By Gelek Badheytsang
It's hard to take stock of what transpired in Toronto on Losar Day 3, March 6, 2011. Three Kalon Tripa candidates, flush from campaigning all over the world, convened for one of the remaining, pivotal debates in a high school auditorium in Parkdale. More than a thousand Tibetans attended, cramming inside the room and spilling outside in the hallway. Instead of trying to distilling it all in one easy-to-pack summary, I have decided to lay it out in a more meandering way, all gory details included.
3 pm: As is the Tibetan norm for any sort of gathering, people of all ages are at this show. From little infants sleeping in their strollers to murmuring seniors, also occasionally snoring in their seats. The event has a very lively air about it, far from the more sombre and academic environment one would expect at a political debate.
The program goes underway 40 minutes behind schedule. Namgyal Shastri assumes his role as the moderator. He has quite the school master presence about him, and his experience in handling such events shows as he smoothly (and sternly) outlines the rules and time limits to the audience and the debaters. After making sure that everyone understood his impartial stance and his voluntary role, we kick things off with opening statements from the three candidates.
All three of the opening remarks are boilerplate statements on the candidates' commitment towards the Tibetan govt-in-exile and the importance for Tibetans in exile to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities. The phrase "nying thakpa nè" (full hearted) is heard over and over again. I was hoping to glean some unique and possibly specific points, platforms or vision, but am left wanting. Lobsang Sangay mentions his humble beginnings (mi kyurma) in between his appeal for support, and apart from that slight dig at the two other debaters, the participants stick to the script. Tashi Wangdi at one point is mumbling so deeply that it is hard to hear him above all the ambient noise of cell phones ringing and people jostling inside the auditorium. If there's an award for the most somnolent speaker at the debate, that has to be unequivocally handed over to Tashi Wangdi.
The Q & A round proves to be another dud, at least for the ones submitted by Tibetans in Toronto. There are six in total, and apart from a couple, the rest of them are just bad. Sometimes embarrassingly bad. As a Torontonian, I force a bit of dismay away from my face as I hear one questioner after another ask rather predictable and inconsequential things.
At one point, someone asks the candidates about why they didn't campaign in Nepal since it has a pretty sizeable Tibetan diaspora spread across the country. Tashi Wangdi is first to reply and he goes: "I don't intend to go to Nepal." That was it. Lobsang Sangay is next and he must've been dumbfounded as I was because he takes a moment to calibrate his response after this stupefyingly nonchalant tack from Tashi Wangdi. Questions on middle way path, recognizing Tibetan martyrs, language preservation etc. follow, and one after another, the candidates fill their time slots with routine answers and clarifications. I was hoping for a slam dunk here and there, but all I get is a three-point shootout that is even across the board.
There are also many mentions of HHDL in the questions, which make me wonder about our capacity to be a truly democratic society when we seem to be so tethered and centred around an institute which His Holiness himself has been trying to distance from our political circles. This matter deserves its own essay, but it would be remiss of me not to mention this phenomenon after having witnessed it so clearly displayed in a very important setting. Why can't we talk about Tibetan politics without bringing His Holiness into the mix? Is that a spectre that will loom over us for as long as we remain Tibetan? Lots of questions with deep implications, and here we have another question about something that happened in Tibet relating to Panchen Lama, and I'm starting to lose focus.
After about an hour of Q & A, we take a washroom and tea break. I ask an middle-age person about his thoughts so far, and he seems pretty non-commital in making an absolute claim for any one of the candidates. I ask an acha la and she shares the same sentiment. The prevailing view is that of how there isn't really all that much that differentiates the candidates from one another. This election is going to hinge on a lot of things, but it seems that, unfortunately, most of them won't be on substance.
In the face of our respectful culture and decorum, it gets difficult to identify any strong statements or declarations by any of the candidates against each other. This is one aspect of our discourse that leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I can see the need for having a respectful disposition in these matters. The candidates are all very professional about that. But then I also sometimes clamour for a bit of masala. Have a candidate actually face his opponent as an opponent, and not merely as some academic colleague on the wrong side of some abstract front.
This doesn't mean we need to have name calling and mudslinging. The supporters are already on that, don't worry one bit. Just a hint of passion from the debaters in claiming their unique position and calling out the misplaced thoughts and ideas of the others.
Anyway, back we go to the debate. Now we have questions that are submitted from Minnesota and San Francisco, as they were involved in organizing this debate in Toronto. A mention of the uprisings in the middle east, and here at least I get some bones that I can chew on. All three of them are unanimous in their stance of supporting a popular revolt in Tibet, as long as it remains peaceful. I was hoping one of them would at least expound on how the TGIE could leverage such an event in a geopolitical context against China's occupation, but again, I'm left wanting.
At the 5 pm mark, the debate comes to a close. Time for some report cards.
Tashi Wangdi: I have no idea why he's in the debate. He must know at this point that this is becoming an exercise in futility. Even listening to him speak is an exercise sometimes. C-
Tenzin Namgyal Tethong: Spoke clearly and deliberately about issues concerning Tibet's outlook. His defining moment in the debate was perhaps in the opening rounds, when he stated that there are some aspects of the Tibetan govt. that are regressive and need to be acknowledged as such. The two others disagreed with him on that, and I have to commend Tethong for taking a difficult and honest stance. Also the only candidate to state that the question of Tibetan freedom struggle lies in the hands of majority Tibetans, when the other two focused on geopolitical situation and HHDL. B-
Lobsang Sangay: Being the most lively speaker in a ho-hum debate is perhaps not a distinction of much regard, but it has to be noted nonetheless. His example of Jewish diaspora and using it as a benchmark on how to preserve culture and language while prospering economically in exile is commendable. Brought an expansive mindset in discussing Tibet's future, citing China's progress and timelines, along with references to other countries and their democratic struggles. Went on a bit too much on certain ideas that are already in place, viz. bringing in Tibetans overseas to settlement schools in India to teach various subjects and learn Tibetan. B-
Namgyal Shastri: did a marvellous job of corralling wayward questioners, although I wish he could inject some followup questions to make the discussion a little more animated. He gets points for moving things on track, but loses some for sticking to a very rigid structure. B+
Overall debate: B-
So, there you have it. With the elections less than two weeks away, the candidates must feel the heat, and also the wear and tear from the constant political circus. In a uniquely Tibetan corner of North America, they have made their case in front of a receptive audience, and now embark on the final leg of their campaigning. I didn't learn as much as I hoped to from this event, but I am grateful to them for making the trip, and to the organizers for putting it together. I wish them all the best. May the best man win.
Except for Tashi Wangdi. He really needs to step down and endorse one of the two frontrunners.