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Troubling T-Shirts in Holy Times: The Impropriety of Being Political

posted Jul 25, 2011, 6:55 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jul 25, 2011, 7:02 AM ]
By Topden Tsering

If you thought it’s only in China-occupied Tibet that perils can be brought upon your head for asserting your Tibetanness, think again!

Last week, at the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra transmission venue in Washington D.C., Kalden Lodoe, President of Capital Area Tibetan Association (CATA), also one of the event’s organizers, threw out Tsewang Rigzin, President of Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), over the sale of T-shirts bearing the words, “Tibetan Government-in-Exile.” The neighboring Students for a Free Tibet (SFT)-stall was also forced to close down. The ejected activist-leader later took to his Facebook page; he wrote he’d been told the wording on the merchandise was too political, and that Mr. Lodoe had threatened to call security on him. Subsequently, at a TYC Centrex-called press conference in Dharamsala, Mr. Lodoe was condemned for his “appalling behavior” and urged to tender a public apology.

A cursory review of the incident might paint the debacle as issuing from one man’s act of sheer tactlessness, which, given the hallowed magnitude of the prevailing ceremony, serve best being swept under the carpet, as an isolated unfortunate occurrence. A little “Akha kha,” and onward with the more pressing dalliance with the divinity: that sudden upswing of faith, those many vows. However, a closer inspection of the episode reveals truths that go beyond mere approximation of the Tibetan free speech. It shines light, following the recent Tibetan administration name-change, on the murky misappropriation that has entered measured discussions about Tibetan democracy and the Tibetan freedom movement.

To be fair to CATA board members, by most accounts, the organizing committee has done a commendable job in pulling off this momentous gathering. Upon enquiry by this author, Kalden Lodoe told me that both TYC and Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) had been given free booths outside the Verizon Center for the groups to sell their merchandise. At one point, for a day, TYC was allocated a table inside, along with SFT, although it had been barred from bringing in its “Tibetan Youth Congress Kalachakra Souvenir T-shirts” banner. The furor unfolded the next morning when Mr. Lodoe sent Mr. Rigzin and his TYC stall packing, on the ground that the Tibetan Government-in-Exile message on the T-shirts was too political. Few hours later, the SFT booth was also kicked out; Tenzin Dorjee, the organization's executive director, was not present then. In his explanation to this author, Mr. Lodoe made, what appeared like, a slip that he and Tsewang Rigzin had had a tense relationship to begin with. Even if the possibility of private score-settling, and by turn abuse of one’s public position, were to be only marginally deduced, the disturbing ramifications it attaches to the issue remain undisputedly worrisome. That however shall not be a focus of this analysis.

What is of note is Mr. Lodoe’s disapproval, in a tone strikingly discordant with the event’s World Peace theme, of the T-shirts’ message as being too political. A torrent of abuses was hurled; thick-bodied, weapons-carrying security personnel were hinted at. A witness (a seasoned activist whose name has been withheld on request) likened Mr. Lodoe’s behavior to that of a tyrant; he said Mr. Rigzin was subjected to public humiliation. In fairness, a certain set of circumstances would have made understandable, excusable even, such response, namely, if Mr. Rigzin had overstepped the limit of basic courtesy, by doing such things as disrespecting his hosts, or fueling confrontation. That absenting, it translates that Mr. Lodoe’s action was an assault not only on the person of Mr. Rigzin, but also on TYC, an organization which has, for the last four decades, embodied the spirit of Tibetan resistance to China’s occupation. In as much as the forced closure was equally an insult to SFT, whose activism record is unparalleled. Amid the crumbling edifice of the larger official universe, the two groups' remain that rare voice which not only acts a litmus test to Free Speech but underpins the very integrity of exile Tibetan existence, which is to keep aloft the struggle for a Free Tibet.

Too Political

The “too political” reference by Mr. Lodoe, who’s by profession a newscaster for Radio Free Asia Tibetan Service, warrants scrutiny. It is safe to assume that the organizing committee had known all along the nature of merchandise TYC had on display, both when it was tabled outside the Verizon Center, and briefly inside. As such the question arises as to when exactly did the organizing committee — if the eviction was a collective decision, as Mr. Lodoe claims — wake up to its realization that the Tibetan Government-in-Exile as an expression, if only on T-shirts, deserved nothing short of censorship. What changed that particular day? More urgently, at which exact point in place, during the slogan’s journey, past the location ground, through its several doors, from the exterior to the interior, did it become political beyond tolerance?

Mr. Lodoe told me, early on, the committee had agreed that nothing political would be allowed inside the venue. The fact that there were tables for Free Panchen Lama, as well as International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), with their flyers and pamphlets which called attention to a problem inside Tibet that was essentially political in nature, makes the explanation flimsy. So while literature which extolled freedom aspirations of Tibetan people, reverberating with echoes of a land ravaged and a people enslaved, were okay, a phrase that had, until two months ago, proudly graced the plaque of every administration office in Dharamsala was not? A name that had been interchangeable with the Dalai Lama; a name now half banned, half preserved; killed before its time; destined for purgatory ahead of (if the signs are any indication) its cousin slogans such as “Free Tibet” and symbols such as our flag, our national anthem?

The nomenclature retrofitting had happened abruptly, seemingly unconstitutionally. As a proposed charter amendment, some 400 Tibetan representatives at a hurriedly-convened Second National General Meeting in May had unanimously rejected the idea; still it got passed in the Tibetan parliament without a fuss. What was earlier Tibetan Government-in-Exile had been changed to Institution of Tibetan People. Prior to this, in English and in official rendering, the administration had identified itself as Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Its appearance, in Tibetan, as “Tibetan Government-in-Exile,” had underscored its truer purpose, while the language’s exclusivity providing it impunity from legal stringencies; like many things Tibetan in our dislocated reality, this exercise in the vague had so far worked without much, if not any, casualty. By way of explanation, the outgoing Chief of Cabinet, Samdhong Rinpoche, referred to some pending cases in the Himachal Pradesh court, several negative reports in newspapers in south India, and cuts in Frederick Norman Foundation funds. He was also quick to add it was only the form that had changed, the content remained the same; “the legitimate government of Tibet established since 1642 has absolutely not been dissolved.”

Consequently, it should follow that if not on a signboard outside a Tibetan office, at least on a T-shirt front, “Tibetan Government-in-Exile” could be allowed to live. If not in Tibet, if not in India, at least in the capital of the United States of America, that citadel of the American First Amendment which renders inviolable one’s right to freedom of expression, where T-shirts occupy an almost hallowed sanctum ─ as a popular cultural wall on which to post one’s political, intellectual and religious beliefs, or counter-beliefs, however radical, however ludicrous.

The Dalai Lama Connection

It is not unlikely that when Mr. Lodoe made the “too political” reference, he made it with respect to the Dalai Lama (presuming the pronouncement was not made in deference to the Chinese government, which implication is usually first to come to mind when one hears the words, “too political”). Explaining the name change in March, the Dalai Lama had said he had exercised his unique prerogative, from his standpoint of the fourteenth in the line, rescinding the traditional system of Tibetan government, Bhod Zhung Gadhen Phodrang Choklei Namgyal, as had been instituted by his predecessor, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. This abnegation of traditional theocracy, despite its apparent congruity with Tibetan democratization process, seemingly warranting accolades from secularization proponents, considering its timing and intent, both expressed and otherwise, however bear ramifications not too dissimilar from the Dalai Lama’s 1988 Strasbourg Proposal, which many regard as the first of His Holiness’ series of capitulation to the Chinese government in hopes of securing greater freedom for Tibet; given that Beijing has so far demonstrated no reciprocation, given its ever-hardening stance on Tibet, this could also well be the one most damaging to Tibetan national identity, to the Tibetan freedom struggle.

It requires little emphasis that the Tibetan national identity derives its legitimacy from the four hundred year-old Bhod Zhung Gadhen Phodrang, as had been established by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, credited with unifying the Tibetan heartland, with aid from Gushi Khan, a powerful Mongol chieftain, whose association was subsequently uninvolved. It marked not only the first pan-Tibetan civil administration, but also lent an unprecedented political, also international some might argue, personality to Tibetan nation that persisted to the day when the current Dalai Lama escaped to India, as the legitimate head of a country which China had militarily occupied, up until the present time of His Holiness’ announcement. This government served the basis for Tibetan denunciation of Chinese occupation, later echoed in such international legal validation as the 1961 United Nations resolution backing Tibetan self-determination. And it was this government which thus far provided credence to Tibetan outrage against Chinese atrocities as a systematic annihilation of a people, of a culture, of a way of life.

It is against this backdrop that the progressive Tibetan call for separation of politics from religion finds accompaniment in the shared conviction that it is in Tibet’s interest for His Holiness to remain a ceremonial head of state. Precedents for such arrangements can be found in the monarchy systems of the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan, to name a few; Charles de Gaulle, considered the most influential leader in modern French history, described the head of state as embodying “the spirit of the nation” for the nation itself and the world.

The Inherent Pitfalls

Viewed from the perspective of Middle Way policy supporters, it can be argued that the Dalai Lama’s dismantling of the traditional Tibetan governance followed His Holiness’ endeavor to earn Beijing’s trust; after all, China has time and again accused the Dalai Lama of harboring separatist impulses, pointing to the inconsistencies of a national leader asking for genuine autonomy, in which framework Chinese political dominion is accepted without question. However, the ground realities inside Tibet, China’s policies on the issue, diplomatic international conversations surrounding them, all confirm, what Elliot Sperling has recently concluded in his article, “The Tibetan Movement Pulls the Plug on Itself: Advantage China,” that, “there is no imaginable reason for China to abandon a strategy which, though intransigent, achieves its aims. China fully understands that its rise as a world power has sharply diminished the need to placate international critics on an issue that is not a vital interest to other powers.”

Conversely, if, by a long shot, the Chinese government were to positively respond to the Dalai Lama’s negotiations efforts, pursuant to its conditions, His Holiness will be treated as a private citizen, with no legal clout on behalf of Tibetan people. The question then arises, again by a long shot, should a discussion over the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet materializes tomorrow, will His Holiness be making the trip solely as a spiritual leader, whose top priorities being, as one interview in a foreign newspaper enumerated, to champion global peace, to propagate Tibetan Buddhism, and to foster inter-faith harmony, the betterment of the Tibetan fate appearing only as a footnote. In such a scenario, His Holiness’ repeated utterances that the Tibet issue is not about his person, but the fate of six million Tibetans will be rendered moot.

The Dalai Lama’s cancellation of the Tibetan government, rather hastily, goes beyond such innate contradictions; it lays bare the inextricable nature of politics and religion in the Tibetan context which if injudiciously dispensed with portends the absolute hara-kiri of the Tibetan hope for greater freedom, from the conservatives’ standpoint, and the independence struggle, from the viewpoint of Rangzen advocates. Furthermore, considering inherent to Tibetan evocation of freedom are the Tibetan national flag and the Tibetan national anthem, both of which bear mixed vocabulary of spiritual and political, even granting their appearances only in the early and mid 20th century respectively, it might appear they too risk being banned. Already, Samdhong Rinpoche and the Kashag have previously issued circulars discouraging Free Tibet protests, against which backdrop it might not seem far-fetched if one day “Free Tibet” as a slogan also came under similar attack.

In light of these evaluations one hopes that the Tibetan administration restores the government core of its identity, and that, in reflection of real separation of politics from religion, His Holiness remains a ceremonial head of state, the entire political decision-making devolved, not just in name but in the true sense of the word, to the newly-elect Kalon Tripa, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, and the exile parliament.

Only then will be possible a sound basis for the realization of the twin objectives as widely iterated by Dr. Sangay, namely, reinstatement of His Holiness on his throne in the Potala Palace, and freedom for Tibet. Because minus the political impetus, minus the historical association, the Potala will be just a hollowed structure, crowded with deities and depopulated of humans, an imagery which had often troubled His Holiness when a mere boy. Reduced to another place of worship whose walls one’s forehead to touch against, its centrality in the larger scheme of Tibetan identity, cultural or political, will be irrevocably lost. Just as the goal of freedom for Tibet will be rendered ambiguous in the absence of a reference such as a government which had once embodied the country as an independent nation, free of external oppression or influence.

Given these realities, one can understand why TYC had made T-shirts which explicitly declared, “Tibetan Government-in-Exile.” At the heart of the organization’s avowed goal, which is independence for Tibet, is the unflappable conviction that Tibet was once independent; therefore, it would have been inconsistent for TYC not to have designed those T-shirts, just as, where it had always sold political message-laden merchandise at other Kalachakra sites, the organization would have been remiss not to do the same at the Washington D.C. venue. It is against this light that one has to recognize the expressed outrage by those who point to the indiscretion of the T-shirts’ appearance at the Dalai Lama’s “Wheel of Time” teaching as nothing but missing the wood for the trees.

If, as elucidated in Ronald D. Schwarz’s “Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising,” a book about the Tibetan revolt from 1987 through 1992, in the monks’ spearheading of the uprising for Tibet’s freedom they had incorporated religious rituals, such as lighting offering lamps before a protest or circling the Jokhang temple before heading toward Chinese offices, it goes without saying that the same inter-dependence could be allowed expression at a hazard-free occasion such as a Kalachakra transmission in the United States. After all, it was not a defamatory slogan against the Dalai Lama that the T-shirts addressed, but the very aspirations for which Tibetans inside Tibet laid down their lives, which they continue to do even today.

The Kalden Lodoe Factor

Curiously, while justifying the abnegation of the traditional Tibetan government, His Holiness, in his address to the Tibetans at the Kalachakra event, asserted that, despite the name-change, the administration had not eschewed its responsibility to represent the oppressed Tibetans inside China-occupied Tibet. He too affirmed that in content, more than just in form, the Tibetan government endured.

Given the above clarification, the effrontery by Kalden Lodoe confirms his position as that of a tyrant, one who’s bent on censorship. His effort to silence is not the first instance of a Tibetan association head in the United States bearing its weight against an activist group such as Tibetan Youth Congress. Often in the past, the group’s regional chapters, be it in Portland, be it in San Francisco, or elsewhere, have felt stifled in their activism endeavors, courtesy the circulars, discouraging Free Tibet protests, issued by Shamdhong Rinpoche and Kashag; the pronouncements by Rinpoche likening the Tibetan Youth Congress activists to Chinese government and Shugden propitiators call for a separate discussion.

In the case of Kalden Lodoe, it will be wise for him to submit an apology to Tsewang Rigzin as well as TYC, not only to absolve himself, but also CATA and the Kalachakra Organizing Committee, whose good works his personal misjudgment threatens to derail. Such admission of wrongdoing will also help safeguard the integrity of Tibetan freedom struggle, which cannot be perceived in any other way than political, and protect those who uphold their right to asserting their Tibetanness, above all else, from undemocratic censorship.

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