The CTA Violates Its Own Constitution

By: Shashi Kei

On September 2, 1960, the year after the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet into India, His Holiness declared a democracy for the Tibetan people in exile. It was an important landmark after centuries of theocratic feudalism dominated the social and political landscape of the Himalayan nation. The Dalai Lama’s declaration had wide appeal around the world and the Tibetan Cause was henceforth to be a fight for the Tibetan people’s freedom and rights by its democratic government against the oppression of a totalitarian regime. In that way, the Tibetans’ plight seduced the libertarian West.

The underlying understanding of a democracy is that the government is formed only to represent and serve the people; otherwise it has no need for itself. This guarantee is enshrined in a social agreement between the people and their elected representatives, known as the Constitution, which embodies the highest law. On March 10th 1963, His Holiness the Dalai Lama formally decreed the Tibetan Constitution.

The Tibetan Constitution sets out a framework of governance that compels all Tibetans regardless of who they are, what stature in society they occupy and what office they hold, to abide by this highest law. A law that protects the rights and interests of all people and that which prohibits the government, once in power, from infringing on the rights of the citizens they are supposed to represent. Once elected, the government of the Tibetans-in-exile, now known as the CTA, becomes the immediate authority over the general population and it is commonsense therefore that how the CTA treats the sacrosanctity of their Constitution is indicative of the value they place on it – which by the way, is the only instrument of law higher than the government. It becomes the yardstick by which the sincerity of the CTA to serve and advance the welfare of the Tibetan people is measured.

In addition, in His Holiness’s Foreword in the Tibetan Constitution, the Dalai Lama stated that the Tibetan charter takes into consideration doctrines enunciated by Lord Buddha as well as the spiritual heritage of Tibet. Accordingly the level of importance the CTA places on its Constitution is also indicative of their respect for the Tibetan Buddhist culture which is the legacy bestowed upon the people by centuries of highly attained lamas and masters.

In the case of the Tibetans in exile (and all Tibetans ultimately, should the Tibetans regain their independence), these two measures are exceptionally crucial because the Constitution effectively replaces the Dalai Lama as the highest authority to guide, champion and protect the future of the Tibetans. So the question that follows is how well has the CTA preserved the Tibetan Constitution and how closely have they abided by that which will take the people into the future as a free and democratic nation?

It is against this lens of scrutiny that a worrying tale emerges of how the Tibetan Constitution has been violated by the very people charged to preserve it. To illustrate, reference will be made to a few key Articles in the Tibetan Constitution and against them we examine actions and decisions made by the CTA that has had repercussions till this day.

Article 12 of the Tibetan Constitution guarantees that:

  1. All religious denominations are equal before the law.
  2. Every Tibetan shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The right includes freedom to openly believe, practice, worship and observe any religion either alone or in community with others.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs and to deal with any matter relating to religious or charitable purpose either alone or in community with others shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 12 was first formulated in 1963 and has been reaffirmed by the Tibetan government at each review over the decades until today. Yet just three decades after the Constitution was drafted and announced, in 1996, the CTA decreed a ban on the practice of a Buddhist deity, Dorje Shugden, that is a core practice of the Gelugpa lineage, a practice that has prevailed for over 350 years. In May of that year, the Tibetan Cabinet (Kashag) issued a formal declaration that amongst other things stated:

It is the duty of the Tibetan Government-in-exile to encourage compliance with any advice given out of concern for the cause of Tibet, the security of its head of state and the honor of all Tibetan Buddhist traditions including the Geluk tradition. Consequently, it has initiated a programme to be prevailing upon those still following Dolgyal [a derogatory name for Dorje Shugden] to make a break with it.

Not only was it illegal for the CTA to ban a Buddhist practice but also, no reason whatsoever was given for the ban nor was there any dialogue with the people whom such a ban would seriously affect. Tibetan Buddhism is collectively defined by the individual practices of a few main Buddhist schools, each with its own tradition and time-honoured veneration of selected deities and customs. It is not the role or authority of any one particular lineage or even the government to dictate the religious affairs of any of the schools. And yet, practically overnight, the practice of Dorje Shugden was simply outlawed.

The statement by the Kashag speaks of its “duty” and here the government seriously erred, for its first and foremost duty was to protect the liberty of its own people including their freedom to practice their own religion as provided for by Article 12 of the Constitution. It also made reference to “advice” which presumably was advice given by the Dalai Lama which in itself begs another question – can the advice of the Dalai Lama translate into law that the government is then under a duty to enforce compliance of?

Granted that at that time the Dalai Lama was both the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan people in exile, but does His Holiness’ words amount to law that is higher than the Constitution? If that is so, then there is no democracy but a system more analogous to a dictatorship or theocracy, which means that the Tibetan Constitution is in truth, only an instrument of fraud, created to swindle the Tibetan public and the rest of the world into supporting its government. In a true democracy, under no circumstances can the advice of an individual override the highest law of the land without cause and due process. On this alone, the CTA proves itself not to be a democratic government.

The Kalon Tripa Dr Lobsang Sangay, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the previous Kalon Tripa Professor Samdhong Rinpoche

The Dorje Shugden ban had serious and far-reaching repercussions and many lives were affected. The aftermath of that declaration by the CTA was wave after torrid wave of deceitful propaganda, each deploying unknowing citizens on a zealous rampage to seek out Dorje Shugden practitioners and monks who were labeled enemies of the state. Tibetan lives were destroyed, as were religious traditions that had survived the centuries. Schisms grew from within the monastic community as Shugden practicing monks were forced to denounce their own spiritual teacher and Dharma Protector (which is viewed as nothing short of committing spiritual suicide) or be expelled. All these destroyed the rich Tibetan Buddhist culture (which ironically the CTA is accusing China of doing) that had held the people together. And the most terrible blow the CTA inflicted with this prohibition was on the hopes of the Tibetan people in regaining their nation, for before long the ban would reveal the Tibetan people’s fight for freedom and liberty to be a false dream.

By virtue of the ban, all Shugden practitioners were treated as outcasts and not allowed to live communally with their fellow exiles. They were also prohibited from voting and participating in any election, which violates Article 20 of the Tibetan Constitution that states:

All Tibetans, men and women, who have attained the age of eighteen and above shall have the right to vote. The vote shall be personal, equal, free, and secret, and its exercise shall be deemed to be a civic obligation.

The Dorje Shugden ban forced upon the Tibetan society a new class of social and spiritual pariahs, and destroyed the credibility of Article 8 that provided for all Tibetans to be equal before the law without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, language, religion, social origin, property, birth or other status.

Yellow Identity cards stating that its bearer undertakes not to have any association with Dorje Shugden practitioners. Those without this card may not attend common prayers or buy goods from shops.

This case is not the first violation by a government of its own Constitution but true democracies have built-in safeguards such as the separation of powers between the Legislature (the Parliament), the Executive (Civic bodies) and the Judiciary (Courts of law). However, in the case of the Dorje Shugden ban, the façade of democracy was shamelessly lifted to reveal that indeed there was no such separation, and the Judiciary proved impotent against the will of the governing elite who most likely appointed the members of the Judiciary. With that, Article 24 of the Constitution was rendered redundant. Article 24 states:

Every citizen whose rights and freedoms as set forth in this Chapter are violated shall have the right to approach the Supreme Court, Regional Courts and such other courts as the National Assembly may by a law designate for the enforcement of those rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter and the Court shall be entitled to pass such orders as are necessary to protect those rights.

The CTA’s ban on the Shugden practice is an unmitigated calamity to the credibility of the Tibetan Cause and exposes the CTA to be the Tibetan people’s main obstacle in their quest for freedom. China may have taken a country away from the Tibetans but that is merely geography. What is more important are the people, their lives, dreams, hopes, faith, trust, religion and future. China did not rob the Tibetans of those treasures, but the CTA did.

And irony of ironies, the present Prime Minister of the exiled Tibetan people, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, is a holder of a doctorate degree in human rights who professed to be a champion of democracy. Not long after he was elected into the very power that maintains the religious ban, the website of the CTA carried this news in January 2012:

“Only democracy can resolve the issue of Tibet,” said Kalon Tripa Dr Lobsang Sangay at ‘Democracy in Exile: The case of Tibet’, a public lecture organised by the Jindal School of International Affairs on Thursday in Sonepat.

He also said that if China allowed more religious and cultural freedom as well as democratic governance in Tibet, it could resolve the issue of Tibet.

Kalon Tripa praised India’s own democratic traditions and said the Central Tibetan Administration, based in Dharamsala, had been inspired to follow the same traditions.

He said, we Tibetans, have learnt many essential traits from India’s great democracy and are implementing them in exile especially the commitment to resolve social issues through dialogue and the flourish of a ethical and vibrant media.

While Lobsang Sangay may not have been the Prime Minister of the CTA when the ban was effected, he is most certainly occupying the highest ranking seat in Parliament today, which empowers him to reverse the injustice. And yet he has not. Until such time when the Dorje Shugden ban is removed and the CTA behaves like a truly democratic government, it will be wise for all to remember an old legal maxim whenever one reads statements from the Tibetan government, Caveat emptor.

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7 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. The Dalai Lama was never historically the spiritual leader of Tibet; he was their political leader, and announced himself as the spiritual leader this life; in the 1960s the Dalai Lama tried to merge the four schools. I wish the people that write these articles would referencing the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s spiritual leader. He isn’t in charge of all four schools, or even really, his own school.

  2. Dear BlueUpali,

    You are right to say that the Dalai Lama is not the spiritual head of any of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and not even the spiritual head of his own sect which is the Gelugpa. That position is held by the Ganden Tripa. However, the Dalai Lama is regarded by all Tibetans as their absolute god-king, and for a people who is accustomed to centuries of feudalistic theocratic rule, there is little separation of church and state in their mindset. And this has been horribly exploited by the CTA.

    A clear case is the Dorje Shugden ban, where to ignore the ban decreed by the CTA is tantamount to being against the Dalai Lama, and therefore, to be against the Dharma. Of course this is not true but this is how the ban has been forced down the throats of the Tibetan people.

  3. Hello Vajratruth,
    I appreciate, I think, that you are making a point that it is hard for Tibetans to go against the feudal ideology of the Dalai Lama. I would not, however, say that all Tibetans view the Dalai Lama as a god-king, but rather, that some do, and others simply keep out of his and his supporters’ way, in order to keep their lives and thereby, practice, intact. Shamar Rinpoche, for instance, is Tibetan, and i don’t think he would refer to the Dalai Lama as his own personal god-king:).

  4. Dear BlueUpali,

    One thing is for sure, that is, the CTA certainly profiles the Dalai Lama popularly as the not-to-be-questioned supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetans. In that way, they use the Dalai Lama as leverage to impose their will on the Tibetan people. Unlike Shamar Rinpoche, the high regent of the Karma Kagyu, few dare to stand their ground and uphold their rights as provided by their tradition. And yet we see the Dalai Lama and CTA interfering with the selection of the 17th Karmapa, choosing to endorse Tai Situ Rinpoche’s Chinese candidate over Shamar Rinpoche’s candidate. Tai Situ Rinpoche of course has spoken against Dorje Shugden although the matter has little to do with the Karma Kagyus’ traditional practice. To date, we see the Dalai Lama acknowledging Orgyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa although the matter has not been fully resolved amongst the Kargyupas.

  5. More on the 17th Karmapa controversy as referred to in my previous comment:

  6. Dear Vajratruth,
    I do agree with your point that most Tibetans do not have enough power to stand up to the Dalai Lama; they are, it seemed to me while I was in India some years back, generally afraid of him and try to avoid his supporters. This is understandable for people who are used to a feudal theocracy; being in disfavor with the Dalai lama recognitions also proved a bad idea in times past; for instance, during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, who also happened to be against Shugden for awhile, several thousand Kagyu monks were beheaded by forces that supported ‘the great 5th.’ Given such history, it seems logical that most Tibetans would be afraid of the Dalai Lama’s institution; in the west of course, we had similar issues to the Shugden ban in the past; for instance in England people persecuted one another for being Catholic or Protestant, or a particular sub-branch of Protestant. Eventually, with the concept of democracy and religious freedom that sort of thing has subsided; I hope that something similar will happen with the Tibetan people, and we will stop persecuting people for what prayers they may say.

  7. I love His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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