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Reflections on the Tethong/Sangay Debate, Zurich

posted Aug 1, 2010, 4:02 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Aug 20, 2010, 5:09 PM ]
[Revised as of August 11, 2010]*
By the Editorial Board of the Tibetan Political Review
The best way to see the difference between two choices is to hold them up together.  The Zurich debate in April between two prominent Kalon Tripa candidates, Lobsang Sangay and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, shows stark differences.   

Four key differences between the two gentlemen are: 
    (1) Attitude toward political power
    (2) Experience
    (3) Analytical style, and 
    (4) Their view of the main criteria for choosing the next Kalon Tripa. 


The candidates’ attitude toward political power revealed their most stark difference.  While Tenzin Namgyal-la’s standpoint seemed rooted in Tibetan cultural norms of leadership as a humbling responsibility, Lobsang Sangay-la took a more Western-oriented idea that political power should be openly sought. 

1.  Tethong: A Traditional Approach of Leadership as Service

Tethong noted that he is not formally running as a candidate for Kalon Tripa.  Rather, he is being encouraged to run by a circle of family and friends.  He said that he understands the gravity and responsibility of the position of Kalon Tripa.  In our view, this outlook is rooted in the Tibetan attitude that one should not seek power for one’s own aggrandizement, but rather one should serve when called for.

Tethong’s attitude is, perhaps, because of his previous experience as Kalon Tripa, when he served at the calling of His Holiness.  Incidentally this attitude is shared by other Tibetan leaders like Samdhong Rinpoche, who was the first directly-elected Kalon Tripa despite his assertion that he did not in fact want the job.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama even says that the institution of the Dalai Lama will exist only as long as the Tibetan people consider it useful.

Furthermore, we were struck by Tethong’s comment that one's ability to fulfill the Kalon Tripa role is not dependent solely on one's belief that one is ready to serve.  Rather, because one is serving His Holiness, one must also have the requisite karma and merit ("ley dang sonam").  Someone lacking this requisite karma/merit may end up as a “useless person” ("mi phen-tho-ya may-pa").   Tethong did not claim that he had the requisite karma/merit.  In essence, he seemed to be suggesting that his openness to serving was tempered by his recognition that an effective Kalon Tripa must have the requisite karma/merit.

We may not be in a position to judge who does or does not have adequate karma/merit to serve His Holiness and the Tibetan people in this vital role.  However, we recognize that Tethong’s principle is one that is rooted in the Tibetan culture.

2.  Sangay: A Western Approach of Open Competition

Sangay’s attitude toward political power appears more Western, in the sense that he appears to believe that power should be sought more directly.  He responded immediately following Tethong’s statement about karma/merit, saying that there is a joke in Dharamsala to the effect that “I’m not running for Kalon Tripa but if I’m elected I won’t say no.”  After the joke he added his own position saying personally “I’m not saying no” and then stoped right there, saying he is joking.  Coming on the heels of Tethong’s statement, and taken in conjunction with what he later said about running, it also is a relatively clear criticism of Tethong’s traditional approach, or the “Dharamsala way”. 

Later in the debate, Sangay spoke about his desire to serve as a way of repaying his debt to His Holiness and the Tibetan government.  He added that this service does not necessarily mean heading the Tibetan government.  He noted that he plans to visit the Tibetan settlements in South India to do a sort of “listening tour” to see if he can make a difference by serving as Kalon Tripa. 

This is something that is quite common in the West before a politician officially launches their campaign.  For example, Hillary Clinton made her famous “listening tour” of upstate New York prior to running for Senate in 2000.

From a Western perspective, the “listening tour” is a good way for the potential candidate to learn about constituents’ concerns, make sure the candidate feels ready to jump into the political arena, and to introduce themselves to the voters.  If used properly, it can be a positive tool to develop better policies and make the politician more accessible and accountable. 

There is nothing inherently right or wrong with the Tibetan or Western attitude towards political power.  We point out the difference between the two candidates’ attitudes to illustrate their differing views. 


1.  Tethong: Experienced, but Needs to Explain His Accomplishments

Tethong was modest in describing his past experience.  This was possibly because he feels he has nothing to prove, as he has already served for example as Kalon Tripa, kalon of several portfolios, and co-founder of institutions such as the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

Tethong, however, did not address his concrete accomplishments as Kalon Tripa.  It is one thing to have held a position and quite another to have held it well.  What did he do as Kalon Tripa?  What did he learn in that role?  What would he do differently?  We encourage Tethong to elaborate on his specific accomplishments. 

Skeptics may ask whether Tethong’s roles in TYC and ICT indicate a pattern of setting things up and then moving on.  Why didn’t he stay to work in these institutions?  It is important for Tethong to address this.

Another perspective on these experiences is the possibility of being defined as someone who is “locked into old ways of doing things.”  It’s true that prudent leaders have a respect for precedent.  On the other hand, there is sometimes a need to change.  We call on Tethong to address the need to break with the past when necessary.

2.  Sangay: Evading the Question of Experience

Sangay was asked a question about President Obama’s lack of experience.  The objective observer will recognize that this is an indirect way of asking Sangay to comment on the possible criticism that he himself is too young and inexperienced for the role of Kalon Tripa.  Sangay responded by pointing out that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush defeated their more experienced opponents.  He also said that Songtsen Gampo united Tibet at a young age, and mentioned other leaders such as Alexander the Great, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln, who were all relatively young.

Sangay’s analogies missed the point.  Before becoming president, Clinton and Bush were state governors.  Obama was a state legislator and U.S. senator.  Kennedy was a naval officer, U.S. congressman, and U.S. senator.  Lincoln was a state legislator and U.S. congressman.  These leaders all climbed the ladder of political experience, rather than simply leaping to the top, as Sangay implied.

Skeptics may point out that the position of Kalon Tripa is the pinnacle of the Tibetan government.  In this view, to be Kalon Tripa requires "climbing the ladder of political experience." 

Additionally, a casual listener might believe Sangay was, in fact, comparing himself with Songtsen Gampo and Alexander the Great.  It is probably a sign of his political inexperience that he made such a twistable statement.

If this were American politics, there would be a serious price to pay for making such a bold comparison.  Likely, Sangay would be accused of arrogance and even of having delusions of grandeur.  While this may not be fair, it is how politics is played in the “big leagues.”  We believe running for Kalon Tripa demands one to be ready for the “big leagues” and Sangay ought to be more careful before making such statements in the future.


The larger point is, Sangay avoided the question about his experience to serve as the highest elected Tibetan leader.  We call on him to answer this directly.


The debate showed that the two candidates take a rather different approach to problem-solving.   While Tethong takes a broad and philosophical approach, Sangay takes a specific and examples-driven one. 

In discussing the nature of Tibetan democracy, Tethong took a broad view.  He noted that democracy is philosophically about shifting power from a monarch to the people.  He said that democracy is not simply about numbers, but about the right of all people to participate in their own governance.

Sangay, on the other hand, critiqued the Tibetan electorate by pointing out that Tibetan elections had never achieved 50% participation, and questioned whether this is really democracy.  He said that the Tibetan system is poor (“kyobo”) compared with the higher voter participations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 


It was interesting how both candidates described what they see as the most important criteria for choosing the next Kalon Tripa.  Not surprisingly, they both emphasized factors that might go to their advantage.  To be clear, neither candidate was asked specifically what their criteria are.  Rather, the analysis below is our best effort to determine these criteria based on the points the candidates emphasized.

1.  Tethong: Karma/Merit and Experience

Tethong’s position is that an important criterion for choosing the next Kalon Tripa is karma/merit.  This is may be correct but mere mortals find it hard to measure or judge this factor!  Of course, Tethong did not claim to have any special karma/merit.

Perhaps the best proxy for karma/merit is the person’s ethical integrity.  Ethics is and should be a key factor to have in our next Kalon Tripa.  We do not presume to judge either candidate’s ethics, but encourage voters to discuss this topic.

Tethong also implied that experience is an important criterion.  True.  This, though, must be accompanied by openness to initiate necessary changes.

2.  Sangay: the “Five Pillars
” and “Education, Education, Education”

Unlike Tethong’s broad approach, Sangay’s approach showed an affinity for numbers that no doubt reflects his legal training, which stresses categorization and precision.   Again, this reflects his particular analytical style noted above.

He presented five relationships in which the next Kalon Tripa should excel, which he likened to the “five pillars” or "five fingers."  In this view, an important criterion for choosing the next Kalon Tripa is how well that person manages the “five pillars.” 

Specifically, the “five pillars” are the relationship of the Tibetan government with (1) the international community, (2) Tibet, (3) China, (4) India, and (5) the Tibetan settlements.   Sangay said modestly that he has done some work on areas 1 through 4.  He also said later that he grew up in a settlement so he has knowledge about 5. 

In our view, Sangay’s best claim to expertise is with respect to #3 (China).  This is due to the six Track II conferences he has organized at Harvard, most recently in 2007 (disclosure: two of the TPR editors have participated).  In these dialogues, he has leveraged the “Harvard name” to promote a dialogue with Chinese scholars and officials who might otherwise not attend.  He has also undertaken a series of public debates with Chinese scholars such as Hu Xiaojiang, a well-connected researcher on migration patterns in Tibet.  

We would like to hear more from Sangay about #2 (Tibet).  He has had dealings with certain officials from Tibet through the Harvard conferences, but what of the non-elite?  This is not to say that another candidate is better in this category, but we would like to hear from Sangay on this. 

We would also like to hear more about Sangay’s thoughts on #1 (the international community).  Does he have new ideas for taking the Tibetan struggle onto the global stage?  We are cautiously optimistic that Sangay has been exposed to global currents and new ideas in Cambridge; we would like to see specifics. 

We have concerns about Sangay’s experience on #4 (India).  Having spent the past roughly eight years in the United States, and before that being quite young, this is perhaps a weak point.  Other candidates will be stronger in their relationships with the powers in India, the Tibetan government’s most important ally.  On the other hand, those candidates will not necessarily have Sangay’s other qualities, so voters may have to weigh and balance. 

Lastly, we would also like to hear more from Sangay on #5 (the settlements) beyond the fact that he grew up there, and eats dal and tingmo (and is presumably therefore a man of the people).  What, specifically, are his policy positions?

Sangay also made an interesting comment that the top agenda item for the next Kalon Tripa should be education, education, education, education, education (“sheyon, sheyon, sheyon, sheyon, sheyon”).  At first take, we thought that he was saying that education should determine the best person for the job.  He somewhat confusingly stated, “Whoever becomes Kalon Tripa, the most important is education.”    However, it became clear that Sangay was instead stating that advancing education in the Tibetan community is a critical task. 


In this statement, we agree.  TPR’s compiled questions for the Kalon Tripa candidates includes a question on how the candidate intends to improve education in the Tibetan schools.  We would like to hear Sangay’s ideas on this, or more generally on advancing education in the community more broadly. 


It is a laudable but tall job to push an agenda of “education.”  It also opens a host of specific questions that should be answered.  For example, how to combine the best the world has to offer with a respect for Tibetan tradition?  It is as Gandhi once said: one can open the window to the winds of the world, while refusing to be swept off one’s feet. 


Similarly, a curriculum of “education” calls for a corresponding curriculum of “ethics,” which in our case comes best from our Tibetan cultural traditions.  As His Holiness noted, "the smart brain must be balanced with a warm heart, a good heart - a sense of responsibility, of concern for the well-being of others."  


This is a worthy task, but a large one.  We would like to hear how Sangay proposes to carry it out, and whom he might call upon to lead his Sherig/Education Department in this complex task.  




We hope these analyses are useful for the voters.  It is clear looking back that Sangay’s more detail-focused approach provides far more material to analyze, for better or for worse.  Conversely, Tethong’s broader approach, while perhaps reflective of a different temperament and training, provides less in the way of specifics to critique. 


As election day draws closer, all candidates should be called upon to provide more concrete policy proposals and ideas.  Sangay, notably, will have a head start on his competitors in this regard.  The voters should seek candidates who best combine experience, knowledge, ethics, and vision. Whether that candidate is Tethong, Sangay or someone else is the voters’ decision.



* Note: This editorial has been revised to reflect a translation error in the original. The editors apologize for their mistake, and have instituted a triple-checking policy for future translations.  We have also added additional detail to our reporting of what the candidates said, in order to further illustrate the reasons why this editorial makes the conclusions it does.