Democracy or Division

By: Shashi Kei

The world has always thought of the Tibetan Cause as a nation’s fight for freedom and democracy. It is therefore to be expected that the Tibetan government in exile (Central Tibetan Administration, CTA) would be operating under a democratic system today and ever ready to extend that philosophy of government to Tibet in general if and when the Tibetans regain control of their own country. However, a number of worrying events have clearly shown that the prevailing culture within the CTA is not as portrayed to the world, but one which contradicts democracy, fairness and justice.

In the year 2012, on a December day in New Delhi, India, a significant and inspiring event took place when a group of nearly 50 elderly Thai monks and scholars met at an inter-Buddhist dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Nothing extraordinary there. But then, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, stood up to make a statement that was surprising not just because it came from a religious icon but because he was speaking at a very religious event.

In his address to the Buddhist delegates in attendance, His Holiness said:

We need to find a new approach to creating a better world. We have major problems to deal with: climate change, population increase, the gap between rich and poor, and corruption. People voice anxiety about an ancient Maya prediction of the imminent end of the world, but unless we address corruption, which is like a cancer, we will face disaster. Religion is important, but has failed to check it. Democracy, the rule of law and freedom of the press should be able to put a stop to corruption, but they have failed to do so too. Even in China where these qualities are absent and all power is centralized, corruption remains rampant. The key factor is a lack of self-discipline and moral principles.

In essence, the Dalai Lama was saying that even the presence of Dharma and the principles of Democracy are insufficient for stopping the decay of morality within our modern societies. He reminded us that if the leadership of a community does not have the values of ethics and self-disciple enshrined in their hearts, then a cancer-like corruption would be permitted to spread and fester.

And yet, deep within the entrails of the Dalai Lama’s own exiled Tibetan community, we have cause to see the very same kind of degeneration happening. All is not as well as it should be and more shocking is the fact that the ‘cancer’ of unrest is being caused by the secular and spiritual leadership itself. Ironically, Tibetans have always been known for their deep faith in Buddhism that is inextricably linked to their culture. Tibetans have also come to be strongly associated with their long fight for democracy – an ideal that the Dalai Lama vested on his beloved people in exile from 1959 onwards, after living for centuries under the feudalistic rule of an old Tibet.

But this doesn’t actually seem to be the case. Now, in fact, it is these very principals – of religious faith and so-called democracy – that are being (mis)used as tools to divide and rule the Tibetans. Where are the leaders to offer real protection and betterment of their people when they need it the most?

 

The Dalai Lama’s hopes undermined

A culture of ethics under Buddhism and freedom under democracy was to be the legacy of the 14th Dalai Lama, and yet his statement on that December day rung clearly of the Dalai Lama’s own loss of hope. The words of the spiritual leader was an indication that all is not well within his own government of the Tibetan people in exile, now known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

Are the CTA and its leader Lobsang Sangay (left) really in support of the Dalai Lama’s wishes? Or selling their own people short?

But this is not surprising: less than a month before that inter-faith Buddhist conference, on November 19th 2012, the administrative leader of the CTA, Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay, received a shocking and strongly worded letter from the United States Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

In the letter, Congressman Rohrabacher warned Dr. Lobsang Sangay of his suspicion that the CTA were manipulating situations to their advantage, to stifle the voice of democracy. The Congressman’s letter also referred to the possible misappropriation of funds by the CTA. In other words, events had been uncovered by the Tibetans’ own ally which suggested that the very people who were supposed to be supporting the Dalai Lama – the consummate champion of ethics and freedom – may themselves be corrupt. This would have been a terrible blow to the Dalai Lama’s long and arduous years of work to endow his long-suffering people with a better life and future while upholding the rich principles of the Dharma.

 

The Cancer of Corruption

Rohrabacher’s letter was in response to the sudden, unjustified and engineered dismissal of Jigme Ngapo – a director of the Radio Free Asia (RFA) since it first began 16 years ago and known throughout his career for his leadership, honesty and integrity. There were absolutely no reasons for his dismissal and the circumstances behind this unfortunate incident remained mysterious and evasive.

However, in a separate letter that the Congressman Rohrabacher wrote to the president of RFA Libby Liu, the answer was clearly revealed. Rohrabacher wrote, “I have reason to believe that he was terminated for political reasons.” And thus, it became increasingly clear that anyone not aligned to the exiled Tibetan leadership’s policies were deemed to be an enemy. It was evident that steps were quickly taken to subdue these opponents and remove their influence.

In response, the CTA remained relatively quiet on the subject. There was only a single, meekly worded statement issued by Lobsang Sangay which just attempted to deny any interference in the Jigme Ngabo issue and to clarify their “fiscal integrity”. As the saying goes, silence really does speak louder than words: the CTA’s passivity in this instance showed themselves up for who they really were and what they really didn’t stand for.

Jigme Ngapo was fired by RFA under CTA’s influence, for not toeing the government line

This view was independently reinforced by Lhasa contemporary and blogger Tsering Woeser, who speculated that Jigme Ngapo’s removal may have arisen because he advocated and upheld the principles of freedom and encouraged a variety of views within a pluralistic media. The CTA would not have tolerated this as these views may well have criticized or questioned them and their policies.

These questions of freedom of speech and expression were also questioned by Rohrabacher in his letter to Dr. Lobsang Sangay where he states, “I will not tolerate any machinations by you or your associates to deprive the Tibetan people of the joys of open debate and the free exchange of information that Radio Free Asia has provided.” This strongly implies that the Tibetan leaders may be having a noticeably influential hand in controlling the fair, open dissemination of information in the media or in stifling constructive criticism and comment.

As the world media is slowly discovering, the “machinations” the Congressman referred to seems to be a commonplace practice in the CTA. To silence one person, the government simply engineers his removal. However, to silence the louder voice of an entire community, the Tibetan leadership needed something much more powerful and conniving.

 

An Even More Sinister Objective

By the early 1990s, it had become clear to the Tibetans in exile that their hope of returning to the motherland was not going to be fulfilled anytime soon. A new generation of Tibetans rose to question the leadership about the direction of their cause and the efficacy of the government’s methods. These people, united by a singular objective under democracy, quickly became an inconvenient thorn in the CTA’s side. If a common quest for Tibet’s freedom united the people, the government had to find another instrument to divide and rule the population. Eventually, they found that instrument in something the Tibetan people hold as dear as their freedom – their religion.

As young Tibetans fight for their freedom, as their government undermining their efforts and disrupting their unity?

In 1996, the CTA pounced on an advice given by the Dalai Lama on the propitiation of a Buddhist deity known as Dorje Shugden. They took this as an opportunity to issue an unprecedented decree to ban the religious practice of a large majority of Tibetans, especially those of the largest Tibetan Buddhist school, the Gelugs. The ban effectively split the community and silenced the voice of dissent as Dorje Shugden worshippers were quickly marginalized and sent into hiding for fear of their lives.

Suddenly, all attention was diverted away from the failure of the CTA to regain Tibet for its people. There was a new scapegoat called Dorje Shugden. At this juncture, the spotlight turned towards ludicrous claims that the Dorje Shugden practice was threatening the cause for a Free Tibet and that anyone who continued worshipping this deity was a traitor to Tibetans. If indeed the CTA had wanted to deflect attention away from their obvious failure as a government, they were certainly succeeding. As the Tibetans split into two factions – those for and those against the practice – the CTA redefined the loyalties of their people and gained back some control of their fragile exiled community.

Not even members of the monastic community were spared. Monks were forced to swear against this practice, which some of them had maintained their whole life. Failure to renounce the practice would mean expulsion from the monastery, their home, and they would be denied the most basic civil rights and welfare due to any Tibetan living under the jurisdiction of the CTA. To this day, Dorje Shugden practitioners continue living in fear that their homes and families would be physically attacked; they are not permitted to associate with non-Shugden practitioners and even denied entry into grocery shops. In the face of all this discrimination, they are not offered any protection from their leaders, the CTA.

No discussion about this ban or the practices is permitted. Any request for dialogue with the Dalai Lama or representatives of the Tibetan government-in-exile have been ignored. Representatives outright deny that there is a ban on the practice. There is not only a lack of freedom of religion but also a severe clamp down on the freedom of expression and speech.

At the same time, the CTA issued ‘educational’ literature to denounce the practice and distributed ‘wanted’ posters around the Tibetan communities of known Shugden practitioners and teachers. This can only beg the question as to whether public funds are being used for the religious suppression of their own people than for the greater good of the whole community. Are Western funds from foreign governments and private citizens – intended for the betterment of the Tibetan people and democracy – being channeled instead towards the suppression of these same people? Why in the first place are any funds – whatever the source – being used to restrict the personal freedoms of their own people, who are already living in such precarious circumstances as refugees?

 

Where are the CTA’s Self-Discipline and Moral Principles?

At a time when the leaders are demanding greater freedom for the Tibetan people, we can only question why they are restricting the individual freedoms and rights of their own people. It is exceptionally sad that this is happening within what is already a very small community, and taken to such an extent that the basic freedoms of religion and speech are surreptitiously prohibited. Understanding the difficulties that the exiled Tibetan people have had to suffer in the last five decades, it would only seem logical that the leaders would actively encourage personal, individual freedoms, truth and objectivity. Instead, it has only become more and more apparent that they are increasingly meddling in personal battles – as in the case of their alleged involvement with RFA personnel – and individuals’ religious choices – such as the Dorje Shugden ban.

What does Lobsang Sangay really stand for?

While much of the democratic West has long extended support and friendship to the exiled Tibetan communities and empathized with their situation, these exchanges between Rohrabacher and Dr. Lobsang Sangay shed new light on the exiled Tibetan leadership. Perhaps they aren’t quite the helpless victims they have portrayed themselves to be. Allegations of their misuse of funds and interferences in the internal affairs of an independent, free media agency cannot have come from nothing. The relative silence of the Tibetan leaders – bar the single denial from Lobsang Sangay – can lead us only to think that they may indeed have something to hide.

Today, the CTA has not only made a powerhouse like China its enemy; it is also fast losing support from the West and is now under the watchful eye of the US Congress for its political manipulations. The might of both the United States of America and China are not to be contended with. With Rohrabacher’s letter, the Tibetans will find themselves balancing an even finer tightrope as they jostle between the Americans and the Chinese.

But while they continue to maintain a narrow focus – expending valuable funds, time and energy on repressing the voice and religious freedoms of their own Tibetan people – what could there possibly be said in favor of the Tibetan cause and the larger freedom of their nation? While they continue to antagonize the Chinese with their ‘Free Tibet’ protests and meddle in affairs of American-funded initiatives, they are in fact undermining the Tibetan people’s hopes and future. How can they rightfully protest the abuse of human rights in China when they are exerting those same oppressions to their own community outside Tibet? It is time that the CTA focuses on what it should really be doing for its people, which is to look after the interests of all Tibetans – whatever their religion.

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  1. In this degenerate times people are motivated by material gains and power. This was prophesised by Buddha Shakyamuni 2600 years ago. Also that we will face heavy challenges in safekeeping the Dharma. It is all happening now ! Hence, in some traditions the Dharma Protector has become a very significant role. The Buddhas have to manifest as Dharma Protectors to protect the Dharma ! Hence, those who have the great fortune to meet the Dharma, should hold steadfast to our practice and work together in harmony to maintain the Dharma for future generations

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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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