By Ayak Tsang
Circulating on the internet and campaign stops is a rather exaggerated and repetitive list called ‘The 10 Outstanding accomplishments’ of Sikyong Lobsang Sangay. This seems to be the official campaign platform and political record on which he is standing for re-election for the Sikyong post. Rather than refuting those dubious claims, I offer you 10 reasons why you should vote for the Rangzen candidate and former political prisoner, Lukar Jam Atsok for Sikyong.
For the first time since the renunciation of Rangzen and official adoption of the so called ‘Middle Way Approach’ by the exile administration, we have a Rangzen candidate. Lukar Jam Atsok is a strong and viable candidate and is qualified for the highest office of the Central Tibetan Administration, based on his life experience alone as having born in occupied Tibet and being imprisoned for his patriotic Rangzen stands. Why Rangzen? The MWA has run it’s course. For the last few decades, we have tried this appeasement approach with no tangible results to show for it. China has flatly denied it and hasn’t budged an inch from their firm stand against it. Western governments and the international community though having aided in the formation of this compromised policy in hopes of engaging with China more effectively has failed to do so. China’s economic rise has taken away this once expected leverage. There was renewed hope for negotiations when Harvard educated legal scholar Lobsang Sangay was elected Sikyong in 2011. These hopes were soon dashed when he failed to impress his western handlers and failed to muster political authority within the Tibetan populace who hoped for a miracle of sorts — a young dynamic leader with legal expertise and academic contacts from Harvard including some Chinese being able to sway opinion in Beijing. Unless a second term with Lobsang Sangay further dilutes the MWA as he has begun to do, the current policy of seeking limited Autonomy for Tibet will certainly not succeed as the recent White Paper on Tibet by China made abundantly clear. In this political stalemate, the Rangzen stand is our only default position rather than a watered down Autonomy agenda that is unrecognizable from the current status quo in Tibet.
Democracy now. So says the campaign signs of Lukar Jam Atsok. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama sought to embrace Democracy in the 1960s and when he voluntarily gave up political authority to an elected political leader, he envisioned the future of Tibet to be firmly in the hands of the Tibetan people and not dependent on his continued guidance. During Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche’s time and carried forth by the first and current Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, we have been practicing a Democracy with Tibetan characteristics. We even call it Mangtso (མང་གཅོ།) in Tibetan, using the plural term rather than Mungtso (དམངས་གཅོ།), the particular term for (Greek word Demos). Mangtso means majority rule. Mungtso, the more exact definition of democracy takes into account rights and protection of minority groups. If proponents of Rangzen are a minority in this juncture in our political history, they have every right to voice their opinions freely and likewise stand for political office. An informed public gets to decide and vote on the policies and candidates and not dictated from the top. For democracy to fully develop and cement in our political affairs, opposition to the administration and it’s policies must be allowed, and even in defeat it serves a pivotal role as opposing blocks in functioning of a democracy. Otherwise, we would have one party rule and monopoly of power which are the opposite of democracy.
Also in our current form of Democracy, there is heavy allegiance to the Dalai Lama. This defeats the purpose of him giving us Democracy. During the transition to civilian leadership when His Holiness devolved political powers, I was of the opinion that he should remain as Head of State and continue to play a political role. But he rejected this idea put forward by many. So why do we continue to put him in that difficult position? There is almost an unwritten lèse-majesté rule in our community where critical thinkers and intellectuals are roundly criticized and some banished from society. The official line is always that the person has offended the Dalai Lama. When such propaganda is fed to an obedient public, it creates a toxic discourse that is never good for democracy. One candidate has even vowed to not debate the Rangzen candidate saying it is his democratic right. There is no nitpicking in Democracy. If one is not prepared to face the opposition, why stand in the election at all?
3. TIBETANS IN TIBET
It’s difficult to know the true aspirations of Tibetans in Tibet as it pertains to the future of Tibet. Do they want Independence or do they support the MWA for Autonomy? But that is beside the point that I am making. What is important in this election is that we have a candidate who was born in Tibet and understands their plight more intimately than the other candidates who were either born or have spent much of their lives in India. As much as we and the international media made of the biography of Lobsang Sangay as someone who was born in exile and coming of age as a second generation leader, I would argue that Lukar Jam’s biography is equally compelling if not more so. He has suffered under Chinese occupation and has even gone to prison for fighting against it. He has first hand knowledge of the effects of Chinese rule in Tibet, particularly in the Amdo region where he is from, where much of the self immolations and other political protests have taken place since 2008. Lobsang Sangay when elected Sikyong was a source of pride and was warmly received by Tibetans in Tibet based on jubilant celebrations and songs composed in his honor that we saw. It is not hard to predict even more raucous elation and renewed resolve to fight if and when Lukar Jam is elected. In the end, the fight against China and fight for Rangzen must be incubated inside Tibet to have any real effect on the repressive Chinese policies. So far, any push for Autonomy from exile has had little effect. Some say that Rangzen only provides false hope for Tibetans in Tibet. On the contrary, a Rangzen fight is being honest with ourselves and being truthful to the people in Tibet and being straight forward to our common oppressor, who we must meet with strength and conviction. Our tentative weakness and retreat passing off as mutually beneficial has stymied any movement from the two sides, the continued Chinese repressive measures and the unwilling or inability to mobilize popular revolt within Tibet.
You negotiate from a position of strength. That position is Rangzen. The first direct contacts between China and the Tibetan exile Government (at the time) took place in 1978 when Rangzen was the policy and goal for all Tibetans. Based on that fact, Deng Xiaoping expressed revealingly that apart from Independence (Rangzen), everything else can be discussed. The Tibetan side, rather hopefully and naively started to retreat from Rangzen instead of realizing that Rangzen was our trump card for negotiations. The following few years were however promising. Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s brother was invited to Beijing for discussions and even a delegation of exile officials were allowed to visit Tibet. The initial sincerity or lack thereof was soon evident when China saw strong national sentiments among Tibetans in Tibet in the way they received the delegates. It could be said that within Tibet, Rangzen aspirations were still strong and alive. They could not trust a lesser solution, and henceforth repeatedly has dismissed all Tibetan proposals as being Rangzen in disguise. Hu Yaobang, who was most receptive to talks was out of power and the Chinese stand hardened back to no talk at all.
Meanwhile, the Tibetan position softened further and further. With no response from China, we turned to the west. In 1987, The Dalai Lama offered a Five Point Peace Plan in the US Congress. In the European Parliament, he outlined the Strasbourg Proposal. These were received favorably in the west and His Holiness was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, but it did not have the desired effect on China. Except for a brief interlocution between Gyalo Thondup in 1992, there was no positive movement in negotiations. Since 2002, there was said to be nine rounds of talks between China and envoys of the Dalai Lama, but each time it was simply tolerating patronizing insults from them and for the envoys and no substantive dialogue took place. Were we duped by Deng Xiaoping?
Regardless, the fact is that we have spent all those ensuing years shaping and defining the Middle Way Approach and nothing has come of it. In the process, we have lost our bargaining chip and China has decided to wait it out and not engage our fledgling movement in any meaningful way. It seems they have long decided to return back to their comfortable colonial mentality and maintain a strong hand in Tibet which they can sustain as long as the Communist Party is strong. We should finally realize this fact and also pivot back to our colony relationship whose only freedom is through Rangzen. Election of Lukar Jam for the Sikyong post who professes Rangzen as an approach to deal with China will symbolically sent a strong message to Beijing. Even if he doesn’t win, a good showing will remind the Chinese that they do have to engage with the Tibetans to settle our long standing dispute with them.
5. RETURN OF THE DALAI LAMA
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, after more than 50 years in exile wishes very much to return to Tibet. Tibetans in Tibet pray and wait for his return. We in exile who also dream of the day should do all we can to make this possible. The Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet or somewhere in China as the Chinese would prefer should not be tied to the political outcome. When His Holiness devolved political powers, he in theory is free to engage in discussions with the Chinese for his possible return directly through his private Office of Ganden Phodrang. There was some talk last year that he could first go on a pilgrimage to the Wudang Mountains in China, sacred to Tibetan Buddhists as a confidence building step. But since he was the principal architect of the Middle Way Approach of the Tibetan Administration headed by his democratic successor, and that the return of the Dalai Lama was inalienably tied to the success of Middle Way, it complicated the back channel discussions. Because of this, as it stands now, unless there was a political solution based on the principles for genuine autonomy sought by the Tibetan administration, we will not see the day when His Holiness finally returns to Tibet. By then, it may be too late.
A Rangzen administration led by Lukar Jam will completely free the Dalai Lama from the political entanglements. He will be free to pursue independently separate negotiations with China and allow him to return to meet with the faithful in Tibet while the greater Tibetan issue is still not resolved. This may seem counter intuitive to some, but if we approach it correctly and include well known international missions to impress upon the Chinese, this may prove to be a more realistic path for his return, even if it was for a brief visit to Tibet to reassure our poor countrymen.
6. TIBETAN LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
The preservation of Tibetan language and culture is one of the chief missions of our exile polity. When Lobsang Sangay was elected Sikyong last time around, his mastery of the English language proved to be an asset while his Tibetan proficiency was a little suspect. We along with the Dalai Lama thought that he would be able to seamlessly walk the lobbying halls of western governments and raise the Tibetan issue at the highest levels of power. While this qualification was important, Lukar Jam makes up for it with this knowledge of Chinese language which he can use to deal with the authorities or talk directly with the Chinese people. What is more important is the Tibetan language. Lukar Jam speaks in a refined Tibetan tongue in the Amdo dialect that is pure and familial. It also is a very public language uninhibited by official jargons and diplomatic niceties. He speaks directly to the people, specially in Tibet. It is refreshing and authentic and people like us who have lost much of our mother tongue are mesmerized by it. I believe that this will have a positive impact on the future generation if we had a Sikyong who speaks Tibetan fluently and act as a role model for aspiring politicians and public servants. We shouldn’t look upon Tibetan as an archaic language, something suitable for religious education alone. A bold and beautiful demonstration of the ease and eloquence in the Tibetan language unlike the official CTA lingua franca, a boring and scripted monotone, a disjointed attempt at the honorific. If nothing else, Lukar Jam’s candidacy is a fine example to the diaspora twice removed from their mother tongue, a language tradition that is at once alive and adaptable to the new language of democracy.
Tibetan culture consists not just of our Buddhist faith, national dresses and artistic traditions. On the personal level, it is best exhibited in one’s humility, integrity, honesty and responsibility. Lukar Jam to me is all of that and more. He, unlike some candidates does not dwell in his personal achievements or accolades. He does not draw political mileage from the fact that he spent time in prison. He draws inspiration from his mother who would some times go hungry in order to feed his large family. He wants to be responsible like her. He saw his father reimbursing pennies and a pencil after his job as an accountant was over. He wants to be honest like him. He says he will be the last person running away from his Rangzen fight. It speaks of integrity. These are traits that we as Tibetans instill in our education and all walks of life. We used to despise the opportunistic, the cunning and the self-promoter. But we fell for one. Now is the time to correct that and adhere to our true cultural values.
Tibet used to be a very factious state. It was never unified as one country for long parts of our history. Even before the Chinese occupation, the Lhasa government had no direct control over vast regions of Eastern Tibet, who were fiercely independent. Within central Tibet, there was always religious sectarian rivalry of one form or another. It was only after the Chinese came that we started to come together and became one, united as Tibetans.
In exile, the divisions along religious and regional lines became less and our identification as Tibetans facing the common Chinese enemy became more prominent. Lately, this unity has started to unravel both in political and religious affairs. In the Political front, we have created this illusion of a division between Rangzen advocates and supporters of the Middle Way. This supposed split is not real. There are people who are not politically mature and can’t accept political differences who see Rangzen activists as a threat, not recognizing the larger threat from China. Both the MWA and Rangzen path are means of addressing the same problem with China and therefore, the two are allies in the fight and not rivals. The current Sikyong and the Speaker who are both candidates for the new Sikyong term have escalated this ill conceived campaign to clamp down on Rangzen that has further divided the public. There was a concerted effort by their surrogates to destroy Tibetan Youth Congress, our only reputable exile political group which has been at the forefront of our fight against the Chinese the last few decades. TYC is not just a Rangzen organization. It is unique in that it is an independent, non-sectarian, non-provincial, non-governmental and united group, in which most of us in exile have joined in our youth. Most of our officials and leaders of institutions have come through the ranks of TYC at one time or another. This must stop. If TYC needs to change it’s political stand, it has the capacity to do so by amending the charter from within. There should be no unnecessary external pressures. The efforts so far has only poisoned the debate.
Then there is the issue of Shugden, a religious matter. Shugden poses a real threat, to the Dalai Lama first and foremost, and to our freedom struggle. The efforts so far to deal with this issue has been lackluster and inept. There are three fronts to this threat from Shugden. We have first the puppet Chinese Lamas of Tibetan origin. In the west are these fanatical pseudo Buddhists drawn to the Cult of a former Tibetan Geshe. Then we have real Tibetans in Tibetan settlements and monasteries who still worship the wrathful Dorje Shugden. After repeated warnings from the Dalai Lama, if they insist on practicing this harmful religion, then let them. We should accord them all the rights and benefits if indeed there were any discrimination, real or unintended. I don’t believe that was the case. The Chinese Lamas, wherever they are should be reported to the relevant government authorities so that their movements can be curtailed or deported back to China. The actions by the western Shugden groups based in England should be sued for libel and defamation against His Holiness the Dalai Lama in English courts. England has vigorous libel laws that we can use to challenge their outrageous and highly inflammatory attacks against an international icon.
What can Lukar Jam do to diffuse these two very serious threats to our unity? I can’t speak to the latter except to say that the controversy will not be too closely associated with the new administration. As for Rangzen and Rangzen activists, if Lukar wins or proved to have gained support from a formidable group, then Rangzen will no longer be seen as a pariah in our community. Having gained status as a legitimate political party and given notice to China of an alternate and real opposition, they may decide to come to the negotiating table. If we embrace Rangzen as a strategic policy, our nascent democracy and freedom struggle will be better for it. We can then all come together united as one Tibetan people and work together, despite our inward differences.
8. LOBSANG SANGAY’S RECORD
To this observer, Lobsang Sangay’s first term as Sikyong has been a failure. He has at least not fulfilled all those early promises. Not going through his campaign pledges from last election which were mostly rhetoric anyway, and not checking the validity of his said 10 Accomplishments, suffice it to say that we have four challengers which point to his weakness. A clear indication of his disapproval inside the beltway comes from the fact that from within the ranks, the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, Mr. Penpa Tsering found it necessary to challenge him. The other two candidates outside of Lukar Jam are not serious contenders. But this suggests a larger level of disaffection towards him despite his outward popularity in the community playing to his western- style over substance politics. Many people are still enamored by his charisma and trappings of office wooed through his many dignified tours and public speeches. He may still win re-election though with a much smaller mandate than I would have thought. As a comparison, Samdhong Rinpoche won a second term for Kalon Tripa with an overwhelming majority. Secretly, I must confess and hope he will win re-election for the sake of stability and continuation of policy for five more years, as at my heart I am a conservative which is why I supported Tethong last time. But the opening is there for Lukar Jam to make a major impact in our politics and still new democratic system.
9. THE FUTURE
This election comes at a very critical time in our history. This time next year, we would have been in exile for fifty five long years. Whether we can have a resolute discussion about the future of the Tibetan struggle and implications of that from China within the lifetime of the Dalai Lama is at stake. We must shake up the exile establishment and seek all and any path to try to resolve our longstanding issue with China. China is prepared to wait it out, for the Dalai Lama to pass on and our movement to dissolve soon after. Are we prepared for that eventuality without any concrete plans or a plausible path? Let this election be a referendum on Rangzen which we haven’t had formally. Let it be a message to China to take the Middle Way Approach for Autonomy seriously. Or deal with Rangzen.