Evolution of Tibetan Democracy
A Tribute to the Great Leader of our Time
~ His Leadership and His Vision ~
"Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength. No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster." His Holiness the Dalai Lama
China invaded Tibet in the name of liberation and colonized the region for their own political and socio-economic agenda. They never seriously cared about Tibet and its inhabitants. Tibetans have suffered and are still suffering under the brutal egregious regime of Communist China. But despite the best effort by the Chinese regime to break down the Tibetan spirit of freedom and destroy the root of Tibetan culture and religious identity for the past more than 60 years, Tibetans in and outside have stood fast and resilient, and non violent against the belligerent aggressor. Despite the continued repression and difficult political situation in their homeland, Tibetans have endured and lived with their moral and spiritual ethics of yarab-chosang, and contributed greatly in fluttering the banner of peace, harmony and non-violence around the world. International community has greatly appreciated the ancient wisdom of Tibetan spiritualism and non-violent culture. Bon and Buddhism have seen great revivals in India, Asia and around the world. Tibetans in exile have established a vibrant and healthy democratic society at par with any independent nation. In the centre of this non-violent, vibrant democratic and compassionate culture, the essential source of wisdom and inspiration, and epitome of faith is the person none other than Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. How the Tibetan refugees survived the hardship of exile and displacement? How the Tibetans endured and came out strong and united under a new democratic polity is the result of His meticulous effort and profound leadership vision.
Democracy is best described by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America as a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Since the birth of the concept "A rule by the power of the people" in early Greek city-state of Athens in 5 century BCE, democracy has been the most widely accepted and espoused form of government in the modern world. History has seen and experimented many forms of government in different states under various circumstances, and has endorsed democracy as the most popular choice of government. But democracy came and was achieved with a lot of effort and sacrifices from the people who had to fight against the tyrant monarchies and dictatorships. Both ancient and modern history has little to say about peaceful democratic transition and devolution of power from the authorities to the masses. Arab spring and the Jasmine revolution of our era are typical examples of how democracies have been sought and achieved by the people in many countries. Yet, in Tibetan case, democracy evolved and developed peacefully but at a very difficult time of its history. It was the leadership who offered and insisted the power to the people. This too was done over a period of time considering the prevailing circumstances and people's readiness and proper understanding of the concept.
Tibet around 1950s was passing through a very difficult time: Chinese army has started the invasion from the eastern regions of Tibet. News of Chinese brutality and massacre came along with the people who had escaped to Lhasa. Central Tibet was in the grip of great fear and uncertainty. People turned to the Tibetan government for help. At the helm of the government is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a young lad of sixteen. But how this young boy took the responsibility and negotiated with the belligerent wrath of communist army and how he sustained the hope and pacified the fear of the people is a history. True to the belief of the people of Tibet and the Himalayan regions, the 14th Dalai Lama came and conducted the things as would any reincarnation of Chenrezig Aloketesvara, the Buddha of compassion.
Soon upon his enthronement as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet at the age of 16 in 1951, His Holiness the Dalai Lama felt the decision should be made by the general people, not by the people in his proximity. For this, democratically elected leadership is needed; and the political system of democratic representation has to be introduced to achieve successful devolution of political authority to the people. The young Dalai Lama constituted a Reform Committee and initiated several democratic reforms to improve the general condition of the people, and to put the nation on the road to modernization and development. Unfortunately, the Chinese invasion thwarted all his reform effort and initiatives, and Tibet was thrown into a chaotic situation. In order to save the people from the Chinese wrath and massacre, His Holiness tried his best to negotiate and managed the situation calmly without provoking the Chinese. All his effort was directed toward saving the lives of his people as well as of Chinese. To this effect, he tried his best to co-exist with the Chinese along the 17 point agreement of 1951, which was although signed under duress. When all his effort failed and he was convinced that more lives will be lost if he stayed in Tibet, he took the difficult decision to escape and sought political asylum in India in March 1959. And from India he appealed to the world for freedom and justice for his land and the people.
Having learned the hard lesson that the lack of proper modern education has obstructed Tibet from entering into modern world and preserve her independence, His Holiness soon worked with government of India to set up schools to educate the young Tibetan refugees. He reinitiated the democratic reform which he started in Tibet. In 1960, just after a year in exile, in the sacred land of Bodh Gaya, where Buddha Shakyamuni attained Parinirvana, he sowed the seed of democracy in Tibetan community. To a small group of Tibetan refugees who have come for his teaching, His Holiness the Dalai Lama preached democracy and enlightened them on the benefit of adopting the path of democracy. "We have just lost our country; we need to have a Parliament, an elected Parliament wherein the Tibetan people can choose their candidates through universal adult franchise." The young leader said. The first representatives of the people, three each from the three provinces of Tibet: U-Tsang, Dotoe and Domed, and one each from the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism - 13 representatives were elected and they took oath on 2nd September 1960 and establishment of Tibetan parliament was announced which was then referred to as Commission of Tibetan People's Deputies [CTPD].
While congratulating the newly elected People's Deputies, His Holiness briefed them about their duty and how they should work closely with Kashag and people to achieve better governance and expedite the process of democratization. Expansion of ministerial departments and their appointment was discussed among the Deputies and the Cabinet members, and a policy formulated to that effect. It was said that at this incipient stage of democracy, the Deputies worked along with the civil servants in the departments. Since then, Tibetan parliament and exile administration went under several significant changes and transformation. Sensing the need of women's equal representation and participation in the governance, three additional seats - a woman each from the three provinces was introduced later. One additional Deputy at the Dalai Lama's discretion was also introduced in 1964, thus increasing the strength of the Deputies to 15. In 1976, the 6th CTPD found the inclusion of a Deputy from Bon religion. In 1979, during the 7th Assembly, the name of the Assembly was changed from Commission of Tibetan People's Deputies (CTPD) to Assembly of Tibetan People Deputies (ATPD).
In 1963, Constitution of Tibet with 10 chapters and 77 articles was established and it became the guiding force to the Central Tibetan (CTA) in Exile, and provided a vision for future Tibet. It was first initiated and drafted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was circulated among the people's deputies, civil servants and to the public for their feedback and comments. Incorporating the relevant suggestions, final draft was made and established in March 1963. The document defined the fundamental rights and duties of the citizen. Three pillars of the democracy: judiciary, legislative and executive, their power, duties and appointments were well delineated. This constitution gave Tibetans in and outside a great sense of pride and much needed direction to tread onto their struggle for freedom and justice. This Constitution of Tibet was revised later in 1991 based on the prevailing circumstances and Charter for Tibetans in Exile was established as the guiding light for the functioning of Central Tibetan Administration in exile.
In 1991, a major change came, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced expansion of the Deputies and proposed devolution of more legislative and administrative power to the People's Deputies. Number of People's Deputies was increased to 46: 10 each from the three provinces; 2 each from the five religious schools; 3 from Europe and North America; and 3 nominees from His Holiness. Three pillars of democracy came to fruition with the establishment of Supreme Justice Commission at the apex to arbitrate and to look after judicial need of the exile community. Adoption of Charter for Tibetans in Exile based on the 1963 draft constitution facilitated independent Audit Commission, Public Service Commission and Election Commission. The Assembly of People's Deputies was empowered to impeach His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kashag and the heads of the three independent Commissions. His Holiness insisted making the institution of Dalai Lama subservient to the Tibetan Charter, not above it, and announced his plan to transfer the political power to the three pillars of democracy. But the people were reluctant. Succumbing to the request and pleas from Tibetans in and outside Tibet, His Holiness agreed to remain as the Head of the State. However, he declared clearly of his intention to transfer all the political power to the popular elected leader of the people. He made it clear that when the time came in or outside Tibet, when Tibetans have reached high level of democratic system of governance, he will retire completely from the political leadership. But he clarified that this devolution of power and retirement from political leadership should not to be construed as his frustration and losing hope over Tibet issue. Rather this is the culmination of his sincere and long coveted dream to have a fully functioning democratic Tibetan society.
"Ever since I was young, I looked forward to the time when we could devise a political system suited both to our traditions and the demands of the modern world. Since we came into exile we have tried to build up the Chitu, the elected assembly of representatives, as a key feature of our effort to develop such a system. We are now embarking on changes which will further democratize and strengthen our administration in exile. I hope that these changes will allow the people of Tibet to have a clear say in determining the future of their country."
Toward the transition of democratic system, a remarkable milestone was reached in the year 2001 and 2011. His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggested direct election of the Ministers and Chief Kalon by the people. Accordingly, in 2001, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche was elected Kalon Tripa [Chief Kalon or Prime Minister], the highest political authority in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), directly by the people, and his cabinet ministers were appointed by him upon the approval of Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies. In 2006, His Holiness gave up his discretionary power to nominate three deputies in the Assembly, and the 14th Assembly [2006-2011] was without any direct nominee from Him. People elected Professor Samdhong Rinpoche for the second time as Kalon Tripa of in that year. Having observed that his people are now capable of taking the responsibility of governance, in 2011 His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the occasion of 52nd Anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day, announced his total retirement from the political leadership and proposed necessary amendment to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile. Although the majority of the parliamentarian rejected his decision and requested for the continuity of his leadership, this time His Holiness the Dalai Lama stood fast to his decision.
"As early as the 1960s, I repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I could devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect..... I am committed to playing my part in the just cause of Tibet. I trust that gradually people will come to understand my intention, will support my decision and accordingly let it take effect." His Holiness the Dalai Lama said.
So, the election of Kalon Tripa in 2011 came as a significant milestone in the history of Tibetans quest for democratic polity. In this popular election of Kalon Tripa of 14th Kashag (Cabinet) of Central Tibetan Administration in exile, Tibetans in and outside Tibet took great interest and quizzed the candidates carefully. Unlike before, this time the three popular contesting candidates came out openly in public to speak about their candidature and showed up to participate in election debate before the public. The talks and debates were widely circulated and watched. Although, the Tibetans in Tibet could not participate in voting, they took great interest and watched the election closely. Never before the Tibetan community saw such a fervent initiative and energy from both the candidates and the public about the leadership election. And on 20th March 2011, Tibetan people elected the young Harvard graduate, Dr. Lobsang Sangay their Kalon Tripa. On 8th August 2011, during the swearing in ceremony of the Kalon Tripa before the public in Dharamsala, Tibetan Kashag's seal was handed over Lobsang Sangay to signify the transference of temporal power in accordance with the age old tradition. His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced,
“I took over the political leadership of Tibet from Sikyong Tagdrag Rinpoche when I was 16-years old. Today, in the 21st century, when democracy is thriving, I hand over the political leadership of Tibet to Sikyong Lobsang Sangay.”
A year later, the title "Kalon Tripa" was also changed accordingly to "Sikyong" signifying the total political authority and leadership. The term "Sikyong" can be traced back to the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama [1617-1682], when the political authority was transferred to Sangay Gyatso with a title "Desi". In the subsequent period of the Dalai Lamas' rule [over 300 years] Desi assumed the political authority in the former's absence or minority. This Desi title later evolved into Sikyong, and today the Tibetan community have the continuation of the Sikyong - the age old political authority in the form of popular elected leadership in modern time.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama knew from the beginning that if Tibet as a nation or Tibetan as a community is to survive and prosper, Tibetans need democratic form of government and leadership to sustain itself in the long run. He introduced and educated the Tibetans about democracy in a gradual phase wise manner that suited the mentality of the people of the time. Tibetan people holds His Holiness the Dalai Lama in great reverence, and are totally satisfied and content with his leadership that democracy has no place in their mentality. In some way His Holiness saw himself as an obstacle to democratic movement and modernization in Tibetan society. With the whole hearted faith and devotion of the Tibetans, things may be all right during his time, but what will happen when he is gone. History has shown the tumultuous time and the burnt that Tibet has to endure during the transition period of one Dalai Lama to another. Although the Tibetans may not agree, he must let the Tibetans experiment and ultimately enlighten them on the necessity of democratic form of government. With this His Holiness the Dalai Lama handed over democracy in its pure form to the Tibetans much in a same way the Lord Buddha taught the profound teaching of Buddhism to the people of his time. The Dalai Lama and the institution of Dalai Lama have been an indelible part of Tibetan history, and the leadership and guidance of the 14th Dalai Lama during the most difficult period of Tibetan history will be remembered by the Tibetans throughout the times to come. In his tribute to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the former Kalon Tripa Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche said:
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision and unceasing guidance for the last thirty years to build a democratic Tibetan polity, that is not dependent on him, has finally achieved. This is a great moment for all of us. Your Holiness has provided us the longest leadership and that your temporal and spiritual achievements far exceed the combined deeds of all the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas.”
Today, on this 54th Anniversary of Tibetan Democracy, if we look back, we can see how His Holiness the Dalai Lama has whole heartedly with great effort nurtured and introduced democratic polity in Tibetan community. How under His leadership, the homeless refugees of 1959 have survived and now stands firmly on their feet with an established democratic Administration in exile. Although, we still have many miles to go, what we have achieved as a refugee community will go a long way in furthering our pursuit of free democratic society and in strengthening our unity and struggle to resurrect freedom and justice in Tibet. We have achieved in exile what is denied and suppressed at gunpoint in our homeland. Chinese authorities in Tibet should follow the suit and devolve power to the people. Instead of abusing and avoiding His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Chinese leaderships should embrace him and learn from his wisdom, which the international community is doing. His policy of Middle Way Approach is widely acclaimed by the international leaderships. It is a practical approach putting both Tibet and China in a win-win situation. Simple message of Middle Way Approach is: No repression, no separation.
Having devolved his political authority to the elected leader, true to the deed of Avaloketesvara, today His Holiness tirelessly works on the two of his three commitments he profess to hold dear in his life: promotion of human value and secular ethics; and promotion of religious harmony. But he clearly states that devolution of political authority does not mean that he cannot speak on Tibet issue, he has every right to speak on Tibet issue as a citizen of Tibet. With this I humbly and most respectfully conclude my short write up and tribute to the great spiritual and temporal leader of our times, may His Holiness the Dalai Lama live long and healthy life to bless and guide us in this present samsaric life and the journey beyond.As long as space endures, as long as sentient beings remain,
until then, may He too remain and dispel the miseries of the world
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