By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
The current election campaign for Kalon Tripa (prime minister) of the Tibetan government-in-exile has been historic in several ways. In addition to marking the first democratic transition of executive power in Tibetan history, this election is the first one to see widespread Tibetan campaigning through the internet. This is generally a positive development, but the website for Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa perfectly illustrates some drawbacks as well.
There are now a host of proxy websites supporting the candidates. Lobsang Sangay’s proxy site was first out the gate, which seemed to set the tone. It was followed in rough order by ones for Lobsang Palden Tawo (withdrawn), Phurbu Dorjee, Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, Lobsang Jinpa, Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, and Tashi Wangdi. However, with the exception of the websites for Tawo and Dorjee, all the websites are -- or claim to be -- run independently of the candidate themselves. They are run by “friends of the candidate” or a “committee for the candidate.” Some, like the websites for Tethong and Sangay, at least contain significant writings by the candidates themselves. Others, however, merely advocate for the candidate in question.
The most likely reason for these websites distancing themselves from the candidates is the Tibetan cultural norm against self-promotion. There is a certain tension between the need to avoid “pushiness” (hampa) and the need to promote one’s candidacy for electoral success. The tension is partly resolved by candidates stating that they are not seeking power, but are willing to serve if called upon by the voters. (This is not necessarily rhetorical. It may be a genuine position, since the tension can be internal to a candidate.)
Another way for this tension between modesty and campaigning to be resolved is through proxy websites. Thus, the campaign websites are not -- or claim not to be -- run by the candidate himself or herself. The problem is, this makes is difficult to hold the candidate accountable for statements on “their” website.
The clearest example of this problem is the website for Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa. Similar issues are raised by other proxy websites, but we focus on Godrukpa’s because we believe the problems to be by far the most severe there. This website makes some grand claims, including that the candidate has the “ability to perceive the inner aspirations of all Tibetans.” To us, this ability sounds like that of an omniscient Buddha rather than a mere mortal. If Godrukpa said that about himself, he would likely be laughed off the stage. However, such a statement on the candidate’s proxy website is harder to criticize, since there is no proof that the candidate said it himself.
The website also has other improbable claims. It calls Godrukpa a “bold and visionary leader” with the “courage, vision, and dedication to take our movement to the nest [next?] level.” As evidence, it states that Godrukpa “created history ... by organizing a first ever Tibetan Mass Movement in New Delhi where almost thirty thousand Tibetans gathered to revolt [protest?] against the illegal Chinese occupation of Tibet.”
Much has been said of the poor organization -- and the disappointing termination -- of the Mass Movement under Godrukpa’s leadership as Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) president. We only add here that the Mass Movement’s demands were related to the Panchen Lama, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, the Tibet railway, and the International Olympic Committee. Additionally, a TYC press release issued in Godrukpa’s name claimed:
“If China fails to respond to the demands of the petitions before 7 August, 2007, the massive public gathering of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans will demand the Chinese government to allow Tibetans in exile to go into Tibet and witness its current state. Until there is a satisfactory response from the PRC, the movement will continue ..”
In fact, although thousands of Tibetans made great sacrifices and showed willingness to make even more, Godrukpa’s leadership failed. Many dedicated Tibetans were frustrated and disheartened by the lack of any plan once they arrived in Delhi. The Mass Movement did not “continue,” but rather ended after a one day rally was dispersed by Indian police. The Movement's stated goals were not achieved. Godrukpa then disappeared from public view. For Godrukpa’s campaign website to list the Mass Movement as a sign of his leadership qualities does not inspire confidence in those qualities.
The proxy website also claims that Godrukpa would “dramatically change the priorities of our nation” through a “new emphasis on the [sic] education, healthcare, and employment.” This hardly sounds like a radical new electoral platform. To be charitable, we can also infer from elsewhere on the website that Godrukpa would oppose the Middle Way, because he states that the Sino-Tibetan dialogue “failed.” This is a legitimate argument; however if Godrukpa wants to change the government’s policy, perhaps he should run for chitue. It is only the parliament that has the power to set major government policy. The Kalon Tripa is primarily an administrator.
The website also makes several factual errors. It claims that a TYC hunger strike led by Godrukpa caused the appointment of a “UN Special Rapporteur for Tibet.” This is simply incorrect. There is no such position. The website also states that Godrukpa testified before the “International Commission of Jurist[s] in Spain.” This is also incorrect. He testified before the Audiencia Nacional (National Court) in Spain, at the invitation of a dedicated Tibet Support Group in Madrid called the Comite de Apoyo al Tibet (Committee to Support Tibet).
In summary, Godrukpa’s campaign website claims that he has traits more appropriate for a Buddha than a human. It lists the disorganized and poorly planned Mass Movement as an example of his leadership. It claims Godrukpa will institute “dramatic change” while listing only status quo priorities. And it shows a disregard for factual accuracy. If Godrukpa disagrees with these assertions, we call on him to publicly disassociate himself from this website. Otherwise, the public has a right to presume that this website represents him, and has the right to judge his candidacy accordingly.
We further believe the public should take the same approach to all other proxy websites. Candidates should certainly use new technologies to campaign, but they must be held accountable for statements and claims on their websites, proxy or not. We commend Phurbu Dorjee for putting his name behind his own website. Ultimately, we hope that all candidates will take responsibility for and ownership of their websites -- and their campaign materials generally -- rather than pulling strings behind a curtain of deniability. This is the only way to maintain accountability and transparency in the democratic process.