Bhuchung K. Tsering

The Panchen Lama and Legitimacy

Dalai Lama Panchen Lama

The Dalai Lama with the previous Panchen Lama.

Today is the 28th birthday of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who continues to remain in detention since 1995. From being the youngest Tibetan political prisoner, he might well be the only Tibetan who grew into his teens under detention by the Chinese Government.

First a recap: the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima disappeared (detained by the Chinese authorities) in May 1995, when he was a six year old child, a few days after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Subsequently, violating the Tibetan spiritual process, the Chinese authorities selected another boy (through illegal means, as we learn from an eyewitness, Arjia Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan Buddhist Master who was closely involved with the process before he fled to freedom a few years later). Since then, despite repeated attempts to gain access to him, no international agencies or human rights organizations – including the United Nations — has been allowed to visit the Panchen Lama or his family, and their condition remains uncertain. The Chinese authorities have even refused to provide any information on his health status or on the pertinent issue of his spiritual education and upbringing.

In an open letter to the Panchen Lama on his birthday U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee (who was a monk for some years) says, “By the age of 28, I had received both a Tibetan and modern education, as well as advanced Buddhist studies in the Tibetan diaspora in India. I would like to know more about you, especially about your well-being and the education you have received. I fear that the Chinese government has taken away your religious identity.”

Meanwhile, the de facto Panchen Lama (I am using the term “de facto” in the legal sense of “existing in fact whether with lawful authority or not”) is having occasional exposure in the Chinese media and being projected as assuming his spiritual responsibility.

Six years ago, I wrote a piece titled, “Why Doesn’t the China-appointed Panchen Lama Speak Out?” The issue is still valid. Granted that since then the individual appointed by China has been seen conducting public events and talking about issues along Party lines. This does not amount to speaking out in the way the 10th Panchen Lama did. As I mentioned in my blog, a Tibetan Buddhist leader chooses to be reborn to work for his spiritual community and to further the work of the previous incarnation. Tibetans, both inside Tibet and outside, know on how the Chinese appointed individual has fared so far.

China’s political agenda behind their selection of the de facto Panchen Lama became clear in 2010 when he was formally appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Since the selection, the Chinese authorities have used all means to grant him legitimacy. But as of now, he does not enjoy the confidence nor the reverence of the Tibetan people (the Chinese government knows this and so is constantly trying to find ways to impress the Tibetan people, the latest being having him bestow the sacred Kalachakra initiation).

If Gyaltsen Norbu is truly a Tibetan Buddhist leader and has been provided with the necessary spiritual upbringing, it will be seen from his action. In 1995, after the Chinese authorities installed him, I wrote, “Ultimately, as per Tibetan belief, a lama himself will reveal, as he grows up, whether he is a genuine reincarnation or note, and behave accordingly. The late Panchen Lama was a classic example of this. Even though he was in Chinese hands, a look at his life story reveals the scorn he had for Chinese rule in Tibet.”

Without any recognition from the Dalai Lama, the Chinese authorities can never be able to put the stamp of legitimacy to their selection of any religious leader, whether it is the Panchen Lama or a future Dalai Lama.

Unfortunately, Chinese authorities have not been able to understand Tibetan mentality. To Tibetans, China’s interference in their religious life affects them equally, if not more, to its occupation of Tibet. The tenth Panchen Lama put the case in a more subtle way when he, in October 1988, three months before his demise, called for an end to “traditional interference of religious activities with administrative measures over the years.” He said this was harming “the harmony of nationalities, as religions have close relations with minorities.”

In other words, China might want to have its own version of Rule by Incarnation, but it is the will of the believers that will really matter. The earlier the Chinese authorities realize this, the better it is for them.

The Dalai Lama on China becoming a ‘Compassionate Nation’ under the Communist Party

I have just watched a fascinating interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Qin Weiping, a US-based Chinese blogger, who visited Dharamsala in October 2016. The interview (conducted in Tibetan and Chinese) is interesting not only because His Holiness shares his thoughts on how China could become a compassionate nation, but more so because he says that such a transformation should be, and can be, led by the Chinese Communist Party. His Holiness believes that through such a transformation China has the opportunity to alter the current negative perception of Communism in the world.

In the interview, the Dalai Lama (speaking in Tibetan) says he has been calling for the world to become more compassionate and says that scientists maintain that mankind is inherently compassionate. So, when he is calling for the world to be compassionate, he feels that China, a traditionally Buddhist nation, has the possibility and the opportunity to do so.

The Dalai Lama says when he addresses Western audiences on the need for compassion, there is some slight discomfort on his part as he is basing himself on an inherently Buddhist approach (although he has never thought of proselytization). But in China the situation is different as almost all Chinese have a closer relationship with Buddhism, he says.

He feels it will be good if the Chinese Communist Party can take the lead on this. His Holiness gives a theoretical reason why this should be done. He says it is a known fact that in terms of his socio-economic belief, he calls himself a Marxist. When Marx is talking about the rights of the working class, there is the talk of kindness. The Dalai Lama opines that Karl Marx’s theory was, however, ruined by Lenin. Therefore, he says while he believes in Marxism, he is against Leninism.

The Dalai Lama feels many of the problems that China has faced in the past may have been due to the influence of Leninism and Stalinism. He refers to an opinion of the former Israeli President and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres, who, as a socialist, had positive feelings towards China. However, when he had asked Mr. Peres some years back whether China is a socialist nation or not, the response was negative, with Mr. Peres saying that China is a capitalist nation. However, in Western capitalism there are rule of law and free media, which are absent in China, the Dalai Lama adds alluding to these as serving as checks and balances.

The Dalai Lama refers to Deng Xiaoping, who had, with great courage, changed the economic system through his open door policy, which benefited China greatly. Now if Xi Jinping can bring about a bit of a change in the political system, the Dalai Lama thinks it will be beneficial. He says by change in the political system, he is not referring to changing from Communist Party rule. He says Deng Xiaoping changed the economic system under the leadership of the Communist Party. Therefore, it is possible that under the leadership of the Communist Party, there can be efforts at spreading compassion in China.

The Dalai Lama thinks it would be interesting if there was a new Cultural Revolution in China, based on kindness this time, as the earlier Cultural Revolution was based on hatred.

The Dalai Lama refers to Communism as being organized and says that if it can be liberal as well it will be good. He said today Communism is considered something negative in the world. But a situation can be created so that the world can start looking at China saying its form of Communism is something special. The Dalai Lama adds that maybe he is dreaming.

The Dalai Lama feels he could make a contribution, if there is such an opportunity, toward spreading compassion in China, and that he could do so in earnest. As a follower of Buddhism who has been talking about the issue in Western countries, he says he could do so in China, a Buddhist country. He clarifies that he has no desire for any privileges or position, adding that in 2011 he had completely ended the historical tradition of the Dalai Lamas serving as both spiritual and temporal leader.

In order for that to happen and for China to be a powerful and effective nation, His Holiness feels it is essential that it earns trust and respect, particularly of its neighbors. Taking it to a personal level, His Holiness refers to Chinese leadership’s attitude of castigating him and asks how China was benefiting by doing so. He says that only makes the possibility of his visiting China become more remote. He says under the current situation, he wonders how much use he can be if he were to go to China. Therefore, he thinks that it is better that he be in a place where he can be of benefit.

The Dalai Lama concludes (switching to English) saying he is an 81-year-old Buddhist monk and might have another 10-15-20 years. “My life should be something useful to humanity,” he says, adding that this was his commitment.

So there you have it, a possibility of a compassionate China with Dalai Lama characteristics, if I may!

On the Great Significance of the Dalai Lama’s latest visit to Mongolia

Mongolian Buddhists

Mongolian Buddhists waiting to welcome the Dalai Lama in the capital UlaanBaatar on November 19, 2016. (Photo: Tenzin Taklha, OHHDL)

One of the outcomes regarding the Dalai Lama in the post-1959 period is the clarity that has emerged about the nature of his followers. The conventional thinking about the Dalai Lama being merely the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people has changed. He has not only gained thousands of followers in both the Eastern and Western world, but more importantly the traditional followers of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet, along the Himalayan region as well as in Mongolia and present-day Russian Federation, have become more visible.

This can be clearly seen at the very many teachings that the Dalai Lama has been giving in India and elsewhere, particularly in Bodh Gaya, where we see an intermingling of Bhutanese, Monpas, Sherpas, Sikkimese, Ladakhis, Mongols, and more.

His Holiness has spent the past several decades spreading his message urging traditional Buddhists to become modern; to devote more of their attention to the all-round study of Buddhism and not merely be consumed by the ritualistic aspect of it. He also feels modern Buddhists should be able to utilize the knowledge of Buddhist science to interact with modern science.

Ladakhi Buddhists

Ladakhi Buddhists in northern India waiting to welcome the Dalai Lama in the regional capital Leh in July 2016. (Photo: Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL)

His Holiness had the same messages during his four day visit to Mongolia.

In adding to giving Buddhist teachings, the Dalai Lama also participated in a Buddhist and Science conference in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. During this conference, he said: “Buddhist scholars and practitioners have benefited from learning about physics, while modern scientists have shown a keen interest in learning more about what Buddhism has to say about the workings of the mind and emotions.”

His Holiness also mentioned his pleasure in the conference being held for the benefit of the Mongolian Buddhist community. Among speakers at the conference were Helen Y. Wang, a neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, spoke about Contemplative Neuroscience and Socially Engaged Buddhism; B. Boldsaikhan from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology who spoke about medicine and logic; K. Namsrai, a senior scholar in physics, who talked about relations between Quantum Physics and Buddhist philosophy; and Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Associate Director of Neuroscience at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, spoke about the Neuroscience of Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain.

In general the Dalai Lama visiting Mongolia should not be a surprise, considering the nature of country and its people. The Mongolian people have had a special historical connection with the Dalai Lama. Many are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and their devotion to His Holiness was clearly visible during this visit. Some people traveled hundreds of miles in the current harsh wintry climate merely to have a glimpse of a spiritual leader they revere. In fact, there were even Buddhists from neighboring Russian Federation, who after hearing about His Holiness’ visit at short notice, made arrangements to be able to participate in the teachings. A New York Times report on November 19 described two such individuals: Daritseren, 73, an ethnic Mongolian from Russian Siberia, who had heard only on Friday (November 18) that the Dalai Lama was visiting Mongolia. “She traveled with 40 other people for 15 hours overnight to make it just in time for the sermon,” it said. Another individual, Boldbaatar, 75, a herder, had traveled 125 miles. “I’m an old man,” the New York Times quotes him as saying. “Maybe I’m seeing His Holiness, the incarnation of Lord Buddha, for the last time,” he added.

However, China has for long been misunderstanding the person of the Dalai Lama, considering him a problem rather than a solution, and has been using economic clout to prevent countries from welcoming him. In fact, many countries far bigger than Mongolia have succumbed to Chinese pressure. The fact that Mongolia did not do so is a testimony to its leaders’ ability to uphold their principles and traditional values. The Mongolian government did not let this undue pressures from China get in the way of enabling Mongolian Buddhists to receive His Holiness’ teachings. Reactions in the Mongolian media that I monitored clearly regard this development positively. I hope such developments will even lead to a time when Chinese Buddhists in China, too, can avail themselves of the wisdom imparted by His Holiness, just as the Mongolians were able to do this time.

What will be President Donald Trump’s Tibet Policy?

President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the White House during their terms in office. (The White House)

President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the White House during their terms in office. (The White House)

Now that Mr. Donald J Trump will be the next President of the United States from January 20, 2017, what will be his approach to the Tibetan issue. While certain issues were highlighted during the election campaign, we are yet to get a clear picture of his stand on China (other than on matters of trade) as well as on the issue of Tibet.

President Bill Clinton had called China a strategic partner; President George W. Bush said China was more of a strategic competitor. During President Obama’s time, China directly expressed its desire that its relations with the United States be recognized as being a “new type of major power relations”. The Obama Administration has not done this; rather it has done a pivot or rebalancing to Asia where relations with countries around China were strengthened, or efforts made towards that direction.

No matter what their positions were on China, all these presidents had a common approach towards the Tibetan issue; they were all very cognizant of the pragmatic and positive role of H.H. the Dalai Lama, met him in the White House, and supported his endeavor on Tibet.

President-elect Trump is an unknown entity as far as Tibet is concerned. Many of his staff might also end up being from a category that, like him, did not have any direct dealings on matters of Tibet. Two things that will guide them is the existing legislation on Tibet and the precedence set by the presidents before Mr. Trump.

The staff of the Trump Transition team assigned to the White House and the State Department should read the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, a bipartisan legislation passed in 2003 to provide guidance to the Administration on matters relating to Tibet.

As the Congressional Research Service subsequently said in a report, “The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA) is a core legislative measure guiding U.S. policy toward Tibet. Its stated purpose is “to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity.” Among other provisions, the TPA establishes in statute the State Department position of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues and defines the Special Coordinator’s “central objective” as being “to promote substantive dialogue” between the government of the People’s Republic of China and Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, or his representatives. The Special Coordinator is also required, among other duties, to “coordinate United States Government policies, programs, and projects concerning Tibet”; “vigorously promote the policy of seeking to protect the distinct religious, cultural, linguistic, and national identity of Tibet”; and press for “improved respect for human rights.”

Secondly, and as can be seen from the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, the United States “Congress has shown a strong interest in Tibet since the 1980s, passing dozens of laws and resolutions related to Tibet, speaking out about conditions in Tibet, and welcoming visits by the Dalai Lama and, more recently, the political head of the India-based Central Tibetan Administration.”

There is a strong bipartisan support to the Dalai Lama and the issue of Tibet in the Congress. Most recently this was seen during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Capitol Hill in June 2016, when he was received by the leadership. The members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who are deeply supportive of the Dalai Lama and Tibet will continue to be active. Therefore, the new Trump Administration will do well to bear this in mind.

Thirdly, successive American Presidents have welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House, in his capacity as an international statesman. President-elect Trump should also take the first opportunity of meeting the Dalai Lama. Through their personal interaction with the Dalai Lama the presidents so far have come to know of his far sighted thinking, not just on Tibet but also on global matters like religious understanding and human values. As a case in point, the State Department, in its latest report to Congress on Tibet (as mandated by the Tibet Policy Act of 2002), said, “The U.S. government believes that the Dalai Lama or his representatives can be constructive partners for China as it deals with continuing tensions in Tibetan areas. The Dalai Lama’s views continue to be widely reflected within Tibetan society and he represents the views of the vast majority of Tibetans. His consistent advocacy of non-violence is a key in reaching a lasting solution for Tibetans. Chinese government engagement with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to resolve problems facing Tibetans is in the interest of the Chinese government and the Tibetan people. Failure to address these problems will lead to greater tensions inside China and will be an impediment to China’s social and economic development, as well as continue to be a stumbling block to fuller political and economic engagement with the United States.”

Therefore, while we may not be aware of the position on Tibet of Mr. Donald J. Trump the individual, U.S. legislations and precedence set by previous presidents are clear guidelines on President Donald Trump’s position on Tibet.

Why does Tibet matter in the discourse on the democratization of China?

On October 2, 2016, I participated in a conference on possibility for democratization of China at New York University. There were scholars on China, Chinese-American academics, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and some of the top names in the Chinese democracy movement, including Tiananmen veteran Wang Juntao and writer of Fifth Modernization Wei Jingsheng. The conference was convened by Prof. Ming Xia of New York University and Mr. Chin Jin of the China Democracy Forum.

In my presentation I made a case on why Tibet matters in this discourse by Chinese democracy advocates.

Here is an expanded version of the points I made:

First, the aspirations of the Tibetan people need to be considered from the beginning of the discourse. If the Chinese democracy advocates are talking of democratization of the People’s Republic of China, then they need to bear in mind that the present PRC territorial borders include a large number of people like Tibetans who are not Chinese (Han). In fact, the PRC terms itself “a unified multi-ethnic country” with the 56 nationalities supposed to be having equal rights. Therefore, Tibetan viewpoints need to be considered as part of the discourse rather than Tibetans merely being perceived as beneficiaries of the discourse.

The Chinese Communist government has failed, and continues to fail, in understanding Tibetan aspirations. It is for this reason that even after virtually 60 years of occupation, the leadership in Beijing has not been able to gain the trust of the Tibetan people. The Chinese democrats should not commit the same mistake.

Secondly, although the Tibetans in Tibet have been living under an authoritarian regime, the small, but critical number of Tibetan Diaspora, has been undergoing a unique experiment in borderless democracy. In the process, Tibetans are gaining much experience in the intricacies of democracy, both good and bad. This experience is something that the people talking about democratization of China can look at and learn from.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has been the proponent of Tibetan democracy, developed his thinking, monitored the changing circumstances of the Tibetan Diaspora, and introduced pertinent changes in stages. The process began in 1960 with the Dalai Lama introducing the concept of representative democracy by asking the Tibetans to elect their deputies to a Parliament that would have a say in the governance of the Tibetans in exile. He then followed it up a few years later with the promulgation of a draft constitution for future Tibet, thus introducing the concept of rule of law. Much to the consternation of the Tibetan public he mandated that this constitution have an impeachment clause to be applied to the Dalai Lama, if needed. This was a very important message that the Dalai Lama was sending, namely that no one should be considered being above the law.

In subsequent years, the Dalai Lama took further steps in empowering the Tibetan people; from enfranchising the people to elect the ministers (who were until then appointed by him); to the drafting of a Charter, specifically to govern the Tibetan Diaspora, which included provision for the establishment of the three pillars of democracy; legislative, executive, and the judiciary. Obviously, given that the Tibetan Diaspora does not operate from their own homeland these were adapted to the prevailing situation.

The most significant change took place in 2011 when the present Dalai Lama not only gave up all his political authority in favor of an elected Tibetan leadership, but also virtually removed the institution of the Dalai Lamas from all future political roles.

Therefore, the Chinese democracy movement needs to discuss how and where the Tibetans will fit in their discourse on the democratization of China. This means thinking about the broader issue of nationalities. Lately, some Chinese scholars and politicians have been talking about a “second generation ethnic policy”, which calls for doing away with virtually all affirmative actions (that are on paper, if I may add) for people considered “minorities”. What is the position of the Chinese democracy advocates on this? What do they feel about the concerns of the Tibetan people?

They should also learn from the Dalai Lama and his vision for Middle Way Approach to resolve the Tibetan issue. In this it will be beneficial for the Chinese democrats to understand the Dalai Lama’s role, not only on the Tibetan issue, but also his impact on the broader Chinese community.

In summation, Chinese democracy advocates need to address the aspirations and concerns of the Tibetan people if they are to be part of the democratization of China. It would be counter-productive to take people like the Tibetans for granted or to merely see them as part of the community needing some largesse. They need to bear in mind that among Tibetans there is no consensus on their preference for a democratic China for there are those who feel that there may not be much difference. Also, there are voices in the Tibetan community that call for an independent Tibet and discussions need to happen on how they fit in the discourse.

In short, the Chinese democracy advocates need to consider the Tibetan people when they are discussing the future, but also take steps to win over the Tibetans in the current discourse.

Would China’s new Party Secretary in Lhasa turn out to be a double-edged sword to Tibetans?

The former Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguao (left) with the newly appointed Party Secretary Wu Yingjie (right).

The former Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguao (left) with the newly appointed Party Secretary Wu Yingjie (right).

On August 28, 2016 the Chinese authorities replaced the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguo, with Wu Yingjie. Chen’s transfer may not have any extra significance as he has served in Lhasa for over five years, which is around the time when such Party officials are moved. But Wu is interesting in quite a few ways.

Wu is the first of the “second generation Tibetans” (Chinese: Zang Er Dai) to assume the position of the Party Secretary. The term “second generation Tibetans” is assigned to Chinese officials who have literally grown up in Tibet, having been brought there by their parents when they were young. They are believed to be very familiar with the Tibetan way of life. The first generation is composed of those who were sent in the 1950s by Beijing after taking control of Tibet.

The general assumption is that given his past portfolio and his statements and actions while serving in different capacities in Lhasa and other places, he will only strengthen the Party’s rigid control of the Tibetan people. He has been personally linked to some of the crackdowns in Tibet, including in Driru county where he is said to have asked the armed police force, after an incident in 2013, to “further strengthen patrol duty, control and grid management.” According to this theory, Wu Yingjie’s long stint in different Tibetan towns enables him to understand the Tibetan psyche and this will enable him to adopt appropriate stringent measures to deal with the people. In other words, since he is familiar with the Tibetans, he can be relied on to have contempt for them.

Wu’s appointment is an indication of the Chinese authorities’ inability to empower Tibetans to assume such a responsible position. In the past, when asked why a Tibetan has not been appointed as a Party Secretary, one of the responses from the Chinese side has been that, unlike in the government, in the Party there is no space for ethnic consideration. But in the present case, Pema Thinley (Chinese: Padma Choling), holds a deputy secretary position (a rank similar to that of Wu Yingjie before his promotion) in the Tibet Autonomous Region Party Committee. In fact, Pema Thinley is senior because he became Deputy Secretary in 2010 while Wu Yingjie was named Deputy Secretary only in 2011. So Pema Thinley’s seniority in the Party should have made him an equal candidate for the post. But there is no indication that anything like that has happened. Thus, his being a Tibetan might have in fact been an obstacle in his promotion, just as it seemed to have been with previous Tibetan Party leaders like Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, Sangye Yeshi (Tian Bao), Tashi Wangchuk, etc. The only message that one can take from this is that if one is Tibetan one is always a suspect in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party. That was the situation in the 1950s and it remains the same today.

I want to mention here that I am of the view that even if a Tibetan were to be appointed as the Party Secretary, he or she would not be able to do much, in the absence of courage to take a certain amount of risk. For the possibility of being accused of “local nationalism” will always be there, like the Sword of Damocles.
Nevertheless, whenever, there is a change in leaders, there is always the possibility of a new approach. Therefore, there is the opportunity for Wu Yingjie to show himself as someone sensitive to the Tibetan people’s sentiments. In this he does not have to look far for inspiration. There is his namesake predecessor, Wu Jinghua, who served as the Party Secretary in Lhasa from 1985 to 1988. This Wu, who was of Yi nationality, endeared himself to the Tibetans by his willingness to appreciate Tibetan sensitivity, allowing for the revival of Tibetan culture and tradition, so much so that the 10th Panchen Lama is said to have termed him even as ‘one of the best officials in Tibet’.

Even if we look at history, it looks like Mao Zedong himself did look for officials who did not alienate the Tibetans. It is believed that Zhang Guohua, who served twice as Party Secretary in Lhasa (in the 1950s and in the 1960s), is said to have been chosen for his familiarity with the Tibetan culture.

Today, despite whatever claims the Chinese authorities might have about how wonderful the life of Tibetans in Tibet is, the fact remains that there is a trust deficit situation. By their misguided policies, recent Chinese officials overseeing Tibetan affairs have not contributed to reducing this deficit. If Wu Yingjie truly considers himself a “second generation Tibetan” he should understand Tibetan aspirations and reflect that in his work.

The Next American President and Tibet

Hillary Clinton and Dalai Lama

Then Secretary Hillary Clinton receiving the Dalai Lama at the State Department in February 2010. (Photo: Michael Gross, State Department)

As the November 8, 2016 US Presidential elections draw near, there are those who are predicting a very close race between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Tibetan Americans and friends and supporters of the Tibetan people are watching the developments closely. In past elections, Tibetan Americans have shown themselves to be single-issue voters; with Party affiliations being regarded secondary to how the candidate has shown his (and now her) support to Tibet. During President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, quite many Tibetan Americans said they voted for him even though they identified themselves as being Democrat. This was because President George W. Bush clearly spoke out in support of the Dalai Lama and Tibet.

American politicians have noted this small but influential voting constituency. During the 2008 elections, Republic presidential candidate John McCain paid a special trip to Aspen to meet with the Dalai Lama, who was on a visit there. Not to be outdone, a few days later, the then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama sent a personal letter to the Dalai Lama in which he said, “I regret that our respective travel schedules will prevent us from meeting during your visit to the United States this month, but I wanted to take the opportunity to reassure you of my highest respect and support for you, your mission and your people at this critical time.”

Presidential Elections and Tibet

In general, both the Democratic and the Republican parties do have a reference to Tibet in their respective platforms.

The Democratic Party Platform refers to Tibet under the Asia Pacific section. It says, “We will promote greater respect for human rights, including the rights of Tibetans.”

In 2012 the Democratic Platform had said, “We will consistently speak out for the importance of respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people, including the right of the Tibetan people to preserve their cultural and religious identity.”

The Republican Platform references to Tibet is somewhat different. It says, “Meanwhile, cultural genocide continues in Tibet and Xinjiang, the promised autonomy of Hong Kong is eroded, the currency is manipulated, our technology is stolen, and intellectual property and copyrights are mocked in an economy based on piracy.”

The Republican formulation in 2012 was the following: “The Chinese government has engaged in a number of activities that we condemn: China’s pursuit of advanced military capabilities without any apparent need; suppression of human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang, and other areas.”

Irrespective of who wins the presidency, there are certain fundamental positions on Tibet that the next American President will have to uphold. These are all incorporated in Tibetan Policy Act of 2002. As the Congressional Research Service says in a report, “The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA) is a core legislative measure guiding U.S. policy toward Tibet. Its stated purpose is “to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity.”

This legislation outlines practical initiatives with a firm expression of support for the Tibetan people. The Act provides for the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in the State Department: “The central objective of the Special Coordinator is to promote substantive dialogue between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives.”

To date, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have not made any statements on Tibet, except for the casual reference by Clinton to the Dalai Lama at the US Mayors’ Conference in Indianapolis on June 26. It remains to be seen if either of them makes a more substantive reference to Tibet in the coming months before the elections.

The Tibetan Americans and friends of Tibet will be watching.

Tasks before the Re-Elected Sikyong

Tibetan Election Observation Mission

Tibetan Election Observation Mission members with the Tibetan election commissioners in Dharamsala on March 19, 2016.

On April 27, 2016, the Tibetan Election Commission announced the results of the Sikyong and parliamentary elections. Except in the case of some members of parliament, for the Sikyong and some other MPs, the results were already known and this is a mere formality.

There have been some discussions about the degeneration of the Tibetan society in diaspora in the months leading to the elections, with now even the politicians realizing their shortsightedness. There have been some damage but all is not lost in the broader scheme of things. In the past when there were concerns about his devolution of authority, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had said it is better that the people tread on this path of self-reliance while he was still active as he can then provide guidance if things go astray. Therefore, the recent development was something that would have happened at any time given the nature of the system and it was good that it happened now while corrective measures can be taken.

In any case, I wrote the following after the previous election cycle in 2011. Upon re-reading it, other than there being a change in the nomenclature from “Kalon Tripa” to “Sikyong” the rest of my assertion continues to be valid for the new administration under Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. Therefore, I am reposting it.


Message from the Tibetan Elections
Bhuchung K. Tsering
April 27, 2011

Today, the Tibetan Election Commission in Dharamsala, India, announced the results of the general elections held on March 20, 2011 to elect the Kalon Tripa, the Chairman of the Tibetan Cabinet, and members of the Tibetan Parliament. As pointed out in the statement our organization issued today, congratulations are due not just to the winners but also to all the Tibetan people who participated in this historic democratic process. Above all, this is yet another testimony to the foresight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his several decades-long efforts at democratizing the Tibetan governances system.

When campaigning began for the present election cycle in 2009, I wrote the following about what the next Kalon Tripa’s responsibilities would be.

“The next Kalon Tripa should devote his or her time and effort to the consolidation of the Tibetan community, becoming their spokesperson and look into creation of a system providing a continuation of leadership.

“There are three main ways to implement this provision of political leadership.

“First, the position needs to understand that the basis of the Tibetan people’s support to the leadership currently is the historical role of the institution of the Dalai Lamas. The next Kalon Tripa needs to work on a strategy to continuing this relationship and to strengthen the institution to prepare for any and all eventualities.

“Secondly, the Kalon Tripa needs to be the seen as the leader of all Tibetans and not just of the hundred thousand or so Tibetans in exile. The strength of the Tibetan leadership under His Holiness the Dalai Lama today is that it enjoys the loyalty and support of the broad majority of Tibetans who are in Tibet. The millions of Tibetans in Tibet have shown this in different ways, time and again. The next Kalon Tripa needs to find creative ways to strengthen this special bond between the Tibetan people and the leadership.

“Thirdly, the next Kalon Tripa needs to clearly comprehend the reality of the position in terms of relationship with the international community and the governments throughout the world, including that of India. Accordingly, he or she needs to come up with a strategy to secure the formal or de facto acceptance by the governments as a spokesman for the Tibetan people. He or she needs to be able to stand on his or her own feet (think beyond the structure of Dharamsala) and be recognized as being on the helms of the Tibetan leadership by the international community.”

I had written the above before there was any inkling of His Holiness the Dalai Lama deciding to devolve his political authority to an elected leadership. Now that we are faced with this new reality, Kalon Tripa-elect Lobsang Sangay la as well as our newly elected parliamentarians have greater responsibilities than before. I would urge them to think on the above points as they prepare to take charge.

As I write this, Lobsang Sangay la has, while speaking to Voice of Tibet about the election results, opined that one individual alone would not be able to do much but that he would work to the best of his ability. I believe team work is certainly something that needs to be given serious consideration as the new Kalon Tripa begins his work. Secondly, Lobsang Sangay la also said that his election is a strong message to China that under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama a new generation has taken responsibility. The Kalon Tripa-elect also went live on Radio Free Asia and Voice of America Tibetan services in Washington, D.C. today expanding on his views.

As for China, the authorities seem to have already got the message from the Tibetan elections and there is an article today entitled “On 14th Dalai Lama’s view of ‘political reform’ “ that is very defensive of the Chinese system. Given that the Chinese system does not permit Tibetans in Tibet to have a direct say in who becomes their leader (for that matter even Chinese do not have that right), the Chinese authorities cannot have the courage to welcome the positive message that the tiny Tibetan community in exile is sending in terms of political governance.

The international community, as reflected through the media coverage, has shown great interest in this Tibetan democratic process. It remains to be seen how the governments will react to the new reality and the new Administration in Dharamsala. There is continued public support whether in the United States, Europe or elsewhere to the just cause of the Tibetan people and the political leadership in all the countries would need to keep this in consideration as they try to frame a new approach to the Tibetan issue.

My Tashi Delek to all the winners in this election and wish them all success as they begin their work for the wellbeing of the Tibetan people.

Losar in the State Department Heralds the New Year for Tibetan Americans, in more sense than one

On July 21, 2014, history of sort was created when around 100 Tibetan Americans from Amherst, Boston and nearby areas joined US Congressman James McGovern at the City Hall of Northampton, MA, as he held a press conference on his introduction of HR 4851: The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, in the House of Representatives. This was a public acknowledgement of the existence of the Tibetan American community and their being a stakeholder on issues relating to Tibet in the United States Congress.

Seven months later, another history was created when on February 24, 2015, Under Secretary Sarah Sewall, in her capacity as the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, hosted in the State Department a Losar (New Year) to an invited group of Tibetan Americans, diplomats and other guests.

State Department Losar reception

Sarah Sewall with some of the Tibetan American artists and “Chang maidens” during the State Department Losar reception.

As Under Secretary Sewall invited the gathering to join her in saying, “Losar Tashi Delek” one could sense a special emotional feeling among the Tibetan Americans privileged to be participating in the event. Excitement was clearly visible as quite a few of the Tibetan Americans who had come to help serve the traditional Tibetan delicacies and drinks could not resist taking the time to shoot photos, to record the history in the making.

In fact, Karma Gyaltsen la, who together with some other colleagues performed songs and dances, put it best when he adjusted the lyrics of a traditional Tibetan New Year fixture, the recitation by a Drekar, a jocular mendicant, wondering whether the Losar celebration within the State Department “was a dream or a reality.”

Why is the Losar at the State Department significant? As Under Secretary Sewall said at the reception, “Now, one of the amazing things about the Tibetan American community is that in numbers you all… are relatively small, but in your influence, and in your impact, you are enormous.” It heralds virtually a new year for the Tibetan Americans whose existence is increasingly being noticed in the United States.

Former Special Envoy of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Gyari Rinpoche, also saw the Losar celebration as an indication of the implementation of the United States’ objective of helping to preserve and promote the distinct Tibetan religious and cultural heritage.

As I write this, we are preparing for the next annual Tibet Lobby Day here in Washington, D.C., which will be held on March 2 and 3. This is an event that has seen increasing participation by Tibetan Americans as they go to the offices of their members of Congress and exercise the freedom to express their views on Tibet to them.

Henceforth, Losar would not only be an exotic tradition of a people far away in Tibet, but is a Tibetan American culture and thus as American a culture as any other.

The Dalai Lama and 25 years after the Nobel Peace Prize

On December 10, 2014, lovers of peace, friends, well-wishers and followers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama celebrate the 25th anniversary of the bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize to him. His Holiness is of course is in Rome to participated in the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit, which has now been relocated there.

It is a cliché to say what a difference 25 years can make. But in the case of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, these two and a half decades have indeed cemented his place as a statesman and a conscience of the world. Today, the Dalai Lama and peace/compassion have virtually become synonymous.

In 1989, I was working in Dharamsala and so was part of the collective Tibetan rejoicing of the event. We, at least I, then interpreted the prize solely in the context of Tibet, and Tibet alone. We saw this as Tibet’s day in the sun. Fast forward to 2014 and I reread His Holiness’ acceptance speech (of December 10, 1989) as well as his Nobel lecture (of December 11, 1989), and the Presentation Speech by Mr. Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. I now have a fresh perspective of the expanse of the Dalai Lama’s impact.

His Holiness’ remarks in Oslo in 1989 appear to me as the germinating ground for the philosophy for which he has become well-known today. This includes his dialogue with the scientific community, his adherence to nonviolence, and, above all, his three main commitments: promotion of human values, promotion of religious harmony and promotion of Tibetan culture.

Let me expand.

By the very awarding of the prize to him, the Nobel Committee acknowledged the Dalai Lama as a proponent of peace and nonviolence. In his Award Presentation Speech, Mr. Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said, “In view of this, fewer and fewer people would venture to dismiss the Dalai Lama’s philosophy as utopian: on the contrary, one would be increasingly justified in asserting that his gospel of nonviolence is the truly realistic one, with most promise for the future. And this applies not only to Tibet but to each and every conflict. The future hopes of oppressed millions are today linked to the unarmed battalions, for they will win the peace: the justice of their demands, moreover, is now so clear and the normal strength of their struggle so indomitable that they can only temporarily be halted by force of arms.”

In the Tibetan cultural context, the Dalai Lama is also referred to as Zamling Shidey Depon ( “pilot of world peace”) and he continues to be one today.

The Dalai Lama’s stress on the need for religion to have dialogue with science can also be perceived in his Nobel remarks.

In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on December 10, 1989, the Dalai Lama said, “With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things. This understanding is crucial if we are to take positive and decisive action on the pressing global concern with the environment.”

Today, the Dalai Lama has established a strong foundation for dialogue between religion and science through the Mind & Life initiative. In the process, he has had an impact on the thinking of the scientific community, particularly those working in the field of neuroscience, through his sharing of the Buddhist perspective.

I also want to believe that through his Nobel remarks, the Dalai Lama was also crystalizing his now well-known three commitments.

His Holiness began his Nobel lecture, delivered on December 11, 1989, by saying, “Thinking over what I might say today, I decided to share with you some of my thoughts concerning the common problems all of us face as members of the human family. Because we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature.”

He continued, “The realisation that we are all basically the same human beings, who seek happiness and try to avoid suffering, is very helpful in developing a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood; a warm feeling of love and compassion for others. This, in turn, is essential if we are to survive in this ever shrinking world we live in. For if we each selfishly pursue only what we believe to be in our own interest, without caring about the needs of others, we not only may end up harming others but also ourselves.”

In another words, His Holiness was stressing on the fundamental human values that all human beings share.

The Dalai Lama was addressing the issue of religious harmony when he said in the same lecture, “As a Buddhist monk, my concern extends to all members of the human family and, indeed, to all sentient beings who suffer. I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. Although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and com-passion, even for those we consider our enemies, I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.”

As for Tibet, the Dalai Lama said this in December 1989, “The awarding of the Nobel Prize to me, a simple monk from faraway Tibet, here in Norway, also fills us Tibetans with hope. It means, despite the fact that we have not drawn attention to our plight by means of violence, we have not been forgotten. It also means that the values we cherish, in particular our respect for all forms of life and the belief in the power of truth, are today recognised and encouraged. It is also a tribute to my mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, whose example is an inspiration to so many of us. This year’s award is an indication that this sense of universal responsibility is developing. I am deeply touched by the sincere concern shown by so many people in this part of the world for the suffering of the people of Tibet. That is a source of hope not only for us Tibetans, but for all oppressed people.”

So, 25 years later what is the lesson that we can take from the bestowal of the Nobel Prize to the Dalai Lama. I can only repeat what the Nobel Committee Chairman said in 1989, “ In awarding the Peace Prize to H.H. the Dalai Lama we affirm our unstinting support for his work for peace, and for the unarmed masses on the march in many lands for liberty, peace and human dignity.”