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Woser and Lobsang Sangay Discuss "Unity" and the Freedom to Criticize

posted May 23, 2012, 11:53 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated May 24, 2012, 9:07 AM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review

The Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woser has written a sharp critique touching on the future course of Tibetan democracy.  The context of her article is the controversy sparked by Woser’s criticism of the new Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay, for repeatedly omitting Tapey’s 2009 self-immolation in official lists of such self-immolations, despite repeated criticism for doing so.

(It remains unclear whether Sangay’s initial November 2011 omission was a simple mistake or a policy decision, because it was never explained, but it was a position that he stuck with for several months.  Starting around March 2012, however, the Tibetan government-in-exile began including Tapey in such lists, apparently without comment or explanation).
The Critique by Woser
Woser starts out her article describing the fallacy that “unity” requires not criticizing elected leaders:
When I disagreed with the leaders of the Tibetan government in exile, it caused hitherto unknown hesitation and confusion, even though I only suggested that when counting the numbers of self-immolations in Tibet, one needs to go back and take into account the first case of Tapey in 2009.  Some voices from outside Tibet self-confidently expressed that in times of hardship everyone should be united…; at this moment, one needs to strengthen leaders’ authority and must therefore not criticise…
Her next sentence is chilling, comparing this demand for Tibetan “unity” with the reasoning of an authoritarian system:
These kinds of words are all too familiar to someone like me who lives under an authoritarian regime, the autocracy uses very similar reasoning to request all members of society to entertain “collective will, collective action, and collective discipline”.
She rebuts this nascent authoritarianism, arguing that criticism is inherent to democracy:
By suppressing this criticism [of elected leaders], regardless of what the motivations or reasons are, the result will always run counter to democracy.  Mature democracies will never refer to a newly elected leader as the “mighty leader”, but as an object that needs to be controlled.  “Don’t trust the President” is the starting point of democratic philosophy, taming the government and leaders is the basic task of democracy.  And in order to achieve this, one must, above all, rely on the freedom to criticise.
Woser returns to the specific case of Tibetan democracy, arguing that citizens’ free criticism of leaders is essential to help avoid mistakes:
Indeed, we [Tibetans] are in a difficult situation but this is not a reason to reject criticism; on the contrary, we need criticism to prevent leaders from making mistakes.  If criticism does end up destroying unity, then it is always the leader who has to take responsibility for this, because as long as the leader accepts criticism, unity will improve.
Woser’s corollary to the right of citizens to criticize is the need for the elected leadership to listen.  Without naming any specific Tibetan leader, Woser issues a scathing critique of the “arrogan[ce]” of any leader who implies that constructive criticism damages “unity”:
The way to inspect the level of democratisation of a specific society is by looking at its leaders’ attitudes.  If they are arrogant, conceited and arbitrarily denounce other ideas and opinions it means that the leaders have not yet understood what democracy is really about and it also means that the society has not yet achieved the empowerment of the people.
Woser closes by pointing out that the exiled Tibetan leadership should recognize that, since they were not chosen in an election by all 6 million Tibetans, their legitimacy as Tibet’s representatives must be built on “close exchange and communication” with the Tibetan people inside Tibet.  She suggests that these leaders “show their modesty, benevolence and active engagement”, specifically by “providing Tibetans living in Tibet with real guidance and useful methods and by performing an effective role as leaders”.
Lobsang Sangay’s Dissertation
Any Tibetan voter will recall that “unity” was the first part of Lobsang Sangay’s three-part campaign slogan (“unity, innovation, self-reliance”).  In his inaugural speech on August 8, 2011, he went further, stating that “Unity is paramount and it simply cannot be compromised; it is the bedrock of our movement.”
Interestingly, Sangay’s 2004 S.J.D. dissertation examined the tension between “unity” and democracy in exile, so passionately spoken to by Woser’s article.  In Sangay’s dissertation, he came down in favor of democracy as opposed to unity.  His dissertation emphatically embraced the position that the Tibetan freedom movement needs “diversity” and “free speech”, over what Sangay called “unity” and “speaking with one voice”.
Sangay’s dissertation, entitled Democracy in Distress: Is Exile Policy a Remedy?: A Case Study of Tibet’s Government in Exile -- available from the Harvard Law Library -- examines the “inherent paradox between the goal and function of governments-in-exile as a freedom movement and as a democratization process”.  (This quote and the following ones are from the section entitled The Debate: Can There be Democracy in Exile?)  Sangay notes:
Typically, the governments-in-exile have served mainly as national freedom movements directed towards returning to power.  They have emphasized “unity,” “single leadership,” and “speaking with one voice”, contrary to democratic principles of “diversity,” “opposition parties,” and “free speech.”
Sangay then asks: “Are democracy and the national freedom movement mutually exclusive and can they be compatible?”  Sangay recounts the opinions of numerous individuals he interviewed, including Tashi Wangdi, Sonam Topgyal, Namgyal Wangdu, and Chajoe Ngawang Tenpa.  He concludes that democracy, rather than forced “unity”, should triumph:
The choice is which governmental system is better suited to cope with it [the threat from China], transparent [sic] or an opaque one.  As experience [sic] in Tibetan history, traditional [sic] feudal [sic] system was also compromised by Chinese interference but Tibetan populace [sic] could not do much.  Hence democracy with a potential for transparency is better suited to deal with the challenges of the opposition regime.
Alternatively, an undemocratic government in exile could become a fossilized organization without flexibility and might become irrelevant for its stagnation and lack of engagement with exile Tibetans around the world.  Worse, the pre 1959 feudal [sic] government of traditional Tibet, if continued, and replicated in Tibet, an outcome, that would not necessarily be welcomed by Tibetans in Tibet. [Sic]  Without the support of its people, exile [sic] government could loose [sic] its legitimacy and in turn the support of the international community.  Therefore, the most public and even transparent support of the people demonstrated through democratic processes of election, free speech, and various other forms of participation strengthen and sustain the government in exile.
The principled views in Sangay's 2004 dissertation are curiously inconsistent with his more recent statements about unity being “paramount”.  It is unclear whether his views on the tension between free speech and "unity" have changed, now that such free speech is directed against him and his administration.  Certainly anyone is free to change their mind, although in that case an explanation would be useful.  However, to the degree that Woser's description of attacks is accurate, her experience is incompatible with the progressive ideals described in Sangay's dissertation.
We believe that Woser’s recent article and Sangay’s S.J.D. dissertation are entirely correct in their embrace of political plurality, free speech, and the essential need for elected leaders to listen to the citizenry.  We believe that democracy benefits from – and in fact depends on – a vibrant political discourse in which
citizens are free to criticize their elected representatives, and representatives listen.

We also believe that, from a practical perspective, free criticism helps prevent leaders from making mistakes (as Woser pointed out), because no politician is infallible.  Even for a politician’s self-interest, magnanimously accepting free criticism shows that he or she is secure, confident, and democratic.

Any attempt to stifle democratic discourse in the name of “unity” is therefore both profoundly anti-democratic as well as misguided on a practical level.   Conversely, a vibrant political debate by an informed citizenry, such as Sangay endorsed in his 2004 dissertation, will “strengthen and sustain the government in exile.”   It is the unfortunate use of "unity"-based attacks, rather than the exercise of free democratic speech, that is the true culprit in harming Tibetan unity.  It is the responsibility of all Tibetans – including the Kalon Tripa and every other citizen – to strenuously disavow such tactics.


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