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Certain Hamstrings

posted Oct 3, 2015, 12:02 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Oct 3, 2015, 12:15 PM ]

By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review  


On 14 March 2011, His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a historic statement devolving all his political authorities to the elected leadership.  His Holiness said, “The essence of democratic system is, in short, the assumptions of political responsibility by elected leaders for the popular good,” and that “the general lack of experience and political maturity in our democratic institutions has prevented us from doing this earlier.”

We can infer from this that the Tibetan people and their democratic institutions have now attained political maturity and experience to handle democratic rights and responsibilities.  It has been nearly five years since His Holiness devolved his powers and a democratically-elected leadership took over the political duties with support of the exile populace.

Given the surge in candidates vying to become members of the exile parliament and the amount of discussions taking place, both online and in social gatherings, the exile democracy has shown great progress.  There are nearly one hundred self-declared candidates from U-tsang province competing for ten seats in the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, and as many as ten candidates for one seat for Australia and Asia, excluding India, Nepal and Bhutan.  Since the first members were elected for the then Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies in 1960, we have come a long way.

However, there are dangerous signs from a certain quarters of the exile communities that not only cast dark shadows on the democratization process, but also impinge upon freedom of speech and assembly.

The Ganden Monastery Notice

A case in point is an official notice issued on 23 September by the office of Gaden Monastery Buddhist Cultural Society, popularly known as Ganden Monastery in Mungod, South India.  This notice denied the Ganden monks the ability to hear from a potential Sikyong candidate, and singled out one candidate by denying him the ability to speak there.

The notice states:

“Gaden Monstery is pleased to announce cancellation of the scheduled public address by Lu Khar Jam. With taking religious and cultural sentiments public in consideration a special meeting of senior staffs and top leaders of the Monastery yesterday (22nd September, 2015) unanimously resolved to cancel the program. With this important decision Gaden Monastery is sending out a clear and message to the Tibetans worldwide.”

Ganden’s decision followed Gyumed Tantric Monastery’s decision to bar anyone ‘who disparages His Holiness’ from speaking at their campus, a veiled reference to Lukar Jam (who, as far as we know, has never disparaged His Holiness but simply holds a differing opinion on the issue of Tibetan independence).

As an initial matter, it is undoubtedly the right of a monastery’s leadership to decide matters of monastic management.  No one should dispute this.  The issue is not whether Ganden or Gyumed has a right to bar any candidate from addressing the monks, but what results will come to fruition as a result of that action.

What are the results of Ganden’s notice?  What “clear message” does it send?

Is the “clear message” a misguided attempt to rally around His Holiness?  We are merely laypeople, but we do not believe that His Holiness would want intolerance to be the message coming out of an esteemed monastery whose heritage goes back to Je Tsongkhapa.  As Samdhong Rinpoche clearly stated, it is “wrong to construe that those who don’t support the Middle-Way Policy are against His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”  He explained “the need and importance of divergent views and lively debates in a healthy democracy” and added that “whether it is independence or the Middle Way, the real aim of both of these ideologies is the welfare of the Tibetan people.”[1]

Some Tibetans may interpret the “clear message” as a call for exile Tibetans to bar, boycott and disengage themselves from anyone who holds differing political views.  This would be very damaging to Tibetan unity.  Frankly, this would be the sort of myopic orthodoxy that damages the fabric of an open and liberal society, and blocks public discussions that help democracy grow into full bloom.

There have been times in Tibetan history when the orthodoxy of certain parts of the monastic leadership has not benefited the nation.   For example before the Chinese invasion, some monastic leaders opposed His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama’s attempt to create a standing army, and opposed efforts to introduce modern education and bolster Tibet’s independence through stronger links to foreign countries.  This is a trend that should be relegated to the history books.

Schools as Politics-Free Zones

Similarly, the Tibetan Children’s Villages, Bangalore-based Dalai Lama Institute, Dharamsala-based Sarah College for Higher Studies (which operates under the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics) and Delhi-based Tibetan Youth Hostel have all decided, to henceforth not allow Sikyong or MP candidates to speak at their respective campuses.  This is may also have unfortunate effects for Tibetan democracy.

We acknowledge that the decision applies to all candidates equally.  And perhaps the intention was to avoid political issues by restricting educational institutions from hosting any political events.  Although we have no intimate knowledge on why these reputable institutions have taken this decision, the possible impact is huge.

These institutions accommodate thousands of Tibetan youths pursuing studies.  Denying them the right to hear, question, interact and find out, at first-hand, about likely members of the exile parliament and a would-be Sikyong is tantamount to placing large boulders along the path of democracy.  Conversely, providing an equal-opportunity venue for speeches, Q&A sessions, and debates from all candidates would have given the students valuable lessons in what it means to be engaged citizens.

In the current struggle facing the Tibetan nation, every Tibetan has a duty to participate, including a duty to educate themselves about the serious political issues facing the nation.  By declaring these educational institutions as “politics free zones,” how will this shape the next generation?  Will this decision encourage them to be more engaged, or will it tell them that it is safer to be apolitical?

Similarly, a possibly-unintended effect of this decision will be to give an advantage to incumbents.  Any time the space for debate is narrowed, and any time challengers lose an ability to get their message out, the power of incumbency grows.  Incumbents already enjoy many advantages, including the ability to use official platforms.  At a time when the Tibetan Election Commission seems asleep at the switch by not policing its rules against using official resources to campaign, this is a special problem.[2]   This decision benefits the political status-quo, and it should not be pretended otherwise.

Is There a Better Way?

The educational institutions’ actions send out a message to other Tibetan associations, monasteries, community centres and schools to shun political debates and exchange of ideas.  Tibetan democracy cannot move forward as envisioned by His Holiness without open discussions and public forums to do so.

Furthermore, barring individuals from speaking simply because of a difference in views and standpoints impacts the unity and collective strength of our struggle for freedom.  Unfortunately, this is not surprising.  Well before Lukar Jam had announced his candidacy, we predicted that “if a pro-independence candidate emerges, we expect that he or she may be branded with absurd allegations about being ‘against’ His Holiness.”[3]  We are fairly confident that – setting aside Lukar Jam – any other pro-independence candidate would have similarly been unfairly tarred as “anti-Dalai Lama.”  Hopefully the Tibetan people will rise above such manipulation, and live up to His Holiness’s vision of a well-functioning democracy.

Our belief that such manipulation is wrong matches the CTA’s official policy.  In a 2010 White Paper, the CTA declared, “the Middle-Way policy has been put forward by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a mere suggestion…  Hence, if any of those organisations and individuals who support the Middle-Way policy try to propagate this policy by saying that it is the expressed wish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and so all should accept it, then they are simply spreading disinformation.  We consider this as absolutely inappropriate and undesirable.”[4]  While the current CTA leadership has so far been very passive when it comes to promoting this official policy, there is still an opportunity for the administration to show some leadership on strengthening unity here.

We earnestly hope that religious institutions such as Ganden Monastery and Gyumed Tantric University will reconsider their decision and allow open exchange and debates, which is also an integral and central part of Buddhist studies.  It is clear from social media that ordinary monks earnestly engage in social and political issues by taking active part in discussions and sharing information about Sikyong and MP candidates.

Any decision that does not reflect the aspiration of the majority, while respecting the ability of the minority to speak, becomes a gag order.  The Tibetan struggle has enough challenges coming from China; our nascent democracy does not deserve such self-inflicted damage.


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[1] http://tibet.net/2013/09/10/former-kalon-tripa-talk-on-middle-way-policy/

[2] http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/editorials/tibetanelectionprocess

[3] http://www.tibetanpoliticalreview.org/editorials/2016tibetanelectionseason. The absurdity of this position is apparent when one considers that His Holiness’s late brother, Taktser Rinpoche, was a staunch supporter of independence, and yet no one would call him “anti-Dalai Lama.”

[4] http://tibet.net/2010/01/middle-way-policy-and-all-recent-related-documents-2010/ (see page 16).

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