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Projecting onto the Job Description: Why the next Kalon Tripa probably should not be an Academic

posted Mar 14, 2011, 5:56 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 15, 2011, 8:32 AM ]

"Yes, administrative experience is important, but administration is essentially about law. "
- Kalon Tripa candidate Lobsang Sangay

By Dan Haig

I am sure you have already cottoned on to the fact that I will not be voting in the upcoming election, and it's not because I was too busy to register. If you feel that as an American I have no place even expressing an opinion about the upcoming election for the Kalon Tripa post, then please read no further, unless you enjoy becoming annoyed by such things. Likewise, if you are a raging devotee of Lobsang Sangay la's candidacy and cannot be swayed from supporting him, you can also spare yourself the trouble of reading further. 

f however you are still on the fence about the election, then I would like to submit some observations from my perspective.  I am not sure that I have much to say that has not already been said here on this site. However I have seen very very little by way of non-Tibetans voicing their thoughts on this election, and so have considered that perhaps it might add a little perspective if I were to share mine. There is a saying about how fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but here I go nonetheless. Yes, I do have biases and personal relations in this matter to divulge, as I will further below.

o cut to the chase, my principal argument here is that this is no job for a rookie. Like I said, you've heard it before.  But my focus here is not on why the next Kalon Tripa needs to have experience in dealing with Himachal Politics, Delhi Politics, China Politics, etc etc; I don't care about regional/Cholkha Tibetan politics (any outsider would regard these as foolish distractions from the national crisis); nor indeed will I delve into the various 'scandalous' matters that people have brought up. You can read plenty about those elsewhere, and I think only Tibetans can judge for themselves the importance, validity and severity of such.

No, as a person of an extremely practical bent, to me I just find it astonishing that people think somebody with virtually no experience in administration or directing others - much less having any time on the clock in Gangkyi - is the man for the job.

While I am not Tibetan, which of course badly handicaps any assessment I may have about this election, I do have some relevant experience here that Lobsang Sangay la does not, namely, a little less than a
year and a half working as a staff member (unpaid) of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Gangchen Kyishong, Dharamsala.  Along with a team of volunteers from the US, and in conjunction with the CTA's Tibetan Computing Resource Centre, I created the first Internet-linked computer network for the CTA (and possibly the first in the Himalayas) in 1997. In 2000-2001 I trained 30 or so CTA staff in the creation and expansion of their offices' web pages for the official CTA web site, www.tibet.net, which I was proud to develop for the government of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. All of that was done on my own personal initiative as a private citizen of the United States with nominal institutional support from the Committee of 100 for Tibet (ring a bell?). It was heavy stuff - after I got back home in 1997 I was requested by the U.S. Defense Department to go to Washington to explain my work. I ended up addressing among others then-President Bill Clinton's chiefly technology advisor.

In the course of this work, I met most of the Kalons then serving in Gangkyi, as well as many of the Secretaries and other high office holders there and in the Private Office of His Holiness. I also spent month after month in every Department and most of the other administrative units of the CTA, working in the trenches with the young staff who were tasked with being the "Internet person" for their office as they tried to sort out who and what should be represented in their pages.

So here is the thing that really struck me, when I read the interview with Lobsang Sangay la I quote at the top of this article - I don't believe I ever heard anybody in the Administration, save in the context of the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission, talking about Law.  The people working at their desks were wholly unconcerned with Law. And this is because Law has virtually nothing to do with the smooth daily operations of the Ministries, and it is only slightly more relevant to their weekly or monthly cycles. But I think Sangay la could not know this because he has never had to do such work, not in the lowest office, not in the Kalon Tripa's seat.

In my own professional work, I have headed up software development departments at many dotcoms over the past 17 years and sat in far too many administrative meetings. From my perspective, Administration is primarily about *having focus and making sure things get done in an expedient, coordinated and efficient manner*. A good administrator works to be sure that all in his or her charge is working optimally, and this has precious little to do with Law. It requires a knack for keeping things moving at the 'departmental' level thru underlings with whom one must learn to develop mutual trust and to delegate responsibility and ownership, but that in turn requires one to have some understanding of what those high level underlings have to do to keep the rank and file moving, and what all these people are going thru in their daily work lives. To the extent that an administrator has such skill in means, s/he will have that much more success in whatever they focus their energies towards.

And check it out - such skills are not taught in school, can hardly be taught in school. They can only be learned in practice. You might think you can attain enlightenment just by reading the Sutras, but my graduate advisor Geshe Lhundrup Sopa la told me otherwise. (I am not sure, but I think he agreed that I needed to quit school.)

Which leads me to the instructional video for today:

As far as I can see, notwithstanding some time in that training camp for aspiring young Tibetan leaders - the Tibetan Youth Congress - Lobsang Sangay la has been in academia all his life (although certainly in the big leagues of that profession). I say this as a former compatriot - I was a professional student myself for a long time and have, now, a very good notion of how limited my range of experience was after staying in school and being a student, working towards a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, until I was 29 years old.

Now, many who support Lobsang Sangay la's candidacy say that they want somebody who *doesn't run Gangkyi as usual*. I can certainly understand that sentiment. I just have to question how somebody can restructure something when he has never worked with the materials before.  My brother, a physician who specializes in keeping people with back injuries from unnecessary surgery, says this about surgeons: if the
only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Of course surgeons are good and necessary, but do you want one working on your transmission? Do you want a professional law student running Gangkyi? Really?


I said at the outset that I would reveal my biases (which I guess I have done by now) and personal relations, which I will briefly do here. I have, at least, met all three of the candidates for the position of Kalon Tripa. Although I hope it will not, I am afraid that this little editorial of mine could strain for a while my very amiable acquaintance with Lobsang la, who has always shown me every courtesy and from whose wisdom in certain cultural and historical matters I have benefitted. I like Lobsang la, have not a single bad word to say about him personally, and regret seeing the aspersions which have been cast on his character and integrity by some. I can only plead that this is about a higher matter, and again this is from my somewhat-informed point of view and comes from my values as a person of (often) relentless practicality.

Kasur Tashi Wangdi la I have spoken with but twice, once briefly at the International Tibet Support Group meeting in Brussels a few years back, and also when he handed me my Certificate of course completion at the Mentseekhang in 1995, when he was Minister of the Department of Health.  I have read passionate defenses of his candidacy on this site and yet it seems he is running well behind.  A dedicated civil servant
and talented administrator, his candidacy is set against two candidates of truly exceptional backgrounds, yet brings each of his opponents into sharper relief than otherwise might be the case.

As for Kasur Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, here the other shoe drops; as I mentioned above I have been affiliated with the Committee of 100 for Tibet. In fact I was its President and Executive Director from 1998-2000, following the successes of my work in Dharamsala in 1997 as well as a raft of other responsibilities I took on for the Tibet support movement, which I will not go into here. I have taken care not to position this article as for Tenzin la's candidacy so much as a considered piece about why an inexperienced candidate is not a great
idea, especially at this time. You may read this piece as my endorsement of a former Gangkyi administrator of your choosing, and yet it would be disingenuous of me not to state that I really do believe that Kasur Tethong is the man for the job. To bring my earlier points into this, I believe that he is a  visionary leader not least because he found me in San Francisco in early 1996, weeks after I registered tibet.org, requested a meeting, and within an hour he had set me on the course of developing a great deal of the Tibet movement's internal and external communications that I continue to this day. There are many other more important and better known examples of him being the driving force of a new and badly needed development for the Tibetan cause. Time and again Kasur Tethong has been in front of the curve and in my experience has demonstrated the instincts and savvy of a patriot such as Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen that Tibet needs now to revive itself as a nation.

Finally - like many people I have watched this campaign season unfold with great interest and a lot of hope. Compared to the past two elections, in which current Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche ran virtually uncontested and was endorsed by a somnambulant minority of eligible voters, this cycle has seen a real flowering of the Tibetan electorate. From the fantastic kalontripa.org project that initiated this election, to the emergence of websites such as this one, and of course the real world events, the debates and the candidate meetings with Tibetan Associations, and the spirited Chitue campaigns as well, the Tibetans are stepping up to the challenges of democracy with distinction, and dare I say style. I can only believe that His Holiness is watching all of this unfold with a big smile, for which everybody deserves praise.