The Ghost Of Tibetan Democracy

By Shashi Kei

Tibet is supposed to be a democracy. At least that was the intention of the Dalai Lama, to bequest on his people the gift of freedom guaranteed by a Constitution [1], and let them have their civil liberties, something that the Tibetan people never enjoyed having lived as serfs in a feudalistic theocracy for centuries.

Outwardly at least, the Tibetan government in exile, now known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), appears to have a democratic infrastructure with an independent Judiciary, a Legislature and a Cabinet. Jointly and severally they serve to advance the collective will of the people and the nation while protecting the individual freedom of the people they are meant to represent.

The Tibetan Parliament consists of 46 members representing the major provinces, the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the ancient Bon religion. In addition, the Parliament has representatives from Tibetans living abroad in the west. And finally, the Dalai Lama himself has the right to appoint three members to the Legislature.

The Cabinet, known as the Kashag, is comprised of 7 Kalons (Ministers) directly appointed by the Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister), and approved by the Parliament and therefore also answerable to the Parliament. The Kalon Tripa is democratically elected by popular vote of the people. The Kashag in turn is supported by a Cabinet Secretary who provides the Cabinet with administrative and secretarial services.

On the face of it, all the components of a democratic machinery seem to be in place and yet over the years, a number of events and government initiatives (or lack of) have shown irrefutably that Tibetan democracy has in fact failed miserably and the system of government that the Dalai Lama had wished for his people, and had created, has become a ghost of a liberal administration and a pale one at that.

The question is, how did that happen and where do the Tibetans go from here?

To begin with, we have to examine the character of the existing Central Tibetan Administration against that which one finds in a true democracy. Even before 1959, when China annexed Tibet, there were accounts by those close to him that the Dalai Lama had been searching for a suitable model to govern his people by and one that would shape the future of Tibet.

In 1954, the Dalai Lama visited Beijing and there His Holiness witnessed the Chinese National People’s Congress in session. By the Dalai Lama’s own account, what he saw was a smooth, flawless and almost mechanical approach to proceedings. There were no questions or challenges and it was all too perfect.

Two years later in 1956, the Dalai Lama had the opportunity to observe the Indian Parliament’s lower house during one of its rowdy debates as motions were proposed and defeated, points raised and rebutted. In his own retelling of events, the Dalai Lama frequently referred to the Indian parliament as a reflection of true democracy. [2]

And so even as the Tibetans went about assembling the various organs of government and writing the Tibetan Constitution, the one important element they failed to recognize and nurture over the years was the spirit of democracy. Indeed it is the spirit of liberty that breathes life into a democratic structure and not the sum of its parts.

A democracy only flourishes when there is civic engagement, when the voice of the community is being heard and when the people’s interests and preferences are articulated by their elected legislators, and their rights protected by their representatives to the government. In other words, when the parliamentarians they elect into power do their jobs. And sadly they have not in the case of the Tibetan parliament.

When the people’s representatives fail to protect the interest of the public and instead align themselves with the interest of a few and become a stamp of approval for their agendas, they condemn democracy to an early grave. That the CTA is a one-party government without an opposition bloc makes it even more critical that the Parliament exercises strict self-regulation as well as act as the watchdog over the Kashag’s exercise of its executive powers. And this is where the Tibetan parliament’s failure to uphold its duty to the people became the primary cause for democracy to be undone.

One very clear example of where the Tibetan Parliament failed to carry out its responsibility can be seen in the approval of the then Kalon Tripa, Dr Lobsang Sangay’s nomination of members to his Kashag. In September 2011, the Tibetan Parliament unanimously approved Dr Sangay’s nominations of six selected candidates to the Cabinet.

What is shocking is that the Parliament so easily gave their approval without questioning the character and suitability of the nominees or even asking about the portfolios each nominee was supposed to manage. In fact, all it took was the reading of a brief one-minute biography of each nominee followed by the Parliament’s approval.

The Tibetan Review noted that the nominees were not even in attendance when they were being approved to take high office in the CTA. The entire process was over within a time that averaged 15 seconds per appointment of each nominee as a Minister to Tibetan Cabinet. [3]

Contrast this to the appointment of Hillary Clinton as the United States Of America’s Secretary of State which took, in short summary, a whole month of investigation, a series of submitted answers to questions from the Senate, and a 6-hour confirmation hearing all conducted with full transparency.

The Sikyong (then Kalon Tripa), Lobsang Sangay with his Cabinet Ministers. (From left: Kalon Dolma Gyari, Kalon Dongchung Ngodup, Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, Kalon Pema Chhinjor, Kalon Dicki Chhoyang and Kalon Tsering Wangchuk)

The Tibetan Parliament’s lackadaisical attitude and neglect in approving the right nominees to the Kashag soon yielded disastrous results when the CTA’s April 2013 budget session ended with considerable confusion with the Finance Kalon (whom the Parliament had approved not so long ago) failing to answer with any clarity whether the CTA’s 2013/2014 budget was in fact balanced, in surplus or deficit. As political reporter Sangye Kunchok reported, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it was [in fact] a deficit budget but the manipulation of the numbers have blurred the real situation”. [4]

On further questioning, it was learned that the CTA’s shortfall in revenues has been covered by applying almost all of the reserves held by various departments which had taken up to 40 years to accumulate. Given the ambiguity of the CTA’s real financial position, its future sustainability was called into question. Thereupon the Parliament passed a resolution directing the Audit Department to audit and appraise the financial status of the CTA to establish a clear and objective position. [5]

Quite surprisingly Dr Lobsang Sangay objected to the resolution, taking it as an investigation of his Kashag. His concern was what the people might think of his Cabinet if news got out that it was being investigated.

The Sikyong proposed instead that the Kashag review its own books, which is a bit like asking a suspect of a crime to investigate himself. And yet the Parliament accepted the Sikyong’s proposal and duly withdrew the resolution it has just passed. And with that, the Parliament failed again in its duty to protect the Tibetan people by not ensuring that cabinet Ministers perform their functions properly and with integrity, and that the people’s government can sustain itself so that it can look after the interests of its people, and so that its fight for Tibet’s independence can be advanced.

By choosing to protect the reputation of the Kashag, the Parliament lost the opportunity to have an accountable and more transparent administration. In fact, the withdrawal by the Parliament of their directive to the Audit Department meant that those responsible for “manipulating the numbers” in the words of Sangye Kunchok, got away with it. Without doubt, the Tibetan parliament dealt another grievous blow to democracy that day.

It is difficult to believe that the representatives of a people who have already suffered much and are still experiencing the slow pogrom of their nationality, culture and identity, chose not to practice good governance. It was an opportunity to weed out bad or otherwise dubious decisions that have come to characterize the CTA.

We further see the Parliament’s incompetence in their failure to harness the collective support of the people to secure a singularity of purpose and strategy in their engagement with China. The result is a great divide amongst the Tibetans as to what their fight is even about – self autonomy or independence?

Tibetans take to the street to protest only because their elected representatives failed to represent their interest in parliament. And finally when Chithue Karma Choephel, a lone voice in Parliament voiced his dissent of the CTA’s official policy of Middle Way (which in effect represents the wishes of a large majority of the Tibetan population), he was shouted down and accused to be anti-Dalai Lama. [6] So much for the vibrant parliamentary debates that the Dalai Lama has said reflects a true democracy.

We again see the Parliament’s failure to live up to its duty by its inexcusable lethargy in taking affirmative steps to deal with the serious affair of Tibetan self-immolations even as burning bodies of their countrymen pile up. The CTA waited till much too late to take measures to stop Tibetans from self-immolating after realizing that the ‘Tibetan Spring” they had hoped for was not going to happen.

And when the CTA did take some action, the effort as reflected in their statements was half-hearted and so the number of suicides by self-immolation continues to mount. That did nothing for the image of the CTA nor was it good advertisement for the only product that the Tibetans in exile could purvey – the Dharma.

We see the Parliament’s lack of wisdom in the unilateral decision by the Speaker to write a terse letter to the United States Congressman, The Hon. Dana Rohrabacher in the midst of the Radio Free Asia scandal, [7] even challenging the Congressman to examine the CTA’s accounts, in response to the Congressman’s letter to the then Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay which amongst other concerns, questioned whether US funding assistance in support of the Tibetan democracy movement, had been misused. (Looking at the state of uncertainty of the CTA’s accounts, one wonders if the Speaker would issue the same challenge now).

Lobsang Sangay in his own response to the Congressman stated proudly that his CTA takes great pride in maintaining fiscal integrity and transparency of their accounts. This is the same Lobsang Sangay who so easily muzzled the attempt of the Tibetan Parliament to audit the CTA’s accounts and yet he spoke of transparency. How is democracy to survive in such an environment of hypocrisy and lack of integrity, let alone thrive?

Letter from Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to Lobsang Sangay. The Congressman was a long time supporter of Tibetan democracy.

And the clearest example of all demonstrating the Parliament’s complete breakdown of good judgment and meekly succumbing to malevolent political agendas, lies in the way the Parliament allowed and even supported a religious ban to be imposed on a section of its people. This is completely against the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile, which is the supreme law governing the functions of the CTA, adopted in 1991. This Charter guarantees to all Tibetans equality before the law and enjoyment of rights and freedom without discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, language and social origin.

Not only did the Parliament allow the Kashag to issue a decree effectively authorizing all Tibetans to seek out and force Dorje Shugden practitioners to cease in their religious practice, they issued a similar statement themselves. [8] And to ensure that their betrayal of the Tibetan people did not return to haunt them, they dealt the fatal blow to democracy by stripping worshipers of Dorje Shugden of their voting rights.

By decree, the CTA turned an ancient enlightened deity long worshipped by a section of the Tibetan population into a demon. And by default, they reduced the vibrant spirit of democracy into a gray ghost. But all is not lost because the most powerful institution of any nation of people is not the office of the President or Prime Minister or indeed any head of government of any sort. The most powerful force of any nation is the institution of the collective voice of the people. The CTA may have stripped the voting rights of Shugden worshippers but they cannot rob all Tibetans of their power of the ballot.

It is therefore now the responsibility of all Tibetans to rein their elected representatives in, if indeed democracy and liberty are still values they wish to pursue. To change bad laws and undemocratic policies, you have to change the people who make them. It is that simple.

It is not about whether the ordinary Tibetan believes in Dorje Shugden, or the effectiveness of self-immolations or even whether the people should fight for independence or settle for self-autonomy. It is squarely about whether the Tibetan people truly treasure their liberty which is fast being eroded by their own government and while they can still use the ballot box, they should and must.

Should the Tibetan people fail to exercise their power of the ballot, and vote into office at the next opportunity legislators who are not afraid to do their jobs to preserve the freedom as enshrined in the Tibetan Constitution and truly represent the interest of the Tibetan people, then for certain, it is all over for democracy. The Tibetans might as well pack up and return to their Communist-ruled homeland, for the CTA would be no better, and in fact possibly much worse.



  5. ibid
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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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