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Failing to see the issue

posted May 20, 2011, 7:38 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Wangpo Tethong

Hundreds of Tibetan exile officials, parliamentarians and representatives of the settlements are meeting to discuss and decide on the future political status of H.H. the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala this weekend. The conveners show some ambition in wanting to come up with a final document based on the amendments drafted by a committee of Tibetan government officials and parliamentarians. However, the enormity of this issue—complicated and far reaching in its political implications—may pose an overwhelming task to the delegates, especially given the time frame.

With the announcement of his retirement on March 14, 2011 His Holiness the Dalai Lama has presented a huge challenge to the Tibetan people. It is clear that he wants to hand over his power as the chief executive of the Central Tibetan Administration to a democratically elected leadership. He has also said he wants to set in place a system that „can become self-reliant rather than being dependent on the Dalai Lama”. The word is that he has declined to remain as the head of state.

In his retirement statement, His Holiness has asked that a system of political leadership be drawn up which would not include him: “... amendments to the Charter on this occasion must conform to the framework of a democratic system in which the political leadership is elected by the people for a specific term.“

He then added a paragraph at the end of this statement that will have much graver historic consequences than his personal retirement. He said: “As a result, some of my political promulgations such as the Draft Constitution for a Future Tibet (1963) and Guidelines for Future Tibet's Polity (1992) will become ineffective. The title of the present institution of the Ganden Phodrang headed by the Dalai Lama should also be changed accordingly.”

So far, this last paragraph has not been in the center of the discussions and it will be interesting to see if the special meeting in Dharamsala will include some remarks on this in their final resolution.

The last paragraph

In my view it would be a great mistake to neglect the last paragraph of His Holiness’ statement. In order to understand the whole issue it is a pre-requirement to carefully examine these final lines of his statement.

The draft constitution for a future Tibet was declared in 1963 and is founded on the powerful idea of a democratic and independent Tibetan nation. Though it contains some out of date provisions that are not compatible with a modern democratic society, it symbolizes the vision of a Tibetan nation and the commitment to build up a political system based on democratic values.

In 1992 a document with the title “Guidelines for Future Tibet's Polity” was released. This was four years after the Strasbourg declaration. The speech of His Holiness in Strasbourg has caused some heated debate among Tibetans because of the prospect of conceding important sovereign rights to Beijing and compromising on Tibetan independence. The 1992 document was a surprising u-turn and contained hardly any of the notions that infuriated some sections of the Tibetan community four years earlier.

On the contrary, the guidelines speak about China’s withdrawal from Tibet: “In the light of this, the Chinese leadership will have no alternative but to abandon its rigid policy and come to the negotiating table to find a peaceful solution to the question of Tibet. It will not be long before the Chinese rulers find themselves compelled to leave Tibet.”

H.H. the Dalai Lama then optimistically goes on: “When this joyful occasion comes, the time when the Tibetans in Tibet and those in exile are re-united in a free Tibet, the present totalitarian system, dubbed centralized democracy, will have to give way to true democracy under which the people of all the three provinces of Tibet, namely U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, can enjoy the freedom of thought, expression, and movement. My hope is that Tibet will then be a zone of peace, with environmental protection as its official policy. I also hope that Tibetan democracy will derive its inspiration from the Buddhist principles of compassion, justice and equality.”

It is disturbing that His Holiness has now made a very strong linkage between his political retirement and the revocation of these two documents that have provided to the Tibetans a visionary guidance for their struggle for freedom. Why is it not possible to adjust these documents and edit only those parts that are related to the future role of the Dalai Lamas?

Meanwhile many new developments and changes took place and Dharamsala defined its position in the so-called “memorandum on genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people” in 2008. In this document and in the subsequent note to the memorandum the Tibetan government in exile unambiguously clarifies that it is not seeking separation or independence but rather a genuine autonomy solution for all Tibetans living on the Tibetan high plateau.

What remains of us?

There is some probability that the proposed amendments of the charter as available on the website of the Tibetan parliament in exile will be passed by the special session of the outgoing parliament in Dharamsala. It may also happen that the revocation of the 1963 constitution and the guidelines of 1992 will be passed without any substantial objections. And on top of this the delegates may agree to end the Ganden Phodrang dynasty.

The question then arises: What will remain of the political system we have lived in for more than nearly 370 years and what political options for the future will be left? What future are we heading for?

An optimistic scenario as envisioned in the March 14, 2011 statement of H.H. the Dalai Lama would consist of elements such as the successful implementation of a democratic political leadership without H.H. the Dalai Lama who would continue to play an informal but important role as a symbol or spokesperson of the Tibetan people. We would own a solid democratic system in exile that enables us to circumvent the political chaos and power struggles following each death of a Dalai Lama. This system may also create some attraction for Tibetans inside Tibet and be the seed for a dynamic democratic people’s movement inside Tibet.

A more skeptical scenario needs to take into account the deficiency and contradictions in the basic set up of this plan. It is difficult to understand why the Tibetans should struggle to set up a democratic system in exile if the final vision is to live under Chinese rule and except the Chinese constitution that is clearly not democratic. It is hard to believe that the memorandum and the charter of the Tibetans in exile are able to fulfill a role similar to the 1963 draft constitution as the blueprint for a future Tibet. And finally on a more general note, it is questionable if there can be a vision of democracy without the idea of an independent state.

In 1991 at the time of its inception, the charter was seen more as an instrument to organize the CTA and the Tibetan community in Exile. This thesis is supported by the fact that there was a commission headed by a former minister of the exile government to revise the constitution of 1963 and to conform it to the political changes. However, the revision of the constitution never happened.

The current charter is only ranked second in the hierarchy of Tibetan constitutional papers and derives the essential part of its legitimacy from the Tibetan parliament in exile. It always has been a document devoid of any visionary elements and reference to a Tibetan state. Its basic purpose was to organize the Tibetan community in Exile. It is quite astonishing that this document should now become the base for changes that may fundamentally affect the future of Tibet.

The Tibet Justice Center (TJC) came up with an insightful analysis of the current debates. I full-heartedly support the Tibet Justice Center’s view not to rush and to take time to carefully design the legal framework for the changes envisioned by H.H. the Dalai Lama. However, TJC overstresses the importance of the charter and does not see its limited authority to define matters affecting the destiny of Tibet as a nation.

TJC’s paper, however, makes the very important distinction between head of government and head of state and hereby shows a way to preserve the political nature of the Dalai Lama institution.

It is to be hoped that the delegates refrain of hastily agreeing solely to the proposed amendments to the charter without carefully setting up a system of check and balances. The consequence would be unresolved constitutional problems and an overloaded exile charter that is innately unfit to be the framework our nation’s future and the destiny of the century old institution of Ganden Phodrang.

The charter too small to swallow Ganden Phodrang

H.H. the Dalai Lama’s wish of ending the Ganden Phodrang dynasty may be the most complex of all issues. It is necessary to look back in history and try to understand in what kind of process we are in.

The 5th Dalai Lama, the founder of the dynasty, was a reincarnation of the most respected Gelug lineage and had strong ties to the Mongols tribes in the Kokonor region. His main adviser Sonam Choephel was an ambitious man and clearly understood that his young lama had the qualities to become a great ruler. It was predictable what would be needed to make his plan become true: a war with the support of Mongol military against the most powerful man in Tibet, the King of Tsang and his Kagyud allies.

The young Dalai Lama was not fond of carrying out a war in the heart of Tibet. But then, Gushri Khan’s army invaded the Tsang province and a decision had to be taken by the Dalai Lama. The young men showed enormous resolve and acted as could be expected from a future king of Tibet: the only way out of this situation and to end an unpreventable war was victory.

After the surrender of the King of Tsang, the 5th Dalai Lama came to Shigatse. In a splendid ceremony the Mongol leader handed over the Tibetan territories to him. But it was only after his return to Lhasa in 1642 and in absence of the Mongol leader that he declared the inception of the Dalai Lama dynasty, named after his palais in Drepung monastery, Ganden Phodrang.

The history of Buddhist lamas becoming rulers of Tibet started with the Sakyas in the 13th century and has been continued by the Dalai Lamas. The Ganden Phodrang has received the respect of neighboring rulers and nations and developed over the centuries strong emotional ties to Tibetans.

We are now in a process of handing over the power of the Ganden Phodrang dynasty to a democratic elected leadership of a 100’000 exile Tibetans. This move can be clearly understood as a step to prevent Chinese interference in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. I, therefor, sympathize with the decision to end the Ganden Phodrang dynasty and hereby stop the dynastic politics that were so harmful for Tibet’s stability. On the other hand, I wonder if these precautionary measures will suffice to keep away the Chinese and if this could not be done in another way. The Chinese are not the only threat. It is thinkable that people serving the 15th Dalai Lama or another lama inside Tibet will try to take over political control with foreign support. In view of all these uncertainties, is it not advisable to maintain the Dalai Lama institution within the Tibetan political system and have at least some level of influence?

The Dalai Lama institution is the only vivid and undisputed institutional link to the Tibetan nation, as it existed before the Chinese occupation. I am aware that there a many different opinions on the subject of legitimacy. I personally have serious reservation if the Central Tibetan Administration is qualified to uphold its legal claim for the succession of the Tibetan government of pre-1959 after the demise of the Dalai Lama if the Ganden Phodrang dynasty is dissolved. Therefore, I say we are destined to maintain the Dalai Lama institution as a political institution as long as possible and as long as needed if the revival of a Tibetan state shall remain a goal for the future.

It is obvious that the political system and power established by the 5th Dalai Lama and continued by his successors can’t be easily transferred to a next political institution. It wouldn’t be a failure if we don’t manage to find a perfect solution. These difficulties are innate to transitional processes that we undergo. However, it is our task to examine these tricky problems with the best of our ability and not to rush.

What needs to be done

H.H. the Dalai Lama has presented a clear list of demands to the Tibetan parliament and is fully entitled to get a clear and coherent answer combined with concrete decisions that lead to a real change:

There are a significant number of constitutional questions that must be clarified. We should seek the advice and expertise of international experts, historians, tibetologists and legal experts who have the academic background to give us an in-depth analysis and solid recommendations.

In the upcoming meeting we must pave the way for a change that makes us stronger but without rushing into wrong and irreversible harmful developments.

Therfore, I suggest that the delegates and the parliament include the following five points in the final papers of the up-coming meeting.

1. Declare their full support for the transfer of the political power of the Dalai Lama to a democratic elected leadership.
2. Declare their wish to explore the possibility to maintain the Dalai Lama institution in a political system similar to a “constitutional monarchy” or “head of state”-solution. 
3. Agree on a defined roadmap with a timeline for the transfer of the political power to a democratic elected leadership within the next year. 
4. Appoint a committee to explore the necessity to revise the constitution of 1963 along the ideas of the 1992 guidelines. 
 5. Appoint a committee to come up with a coherent set of constitutional documents that form a strong legal base for the power transfer. 

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