By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
Speaking in Paris on November 26, 2011, the Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay, commented that the first 100 days of his administration has been "one of the busiest Kashag [cabinets] in recent memory". The Tibetan Political Review posted a low-key commemoration of this 100 day mark on the actual date – November 16 – but we believed that the American custom of judging so quickly a new administration was a bit unfair or premature in the Tibetan context. However, given the Kalon Tripa’s embrace of the 100 day yardstick, we do have a few thoughts.
Any administration is judged on two main criteria: foreign policy success and domestic policy success. (Technically, busyness by itself isn’t relevant). Sangay’s first 100 days has been distinguished by the amount of time that he spent away from Dharamsala, traveling in the United States and Europe. His travels were largely focused on foreign policy: introducing himself in foreign capitals, speaking about the progress of Tibetan democracy, and of course calling for foreign support especially in relation to the self-immolation crisis.
From the perspective of domestic policy, it appears that Sangay’s administration is still getting its feet wet (one reason we didn’t initially make much of the 100 day mark). Sangay’s stated “number one priority” is education, which is why he kept the Education Department (Sherig) portfolio for himself. Public information to date indicates that he has been meeting with school principals and gathering suggestions and information.
Sangay has two signature domestic initiatives – Tibet Corps and the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI) – and he mentioned them both in his testimony to the U.S. Congress on November 3, 2011. However these initiatives have yet to be launched in public. TPI has quietly started, although so far it involves only a reorganization of existing personnel of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).
The Kalon Tripa on the Road
During his first 100 days or so, Sangay has visited Washington DC, Zurich, Paris, Berlin, Oslo, Copenhagen, Brussels, and London. These visits have been well-covered by Tibet.net and Phayul so we won’t describe them in detail. Suffice to say that we are enthusiastic that Sangay has been taking a far more proactive approach to foreign policy than his predecessor.
In these foreign capitals, Sangay has largely shown himself to be a well-spoken and energetic representative of the Tibetan people.
As to the subject matter of Sangay’s message, it largely appears to center around two things: asking Western governments to speak out about the self-immolation crisis (the same message that Tibet Support Groups worldwide are prioritizing), and asking support for his stated goals of of “restoration of freedom in Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet” (also widespread goals).
However there are a few important areas of concern.
First, Sangay has repeatedly made the somewhat incomplete statement that the self-immolators are calling for “freedom”, defining "freedom" as “religious, human rights and expression”. At least two of the self-immolators called for rangzen (independence), and this should not be glossed over. Moreover, regarding the self-immolators calling for rangwang (freedom), it is entirely possible that they meant freedom in the sense of political freedom, not just civil rights under Chinese rule. The one thing for certain is that none of the self-immolators faced an agonizing death in order to call for rangkyong (autonomy).
Related to this, Sangay has repeatedly stated that he “ran his election on the platform of the Middle Way [autonomy] policy” (as the CTA's official website recently put it). To our recollection, the Middle Way policy was not an issue in the recent Kalon Tripa election. Moreover, we would be surprised if all of Sangay’s voters (especially the younger ones) intended their votes to be an unabashed endorsement of the previous administration’s Middle Way policy, given Sangay’s claim to represent “change”
Second, Sangay has repeatedly stated an incorrect number of self-immolators (like others have done). In just one example, in Berlin he stated: “I have nothing but sad report. We have had 11 cases of self-immolations.” However, the courageous Tibetan blogger Woser has forcefully argued that the true number is 12 (now 13 as of December 1), because it is wrong to forget the self-immolation of Thapey in 2009. Even if Sangay had meant to qualify his statement to limit it to the past year, it makes no sense to overlook kusho Thapey’s sacrifice.
Third, the format of Sangay’s interaction with local Tibetan communities could be changed to better match the democratic ideals that the Tibetan people have embraced. The official CTA website depicted Tibetans in Paris and London having “audiences” with the Kalon Tripa. From articles, it seems like the set-up of the meetings also resembled audiences. This may seem like a minor point, but from the perspective of a democratic society, official characterization of such meetings as “audiences” is inappropriate for an elected leader.
Someone may have an “audience” with His Holiness the Dalai Lama or perhaps Queen Elizabeth II, but not with President Barack Obama. All citizens are equal in a republic. Political leaders do not suddenly become royalty or aristocrats upon their election; they are citizens who work as public servants. In our view, the word “audience” is appropriate only in relation to His Holiness and other incarnations (including Samdhong Rinpoche but only based on his religious role).
Sangay’s election campaign made repeated reference to him being a “commoner”, which we did not think was entirely helpful to Tibetan unity. Regardless, he now has a chance to bring a more common touch to the way the young Tibetan democracy operates. It may be that he did not request such meetings be set up as “audiences”, but now has a chance to strengthen Tibetan democracy by proactively ordering the elimination of such aristocratic trappings. This would be a good thing.
The Speaker and the Foreign Minister Too
Another interesting development in these first 100 days is that Sangay was touring Europe at the same time as the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, Penpa Tsering, and the Foreign Minister (Chidrel Kalon), Dickyi Chhoyang. Also present have been Representatives (Dhonchoe) from the relevant Offices of Tibet, although keeping a lower profile.
Tsering has been on an extended European trip from November 22 through December 15, visiting Vienna, Brussels, and Italy and meeting with parliamentarians and local Tibetan communities. (Tsering also accompanied Sangay to Washington DC in July.)
Tsering’s heightened international profile indicates the growing prominence, following His Holiness’s devolution of power, of the Speaker of Parliament. The Speaker is in some ways more powerful and subject to fewer checks than the Kalon Tripa. This shows that the Tibetan Parliament’s choice of its Speaker matters now more than ever, and is something to which Tibetan voters should pay serious attention.
Oddly, it is Chhoyang who appears to have the most limited schedule even though she is the Foreign Minister. The CTA website only lists her visit to Brussels on November 27. This is particularly strange because Chhoyang has proven to be an eloquent spokesperson, for example in her October 20 interview with Canada's CTV. Hopefully in the future, the CTA’s new Foreign Minister will get greater chances to carry out the duties of her portfolio.
Any increase in the Foreign Minister’s responsibilities should include greater power over the management of the Office of Tibet Representatives, who are in theory supposed to act as Tibetan ambassadors. In our view, Representatives should fall under the Foreign Minister, should act as professional diplomats, and should be the primary representative of the CTA in foreign capitals. The Kalon Tripa and the Foreign Minister can only occasionally visit a foreign country, and it is the Representative who should be tasked with maintaining foreign relations. It is with this job responsibility in mind that future Representatives should be chosen.
Conclusion: 100 Days and Counting…
These are just some observations that we had following the Kalon Tripa’s invocation of the 100 day yardstick. We encourage readers to send in their own articles and letters on how they think these first 100 days went, and their hopes for the coming years.
Editor's Note: Voice of Tibet (VoT) conducted an interview (in Tibetan) of Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay on his first 100 days in office: http://vimeo.com/34162136.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when Speaker Penpa Tsering recently visited Washington DC; it was July 2011, not Autumn 2011.