Thursday, 9 June 2011

Implementing The Dalai Lama’s Master-Plan: Problems & Prospects

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama officially announced his decision to stand down as the chief executive of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) on the eve of the 52nd anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising earlier this year, it understandably sent shock-waves throughout the Tibetan world and triggered pangs of anxiety in the upper echelons of the exile administration. But despite the ensuing general hysteria, His Holiness stuck to his guns. He first turned down separate requests from the Kashag and the Chitues to reconsider his decision, and then recently, to everyone’s dismay, rejected the title of “the ceremonial head of state” proposed at the last month’s Special Meeting of Tibetan representatives. That said, His Holiness went out of his way, in his every other public appearance following his March 10 statement, to put to rest- once and for all- most of the initial frenzy and rumours surrounding the issue of his retirement. What was particularly reassuring was his pledge to step in if and when the exile movement encountered extraordinary difficulties necessitating his direct involvement. (Watch the Dalai Lama explicate reasons for relinquishing all temporal and administrative prerogatives ascribed to him under the 1991 Charter of the Tibetans in Exile below).

By renouncing his political powers, what is obvious is that, His Holiness has set the ball rolling on a monumental change in the nearly 370 year-old theocratic system of governance presided over by successive Dalai Lamas. He has, by urging the dissociation of the Ganden Phodrang institution from the affairs of the Tibetan Government, initiated the secularization of Tibetan politics- a hitherto taboo issue raised by few and hushed up and evaded by most Tibetans. This is, by all accounts, a groundbreaking scheme which might well be decisive when it comes to securing the survival of the exile movement in the long run. 

This master plan of his, in my opinion, is also significant because had it not been for yet another timely, farsighted and proactive reform initiative on the Dalai Lama’s part, the route to such an eventuality would have been extremely arduous and wrought with difficulties owing to our hyper-religious beliefs and our over-dependence on the person of the Dalai Lama. It is, therefore, true that no one but His Holiness himself would have been able to begin the devolution process in earnest and I am glad that he has chosen to do so at a time when our community is witnessing unprecedented political activism and democratic resurgence. What makes me sanguine about the timing of this devolution project, if you ask me, is also the knowledge that the Dalai Lama himself will be there to oversee this historic transition of power and to ascertain that there are no major hiccups along the way. His Holiness, even at the ripe old age old of 76, is still incredibly healthy and active, and I, like many of us, expect him to be around to guide us for years to come. The metaphorical sun, so to speak, is shining ever so brightly, the time to mend the roof, if you like, could not have been more opportune.

While I am generally optimistic about the outcome of recent political developments, the severity of problems which have come to light in their wake is not lost on me. There is no denying the fact that the Dalai Lama’s retirement has rattled the foundations of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGIE). Analysts have alleged that with His Holiness- the only significant mortal link between the pre-1959 Tibetan government and the present-day exile administration in Dharamsala- distancing himself from the latter, a serious legitimacy issue has cropped up. But this, I would say, is not a new phenomenon. We have been at loggerheads with Beijing on this issue for as long as one could remember. As for the international community, its recognition of the TGIE was not forthcoming even when His Holiness was its chief executive. So, the situation has not changed much! Moreover, for those who matter the most i.e. for the Tibetans on either side of the Himalayas, I think a democratically constituted exile administration, even without His Holiness, would be far more legitimate than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can ever hope to be. Besides, His Holiness’ retirement does not negate the history and origins of the TGIE, it merely signifies a logical evolution in the exile governance corresponding with larger democratic trends in the world. Hence, the Dalai Lama-less CTA, in my opinion, remains a legitimate extension of the erstwhile Ganden Phodrang government of Tibet and should be viewed as such.

On a more general note, the thing about legitimacy is that it can be earned as well as squandered; it is never a given. To our credit, this year’s hugely successful Kalon Tripa and parliamentary elections have significantly raised the global profile of the TGIE. The success of these elections has enabled the CTA to present itself as an attractive alternative model of governance to Beijing’s iron-fisted rule in Tibet. In the same vein, I think recent Charter amendments have afforded an excellent opportunity for Dharamsala to enhance its reputation (especially among Tibetans inside Tibet), and to carve a niche for itself whilst His Holiness is still in flesh and blood. But how this opportunity is harnessed (especially) by our law-makers will, in my opinion, determine the future stature of our revamped TGIE.

I say this because what the exile parliament has done up until now is only react to and rubber stamp whatever political reforms the Dalai Lama has pioneered from time to time. In other words, it has seldom been a forward-looking engine of change and innovation. Unfortunately, His Holiness’ presence at the helm has itself inadvertently contributed to the parliament’s political bankruptcy and its lack of initiative and dynamism. I do not need to look far to prove my point. Barely a week ago, the Chitues of the 14th parliament approved the change of name of the exile administration from Tsenjol Bod Zhung (the Tibetan Government-in-Exile) to Bod-Meyi Drik-Tsuk (the Institution of the Tibetan People) disregarding the fact that an overwhelming majority of delegates at the Special Meeting had vehemently opposed such a change. Our law-makers, by doing so, compromised the very democratic principles they were supposed to uphold (seemingly to comply with His Holiness’ recommendation). Can they seriously be any more indifferent to the people’s wishes?
Now that the Dalai Lama has completely renounced his political powers, I foresee an exceedingly important central role for the exile parliament. For starters, I would like the newly elected 15th parliament to restore our confidence in this pivotal exile institution (an ideal way to do so would be by redressing the name change fiasco) and earn people’s respect by being, at the very least, more enterprising than our previous parliaments in its approach to various vexing issues of national significance. Now that the onus has, well and truly, shifted to our democratically elected representatives, I expect there to be more open and frank debates on issues of national concern in our parliament devoid of any irrational sentimentality. Since there is no hiding behind the Dalai Lama’s shadow anymore, I also expect our elected leaders to, for once, come to the forefront, take the bull by its horns and assume responsibility for each and everyone of their political acts whilst in office.
But old habits, as they say, die hard. Many of our seasoned leaders appear to have lingering doubts about the ability of the TGIE to function as an effective unit in the absence of His Holiness. One such leader, Lodi Gyari Rinpoche, His Holiness’ Special Envoy, speaking on the Voice of America’s Kunleng Programme in March, stated that he does not have the courage and motivation to serve under an exile administration not headed by the Dalai Lama (Watch Rinpoche’s full interview below).

Rinpoche said that it was his personal sentiment but, be that as it may, a defeatist remark like this coming from such a high profile Tibetan leader is extremely unsettling, to say the least. Such comments make our democracy look like an equivalent of a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother and expects her to indefinitely provide for his parasitic existence. I, for one, do not identify with this self-inflicted image of cowardice and impotence. I understand that it is difficult for our leaders and people alike to suddenly venture beyond their comfort zones into an uncharted political territory but conceding defeat even before the first shot is fired is, in my opinion, disgraceful. The new Dalai Lama-less political system will obviously take some getting used to but it is important that we approach the challenge ahead with a right mental attitude.

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