Tenzin Jigme, alluded to the state of stagnation of the Tibetan fight for independence, noting that other countries which had similar goals, such as Kosovo and East Timor, have in fact gained complete freedom in the same amount of time it has taken the Tibetan effort to run aground.
In fact it would also appear that the waves of change that have been sweeping the Middle Eastern countries as well as China into progressively democratic reforms seem to have missed the Tibetan objective altogether.
According to Tenzin Jigme, “…Rangzen (Independence) will only be achieved when Tibetan people take full responsibility for its struggle”. While what Tenzin Jigme said had rings of truth to them, it will be no more than rhetoric if the TYC does not take some steps to engage the Tibetan people. But in order to do that, the TYC leader needs to examine what it is that has been stopping the Tibetan people from taking responsibility for their own future and liberty.
There are two possible parts to the answer –
- The Tibetans do not have a culture of freedom and therefore they do not have the mentality of free people. The people must therefore be led by example into expressing their desire for freedom that they are supposed to have.
- The supposedly “democratic” government of the exiled Tibetans is in fact more accurately to be defined as old wine in a new glass. Much of the CTA’s policies and attitude towards its electorate seems more to perpetuate and ingrain deeper the self–defeating mentality of the Tibetan people, using, amongst other devices, the apparatus of religion. This is nothing new and in the history of Tibet, the people’s faith has often been used against them.
In stark contrast to the present vanquished state of the Tibetans, Tibet was once a great empire in the 7th century. However, towards the end of the 9th century, the kingdom of Tibet disintegrated and what followed in the wake of that empire was a system of decentralized control, a period when Tibet as a country consisted of a number of small hegemonies, very similar to the early period of Western European feudalism.
It was not until the temporal rule of the Dalai Lamas, which began in the 16th century, that some semblance of centralized government resumed and religion was forced into a blend with politics, creating a theocracy that stamped its rule of authority over the country and its people.
By then, most of Tibet was organized into manorial estates, owned by rich secular landlords and high-ranking theocratic lamas, and worked on by serfs. The serfs (and some slaves as well) were under a lifetime bond to work the lord’s or the monastery’s land without pay or any welfare benefits whatsoever. The lords told them what crops to grow and what animals to raise.
Very often, the serfs were also used as mules in transportation and in that regard, they were more like chattels than citizens. They enjoyed no self-determination and could not marry or perform the functions common of free people, without the consent of their masters. Over the centuries and generations (often children are born into slavery or serfdom), the Tibetan people became used to a life of being told what they could or could not do.
Ironically, the state religion of the Tibetan people is Buddhism which, as taught by the Buddha, is a means of liberating the minds of the people, but religion was instead used to buttress the oppression of the Tibetan people. Over time, without a proper understanding of the Dharma that the Buddha actually taught, superstitions dominated over spirituality and the Tibetans became blind to their own oppression. The poor and afflicted accepted that they had brought their own condition unto themselves from the karma they had generated in the past lives. Centuries of this belief and the common use of torture branded its way into the minds of the Tibetan people, and the Tibet that H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama fled from in 1959 was a nation of subservient and unquestioning serfs.
It is this mindset that still largely persists in the Tibetan community today, and regardless of whether this is an acknowledged fact or not, the ease by which the CTA seems to be able to decree unfair and unconstitutional laws without much, if any, resistance from the people indicates that they have yet to realize their own freedom and to exercise their rights as human beings in a free society. This applies even to those in exile who are free from the control of the CTA or the Chinese government, in spite of the Dalai Lama having made it his life’s work for his people to have freedom, and the right to determine the course of their own lives.
Not long after the Dalai Lama’s escape, His Holiness began the process of democratizing Tibet and in 1963 introduced The Charter of Tibetans In Exile, a draft constitution that guaranteed the Tibetans their freedom of speech, movement, activity, religion and other rights that a democracy provides. If the secular [at that time] and spiritual head of the Tibetans – one they regard as a God and a king – were to will it, surely the process of democracy would have been swifter.
But it wasn’t until 1990 that the Tibetans in exile had their first elections of Cabinet members, which until then were personally appointed by the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans in exile waited another 11 years before they began electing their own Kalon Tripa (equivalent to Prime Minister).
It is necessary to ask why it has taken almost three decades for free elections to be held after His Holiness’s initial declaration of his intention to democratize the Tibetan nation. And the only explanation is either the Dalai Lama was half-hearted about ceding control over the people or the Tibetan people themselves were not ready to assume responsibility of their own lives. It may be a combination of both. However given the Dalai Lama’s consistent stance on giving his people their freedom, the more plausible answer would be that the Tibetan people were not ready.
With deep imprints of centuries as slaves and serfs, they simply were not sure what real freedom was all about. This uncertainty played into the hands of a governing elite amongst the CTA who continue to behave like feudal lords would, telling the Tibetan people what they can and cannot do, and what thoughts and beliefs they should or should not subscribe to.
While the CTA has a democratic facade with a body of elected parliamentarians (chitues) and a Cabinet (kashag) that is accountable to the Parliament, the administration is in fact dominated by an exclusive group that pulls the strings of government. This group comprises members of the noble families of old and the religious-political elites – the theocrats. They formulate policies that affect the entire Tibetan community without any form of public consultation and representation and in the face of opposition, yield their most effective weapon yet – the name of the Dalai Lama. Using the Dalai Lama as a weapon of discipline and a shield against challenges, those who do not agree with the elite group’s undemocratic ways are simply cowed into silence. And this is how a Tibetan parliament in exile has failed so far to uphold justice for the Tibetan people.
If the TYC’s leader, Tenzin Jigme, is firm in his belief that the success of the Tibetan Cause depends on the participation of all Tibetan people and that the people must take responsibility for Tibet’s future, then the TYC has a very important role here. The TYC’s position should be to harness the collective voice of the Tibetan people as counter-weights to the feudalistic ways of the ruling elite inside the CTA.
This is vital given the lack of an opposition party in the Tibetan political arena to provide the checks and balances necessary to safeguard against the government’s unfair practices. In the present political landscape of the Tibetans in exile, only the TYC seems to have the wherewithal and political will to perform such an important duty where the Tibetan Parliament in exile seems to have failed. However, in championing the Tibetan struggle for independence, the TYC must reassess its position and understanding of all that the concept of independence embraces.
If the raison d’être of the TYC is to fight for Tibetan ‘independence’ and if it defines the word with its most basic and normative implications, it means that the TYC’s struggle is for all Tibetans to be free from oppression and for each individual Tibetan and the community as a whole to be able to practice self-determination without fear of castigation and retribution. To be credible, the TYC cannot afford to partake in any moral relativism and be embroiled in arguments about who is entitled to independent self-determination and who isn’t. By necessity, the TYC must take the position that freedom is for all, and the principles of democracy must apply to all.
Clearly the TYC understands the importance of freedom and it demonstrated this when in April this year, the TYC’s website published a commentary and criticism of the CTA’s attempt to gag free speech, citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers“. The question that the TYC (especially its President Tenzin Jigme) must ask itself is, doesn’t the freedom that the UDHR and indeed the Tibetan Constitution itself protects also apply to the freedom of religion?
If the TYC answers in the affirmative, then in the first instance, it has to officially remove its stance and support of the CTA’s unconstitutional ban of the Dorje Shugden practice that came into force in 1996. In that year, both the Parliament and Kashag decreed that the practice of the ancient Buddhist deity Dorje Shugden is illegal and instructed the Tibetan people to “prevail upon” Shugden monks and lay practitioners to cease the practice. The TYC joined the unholy witch-hunt and issued a resolution of its own stating, amongst other things:
“Whereas His Holiness the Dalai Lama has evaluated the advisability of worshipping Dholgyal for many years and has addressed the issue repeatedly since 1978, and
Whereas there has been negligence on the part of the public toward these addresses, with active propagation of this worship on the part of some (spiritual masters), and
Whereas this negligence is beyond tolerance any more,
We have called a special session of the Central Executive Committee of the Tibetan Youth Congress for May 10 and 11 for exhaustive consultation with scholars and for clarification of doubts as well as for policy directive to be perused on this issue. We resolve that,
- Since there is nothing more important (for Tibetan) than the cause of Tibet and the health of the Dalai Lama, the participants solemnly agree to abide by these (said) addresses if His Holiness the Dalai Lama…”
- When it is confirmed there is no one in the Tibetan Youth Congress membership worshipping Dholgyal, we will gradually present the (said video clip to the public, announce our policy in this issue, and especially urge the Tibetan Youth to evaluate their decisions in this regard…”
- This execute Committee will likewise announce this policy to all Tibetan monasteries and urge that everyone must abide by the address of the Dalai Lama;
- Together with documents pertaining to this ban on the worship of Dholgyal, this Congress will urge each and every spiritual master, including geshes, that in the interest of the health of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Independence, they should stop worshipping Dholgyal;
- If anyone in the youth congress membership is found as still worshipping Dholgyal that member will be immediately expelled from Tibetan Youth Congress membership;
- This congress will also urge all other Tibetan organizations not to enroll anyone into their membership who venerates and worships (this native Tibetan Buddhist deity) Dholgyal…
The TYC’s resolution in 1997 was effectively a call to militant action that involved TYC members conducting door-to-door searches to “urge” monks and the laity to stop a religious practice that the CTA and TYC suddenly disagreed with, for no reasons other than the Dalai Lama’s say so.
In light of the TYC’s commitment to fight for freedom and human rights, surely the TYC must acknowledge that its support of the religious ban that affected fellow Tibetans was a mistake, which it must now officially rectify if the TYC is to be the voice of all Tibetans. Surely, Tenzin Jigme’s call for all Tibetans to unite and take responsibility for the Tibetan struggle can only happen if the TYC unites the people instead of perpetuating and still officially supporting a ban that has divided the people and in the process, makes a mockery out of the TYC’s credibility. How can a Tibetan’s right to speak and hold opinions without interference be separated from his right to practice a religion he believes in, even if the CTA does not share in the belief?
If the TYC maintains that their support of the Shugden ban is an “exception” because it was a directive from the Dalai Lama, then isn’t Rangzen against the Dalai Lama’s directive? And should the TYC now dissolve and fall behind the CTA’s Middle Way policy which recently saw the Sikyong not only giving away democracy and independence for Tibet, but going as far as agreeing to Communist rule for Tibet?
There is no way around this self-created debacle for the TYC. If they decide to continue to uphold their support of the Shugden ban on the basis that it is the wish of the Dalai Lama, then the TYC must abandon Rangzen immediately. If, on the other hand, the TYC firmly believes in its goal which is to fight for independence and freedom for all Tibetans, and if it views the CTA’s attempt to stifle free speech as unconstitutional and immoral, then the TYC needs not only to withdraw its support of the ban, but fight for the removal of an illegal ban, as part of its process of fighting for the freedom of all Tibetan people, as provided for by the TYC’s own charter.
In addition, it is of particular importance for members of NARTYC and others in the free world to undertake the removal of this religious ban. Otherwise, it would be sheer hypocrisy to enjoy the freedom that a real democracy such as the United States of America accords, while criticizing China of oppression, criticizing the CTA for failing to represent the interest of all Tibetans and at the same time continue to be a part of a heinous oppression against the most basic of human rights.
The TYC has shown in their struggle for Rangzen that a Tibetan can still venerate and love the Dalai Lama whilst exercising his or her right to live as free people and enjoy the precious gift that the Dalai Lama has bestowed upon them. Living free and loving the Dalai Lama are not mutually exclusive as the CTA would to have everyone think.