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Can Some Good Come From the RFA Controversy?

posted Dec 7, 2012, 6:40 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Dec 8, 2012, 5:57 AM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review 

Watching the Radio Free Asia (RFA) controversy unfold has been a painful process, not the least because it threatens to overshadow the tragedy inside Tibet and complicate support for Tibet in the US Congress.  Given that this unwelcome controversy cannot be wished away, however, the only real choice is how to handle it.  In our view, the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGIE) has an opportunity: it can show its people – and the world – that it is mature, transparent, and capable of juggling multiple crises like any other democracy.

The RFA Controversy in Context

There is a disturbing lack of uncontested public facts so far, which makes it inappropriate to speculate on culpability.  All parties agree that Jigme Ngapo lost his job as director of RFA's Tibetan Service on November 4, 2012, after 16 years of service.  A copy of an October 19 letter to RFA President Libby Liu has also been released, signed by 37 out of 40 RFA Tibetan Service staff, declaring "full support and loyalty to Jigme la."
RFA president Libby Liu

On November 8, the Tibetan blogger Woser wrote that Ngapo was dismissed with no public reasons given, and escorted by security out of the building (she wrote from Lhasa, so her information was not first-hand).  She expressed her "greatest admiration" for his work.  She even commented that when she herself was fired by Chinese authorities, at least they had told her the reason she was being fired and had not expelled her from the building like a "big black dog on a leash."  However, in a following post on November 21, Woeser wrote, “Since at present the information I have obtained so far is incomplete and there is also the language barrier, it might be possible for me to misunderstand the situation.”

This matter is about much more than just one man’s job (although anyone’s loss of livelihood should be empathized).  RFA’s reporting on the self-immolation crisis has been unparalleled.  Tibetans in Tibet risk their lives to send information to RFA, international news media have cited RFA heavily, and of course RFA broadcasts news of the self-immolations back to Tibet.  Given RFA’s critical two-way linkage between Tibet and the outside world, the decapitation of RFA Tibetan Service’s leadership comes at a particularly inopportune time for the Tibetan cause.

Don’t Jump to Any Conclusions

Readers will no doubt be aware of the letters that Congressman Dana Rohrbacher sent to RFA President Libby Liu and Sikyong Lobsang Sangay on November 17 and 19.  Rohrbacher accused Liu and Sangay of “political censorship” at RFA, and warned Sangay that “actions taken by you and other Tibetan leaders … are eroding support within the US Congress for the Tibetan cause.”  In addition, Rohrbacher also alluded to “serious accusations that US funding meant for Tibetans may have … [gone] into the pockets of the Communist Chinese and Tibetan power brokers.”

Readers will also be aware that, on November 21, Sikyong Sangay issued a statement in which he called Rohrbacher’s charges “completely baseless.”  (More on this below.)

It is beyond question that it is premature to jump to any conclusions.  The burden is squarely on Rohrbacher to provide evidence to back up his charges against Sangay.

There are, however, two additional considerations.  The first has to do with the way the TGIE conducts its foreign relations and public diplomacy, and the second with the larger question of the need to improve the TGIE’s internal checks.

Foreign Relations and Public Diplomacy: A Self-Inflicted Wound

At times like this, it is easy to let emotions get carried away.  From an objective perspective, this much is clear: 

The fact is that an important Congressman who chairs the foreign relations investigations subcommittee has made serious allegations.  Given the critical role of the US Government for the Tibetan struggle, it is beyond obvious that the Congressman’s concerns must be taken seriously and respectfully.  (Recall that Rohrbacher warned that the alleged “machinations” would threaten Congressional support for Tibet.)

Congressman Dana Rohrbacher
Who is Rohrbacher?  He has been a staunch Tibet supporter for many years.  He co-founded the US Congress’s Tibet Caucus in 2008, and called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over China’s treatment of Tibetans.  He is also chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on investigations.  This powerful subcommittee conducts oversight on matters related to foreign affairs.  Rohrbacher thus has a legal right and responsibility to oversee RFA.

It is worth noting that RFA was set up by the US government and is entirely funded by US taxpayers.  It is a testament to the enormous success of RFA’s mission that many Tibetans feel a deep affinity for the radio station, even feeling like it is a Tibetan institution.  But it must be remembered that, when it comes to ownership and control, RFA belongs to the US government and US taxpayer.

Could Rohrbacher’s letter to Sangay have been more diplomatic?  Surely. In fact, Speaker Penpa Tsering referred to his language as “denigrating and unparliamentary”.  However, Rohrbacher is known for his blunt speaking style (in 2011 he called Hu Jintao a “gangster”).  More generally, Members of Congress who chair powerful committees are accustomed to aggressively grilling people like the Secretary of State, CEOs, and four-star generals.  The fact is that some powerful Members of Congress speak this way; this is nothing personal or worth getting insulted over.

So keeping all that in mind, it becomes clear that the TGIE’s response so far has left significant room for improvement.

The Sikyong’s Letter:

On November 21, two days after Rohrbacher’s letter, the Sikyong issued a terse, unsigned statement in which he called the charges “completely baseless.”  Specifically, he stated, “I have never approached either RFA President Ms. Libby Liu or members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors on matters related to RFA personnel.”  He also declared the CTA’s “fiscal integrity and transparency”.

Although we applaud the speed with which Sangay denied Rohrbacher’s charges, unfortunately his statement is unlikely to resolve the issue.  People in the US Congress parse such statements as a matter of habit.  They will note that Sangay’s statement was oddly specific in what it actually denied.  Sangay denied “approaching” Liu or the BBG on matters related to “RFA personnel”.  Intentionally or not, Sangay left the door open to having been approached by Liu, or to approaching Liu first on a different matter.  Also Sangay did not define what he means by an “RFA personnel” matter.

Lest anyone think that this is needless lawyerly parsing, Republicans like Rohrbacher will recall that President Clinton once tried to escape perjury charges by basing his defense on what the meaning of the word “is” is.  So it is not a stretch that Rohrbacher will notice that the key term – “RFA personnel” – is undefined.  (He will also surely notice that Representative Lobsang Nyandak used the same term, “RFA personnel”, in a publicized letter to Jamyang Norbu on November 30, suggesting that this term may have been purposely chosen.)  Members of Congress may therefore think – rightly or wrongly – that Sangay is not being fully forthcoming.

The Speaker’s Letter:

Then on November 23, Speaker Penpa Tsering sent his own letter to Rorhbacher on behalf of the Tibetan Parliament.  It made some good points, but as it objected to Rohrbacher’s “denigrating and unparliamentary language”, it unfortunately used its own undiplomatic tone.

Additionally, the letter asserted without any apparent basis that Rohrbacher’s charges were “clearly based on insinuation and hearsay”.  Rohrbacher’s committee has access to non-public information and deals with the most sensitive issues in US diplomacy (like military threats, espionage, and terrorism).  The Speaker could not have known the basis for Rohrbacher’s charges (since he did not ask), nor did he have enough time to conduct his own credible independent investigation.

Speaker Tsering also took the step of copying his letter to the most important people in the US government, including President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Reid.  This step is questionable and may further escalate the matter.  Thus, Speaker Tsering may have intended his letter to quiet this controversy, but that will not be the likely result.

(This is not the first embarrassing letter sent by Speaker Tsering to a head of state.  On May 8, 2012, the Speaker extended his “heartfelt best wishes” and congratulations to Vladimir Putin for his “historic” election to a third term as Russian president; independent observers had denounced Putin’s election as tainted by rampant fraud, media intimidation, and state-sanctioned violence against opposition parties.)

A Golden Opportunity for the TGIE

The above comments on the TGIE’s response may seem critical, but they come out of a conviction that the Tibetan cause needs a strong TGIE, and therefore all Tibetans have a duty to provide constructive feedback.  By taking an objective and non-emotional perspective, we believe it is possible to see that there were certain shortcomings in the way the TGIE leadership responded to a serious controversy.  The good news is that in theory these shortcomings are entirely fixable.

The best advice in dealing with any political scandal is: “get ahead of the controversy.”  The TGIE leadership so far has come off as defensive and not entirely convincing, but there is still time to get ahead of this controversy and display confidence, maturity, and transparency.

When the Tibetan Parliament does not live up to its role as a separate branch of government (e.g. when it rubber-stamped the Sikyong’s Kashag nominees without any question or discussion), it is as if one leg of a three-legged stool is wobbly.  Woser said it best in her second post on the RFA issue:

I believe that Tibetan exile society needs to raise the level of its own political modernisation.  This kind of modernisation is not just the appearance of democracy only on the surface but a real understanding of and compliance with the ideas and principles of democracy, especially to accommodate a variety of views, receive criticism, as well as to monitor those who are in control, these things are the true essence of democracy.

This “political modernisation” can start with the Tibetan Parliament living up to its duty of oversight over the executive (the Kashag).  It is well known that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has expressed a wish that the TGIE function as a full democracy, with basic principles like separation of powers and checks-and-balances.

In the case of the RFA controversy, imagine if the Tibetan Parliament had responded to Rohrbacher instead with a mature, confident, and diplomatically-worded letter stating:

  1. the Parliament believes in the presumption of innocence, and has full confidence in the Sikyong; 
  2. given the seriousness of the charges and the respectability of the source, the Parliament requests Rohrbacher to reveal his reasons for his beliefs as stated in the letter;
  3. based on Rohrbacher’s information, the Parliament can refer this matter to an independent investigative committee if necessary; if there is any truth to these allegations, the Parliament is confident that the truth will be revealed;
  4. the Parliament thanks the Congressman for his long-standing support for freedom for the Tibetan people.

Such an approach would have displayed a level of confidence and even-handedness that would have reflected very well on the maturity of the young Tibetan democracy.  Additionally, this approach would have recognized that transparency requires being proactive.  The fact is that Rohrbacher’s subcommittee has the power to call hearings and issue subpoenas.  In the event that there are any facts at all behind Rohrbacher’s allegations, it would be far better if the Tibetan political system – rather than the American one – brought them to light first.

More broadly, the Tibetan Parliament could form a “Transparency and Oversight Committee” that is specifically tasked with investigating any time credible questions are raised about the functioning of the TGIE.  This committee could be provided the ability to hire a small staff as needed and the power to hold hearings, demand documents from within the TGIE, and compel testimony from TGIE officers.

This imagined Transparency and Oversight Committee should have strict conflict-of-interest rules.  Its members should not be the same as the Parliament Standing Committee, which has a different role.  Given that any Chitues who are not on the Standing Committee are only in session twice a year, the Transparency and Oversight Committee should have the power to come into session on an ad hoc basis.

All this would be a way to improve the functioning of the TGIE as a robust democracy with transparency and separation of powers.

The critical importance of bolstering the TGIE as the legitimate and democratic voice of the Tibetan people was noted by Sikyong Sangay himself in his S.J.D. dissertation:

The very existence of an exile government questions the legitimacy of the Chinese government in Tibet.  If the exile government establishes itself well and gains credence internationally and internally, then it becomes a bigger threat because both Tibetans inside Tibet and the international community might look at the Tibetan exile government as a power to recond with, or recognize it as the de-jure or de-facto government and express or show loyalty to it.

We agree.  Improving and strengthening the Tibetan democracy is a task that has every bearing on the success of the Tibetan struggle.  That is why the TGIE needs the constructive engagement of all Tibetans.

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