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Kalon Tripa debate in Portland between three potential candidates: Phurbu Dorjee, Lobsang Sangay and Tenzin N. Tethong

posted Aug 16, 2010, 5:53 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Aug 25, 2010, 11:19 AM ]

By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

On July 5, 2010, the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association hosted a debate in Portland, Oregon between three individuals who are nominated candidates in the upcoming Kalon Tripa election, according to the unofficial website www.kalontripa.org.  This debate provided a forum for the three potential candidates to respond to the electorate's questions and share their viewpoints on a host of issues.

During the course of the debate, the candidates answered ten questions.  After that, the floor was opened for questions from the public.  We do not take up every question and response but rather we focus only on those responses that, in our opinion, revealed most about the potential candidates and their positions on various issues.  For each potential candidate, we focus on the substance and not the style of their responses, the latter of which was on full display when the candidates were responding to the questions from the audience.

Phurbu Dorjee

It is hard not to like Phurbu Dorjee because he seems earnest and sincere in his desire to serve the Tibetan people.  In an interview with Radio Free Asia around the time of the debate, Dorjee even declared that he is willing to sacrifice his life for Tibet.

It is also very hard to disagree with him because he speaks in broad generalities and drops His Holiness’ name at the first opportunity.  Early on in the debate, Dorjee’s answers were not responsive and he also ran out of time.  In other instances, however, he provided articulate and unequivocal answers.

For example, he said that when responding to the question of what we must do if China does not respond to the Middle Way Policy, it is "clear that we would naturally not be able to continue our talks.  We might indeed consider returning to our historical political stand."  While such statements can signify decisiveness, which can be a positive trait in a leader, it could also indicate an inability to deal with complex issues or the nuances of diplomacy and politics.  For instance, what criteria are to be used to determine China’s unresponsiveness?  We invite Dorjee to provide detail on this issue.

Dorjee’s best moment in the debate was when he was responding to the question of what exile Tibetans can do to help Tibetans in Tibet when catastrophes such as the Kyegudo earthquake strike.  He talked about his involvement with the Tibetan Association of New York and New Jersey, where he served as Vice President, and how they raised $150,000 from the local Tibetan community, which they gave to the Office of Tibet as part of the earthquake relief effort.  Here, it would have been classy for the other two potential candidates to acknowledge and commend Dorjee’s leadership role in this effort.  However, this did not apparently occur to either of them.

Lobsang Sangay:

For the most part, Lobsang Sangay’s answers were responsive to the questions and he adhered to the requests to provide numbered responses: more so than the other potential candidates, when asked to provide, say three points, Sangay was effective doing exactly that and responding to the call of the question, while the other candidates may have responded only generally.  In responding to the question about the three most important priorities for the next Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay stated that the three priorities are “unity, education and innovation."  

Many of his answers showed that he is a true student of world and Tibetan politics and history.  In emphasizing the importance of unity and non-sectarianism within the Tibetan community, he cited examples that we should look up to –- the election of an African-American President in the United States, and a Sikh Prime Minister in India.

On the question of what we can do in light of our unsuccessful talks with the Chinese government, Sangay firmly stated that the current impasse can only be attributed to the Chinese government and that it was not our fault.  He added that it was clear that His Holiness had done everything in order to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the Chinese government; however, the Chinese government and particularly its hardliners had done everything to thwart our efforts for a resolution.  Sangay stated that there is not much that we can do other than wait for a change in thinking within the Chinese government that favors negotiation on the Tibetan issue, and depending on what comes out of the change of Chinese leadership in 2012, we should act accordingly.  However, he drew a distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, and quoted His Holiness’ statement that he hasn’t lost hope with the Chinese people and stressed that we should redouble our efforts in that direction. 

In responding to a question on the topic of the administration of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the democratic process, Sangay re-emphasized his three top priorities of “unity, education and innovation”.  Under the umbrella of “innovation”, he talked about giving a portion of the Kashag’s powers to lower-level government officials and to the refugee settlements and their leaders in order to improve civic participation and responsibility.

While “decentralization” is an interesting idea, we were disappointed that Sangay -– despite his legal training –- did not relate his ideas back to the structure set out in the Tibetan Charter, which serves as the constitution in exile.  The Charter prescribes the authority of the executive (Kashag
), the Parliament-in-Exile (Chitue), and local settlement administrators and assemblies.  Any proposal to alter the relative powers of these institutions must be constitutional.

On a theoretical level, Sangay’s decentralization proposal fails to acknowledge that there are limitations to decentralization, and that relaxation of central authority can also result in the possibility of dissent and division.  There needs to be a balance between centralization and de-centralization that manages the centrifugal and centripetal forces in a society.  This concern is particularly heightened in the case of our Tibetan Government in Exile because it does not have the typical enforcement mechanisms of a sovereign state. 

Perhaps Sangay recognizes these complex issues and simply felt there was not enough time to get into them in a debate format.  We hope he will provide details on which powers should be delegated to the local level and which ones do not lend themselves for delegation to the lower levels.  (TPR invites the candidate to submit an article on this topic.)  His proposal may well have merit, but it is important that he takes the time to show that it has been well thought through. 

Tenzin Namgyal Tethong:

Some of Tethong’s answers were not responsive to the questions asked.  Other times, there were some questions where instead of providing his own perspective on the matter, his response was that we should let the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile (Chitue) decide.  It is unclear to us how much this reflects appropriate respect for the separation of powers between the executive and legislature, or simply a tendency to avoid the question.

When asked to list his three most important priorities, Tethong placed the exile community and its welfare first, followed by our duty to be good representatives of our brethren in Tibet and to maintain channels of communication with them, and thirdly that we must take our example from His Holiness and make the world see the value of Tibet and Tibetans.  We hope the candidate will provide more details on how he would propose to fulfil these priorities, and we extend him the same publication invitation that we extend to Sangay and Dorjee.

In responding to the question of what ought to be done in light of our unsuccessful talks with the Chinese government, Tethong responded that in order to determine our next course of action, we need to have discussions amongst ourselves, there will have to be debates on the floor of the Parliament-in-Exile, and we need seek the counsel of outside experts and learn from other organizations and governments.  He stressed that the question of whether the problem is favorably resolved is ultimately going to depend on whether we can change the Chinese people's thinking, which has been His Holiness’ effort and in which Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile can contribute towards.   

On the question of how we can keep the issue of Tibet alive and maintain unity between Tibetans in Tibet and in exile if the Tibetan issue is not resolved during His Holiness’ lifetime, Tethong did not respond to the first prong of the question.  However, in response to the question of how we can maintain unity among Tibetans in Tibet and in exile if the Tibetan issue is not resolved during His Holiness’ lifetime, he responded that we need not do anything because unity among Tibetans in exile and in Tibet is very good.  The other two potential candidates also responded that unity among Tibetans in Tibet and in exile would not be an issue.  

So in sum, in response to the question on maintaining unity between Tibetans in Tibet and in exile, all three potential candidates provided superficial responses.  None of them seemed to acknowledge the possibility of a crisis when His Holiness is no longer with us.  All three of them talked about the 2008 uprising in Tibet as conclusive evidence of unity between Tibetans in Tibet and in exile.  As inspirational as it was, this is only one aspect of unity and this cannot be taken to mean that there will be no divergence of interests or views in the future.  Unfortunately, Tibet has a long history of sectarianism and regionalism that still requires work.

As events unfold and in the eventual absence of His Holiness who is the main unifying force among Tibetans, our Kalon Tripa candidates need to seriously ponder such contingencies.  Only then can they be prepared to lead us in the most uncertain of times.