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Restoring Hope for the Future of Tibet

Losang Gyatso* contends that the Tibet issue needs to be strengthened by taking advantage of the fact that the Dalai Lama is not only the charismatic force that garners global support for the Tibet issue but also the one who can maintain Tibetan unity, and that in light of recent developments, His leading role needs to be restored within the framework of the Charter of Tibetans in Exile even as China remains bent on installing its own 15th Dalai Lama.

(TibetanReview.net, Feb24’22)

For a half century, the Tibetan political movement was a source of uncontested hope and conviction for Tibet’s future. Led by HH the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan struggle in exile captured the imagination of the world, generating a collective surge of energy and a potent sense of shared resolve. But in recent years, the Tibetan movement has fallen into a state of disarray. Particularly since the devolution of power from the Ganden Phodrang to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in 2011, what was once a unified and cohesive global force has descended into a state of political crisis.

The breakdown and paralysis of the CTA in 2021 underscores the existential turmoil that has overtaken the political institutions of the Tibetan struggle in exile. While damaging the stability of Tibetan society, the CTA’s immobilization is also undermining its capacity to represent and advocate for Tibetans inside Tibet on the world stage as well as to Beijing. Further aggravating these disorienting conditions has been the rapidly changing, geographically dispersed, and polarized diaspora community that is growing ever further from the realities of both Tibet and Dharamsala.

The political crisis we are witnessing now is a clear and urgent signal that immediate steps are necessary to address the underlying causes and conditions for the weakening of the Tibetan movement. To restore hope for the future of Tibet, we are called upon to identify and recognize the existing strengths and weaknesses in Tibetan society – both inside Tibet and in diaspora. Only then can we move forward with a vision and a plan that ensures that the movement for Tibet’s future is placed in the most effective and capable hands.

Winds of Change for Tibet

The world’s geopolitical, cultural, and economic realities have transformed dramatically over the last 40 years, nearly all of which can be understood to work against the aspirations of the Tibetan people for freedom and control over their lives. China’s emergence since the 1990s as an economic and military superpower has further dampened the will and ability of Western countries to push for Tibetan rights and democracy in China. These new realities have almost certainly factored into China’s policies of using aggressive economic leverage and harsh religion and language policies to accelerate the integration of Tibet since the early 1990s. Life for the majority of Tibetans in Tibet, especially those who are not direct beneficiaries of the highly subsidized Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan prefectures elsewhere, is economically difficult and psychologically devastating from a religious and cultural stand.

Meanwhile, fundamental shifts have been taking place globally in exile Tibetan society that are likely contributing to some of the negative developments in the CTA’s role and significance in Tibetan society. With half of the exile community based outside India and Nepal today, living ever more westernized lives and not beholden to Dharamsala for services, the CTA is losing relevance to a greater number of people than ever before, especially to the youth. The same is possibly true to a degree for the growing number of young Tibetans in India who have left the settlements and are living more integrated lives in Indian society and economy.

For over half of the exile population, then, the realities of life in Tibet and the settlements in India are becoming ever more distant. Likewise, the CTA’s Charter and higher aspirations are appearing more remote and less resonant than the provincial backgrounds of officials and parliamentarians which they can relate to more easily and on a more visceral level. In other words, the culture of provincial vote banks that have been existence in some of the larger monasteries, appears to be spreading to the greater exile society, and that does not bode well for its democratic system, nor the intended goals of the exile Tibetan people and their leadership for the future of Tibet.

Growing Stature of the Dalai Lama

In the midst of these major changes, the institution of the Dalai Lama has only grown in stature and significance, both inside Tibet and globally. Even after six decades of Chinese rule, there is a powerful will on the part of Tibetans in Tibet to resist assimilation. Much of that resistance not only calls for Tibetan solidarity and resilience, they also call for support for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The last words of the scores who protested Chinese oppression through self-immolations leave no doubt that most Tibetans still look to the Dalai Lama as the symbol of Tibet, and their greatest hope for a brighter future in this and the next life. The degree of unity and fervor around the Dalai Lama that Tibetans possess after more than 60 years of propaganda and reeducation shows a level of resilience and strength that few outside Tibet can appreciate. It is this collective faith and unfaltering commitment placed by millions of Tibetans in the Dalai Lama that establishes and defines him as the continuing source of Tibetan sovereign power, even for those currently living under occupation.

Globally, the role and stature of the Dalai Lama on the world stage have grown exponentially over the past decades. From a relatively unknown figure, even in the 1970s, the Dalai Lama has emerged as possibly the foremost moral figure and force for good in the minds of hundreds of millions around the world. And to these people, as well as to human rights organizations and governments around the world, the Dalai Lama is viewed as a Tibetan institution that not only represents the best of Tibetan culture and tradition, but also the best and most legitimate representative of the Tibetan people. Both inside Tibet and across the world, then, there is overwhelming acceptance that the Dalai Lama is not only the historical leader of Tibet, but still the most relevant and respected voice for Tibet and the Tibetan people today. 

The Chinese authorities have also understood this unique position of the Dalai Lama and implicitly acknowledged his irrefutable political role and impact. This is evident in Beijing entering into talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, albeit with the pretense that the meetings were only regarding the Dalai Lama’s personal future and not that of Tibet. That said, Beijing views the overwhelming faith of Tibetans in the Dalai Lama as not only an impediment, but also a threat to their long-term plans for assimilating Tibetans. He is seen as a figure who must be neutralized through both a campaign of denigration and with plans for the control and manipulation of the Dalai Lama’s future incarnations. Accordingly, Beijing is deploying a two-pronged plan to mitigate the power and influence of the Dalai Lama: 

1. Make preparations in Tibet for applying the rules and regulations already in place for selecting reincarnate lamas to that of the next Dalai Lama, along with deploying a widespread surveillance and security contingencies for cracking down on the anticipated Tibetan dissent.

2. Use the United Work Front Department and their influence in exile Tibetan society to erode the Tibetan people’s faith and trust in the Dalai Lama by first stoking regional and sectarian fault lines and then turning them against the Dalai Lama. We can already see either witting or unwitting Tibetans using social media platforms to denigrate the Private Office and even members of the Dalai Lama’s family as a means of damaging the prestige and high regard Tibetans have historically held for the Dalai Lama and Ganden Phodrang.  The serious challenges faced by the CTA recently will without a doubt be exploited by China to show the failure of the Dalai Lama’s legacy of introducing democracy to exile Tibetan governance.

Exile Government in Crisis

At the same time, the CTA has reached a point of political and constitutional crisis that is unprecedented. Originally established as the continuation of the government of Tibet in the aftermath of the Dalai Lama’s flight to exile, TGIE/CTA has been seen over time as the appropriate political voice representing Tibetans both in exile and in Tibet. But while the CTA has been relatively successful in administering the education and settlements in India, it has proved less adept at rising to the complex and evolving challenges that China has and continues to pose in Tibet. There are three main reasons for this: 

1. Having never been recognized as the legitimate government of Tibet, the CTA/TGIE has therefore been unable to engage and exert influence in strategic meetings with foreign governments regarding Tibet/China. However, envoys of the Dalai Lama have been consulted by governments on matters relating to Tibet and there is every reason to assume that such meetings can continue into the future. 

2. China’s categorical refusal to recognize and engage with TGIE/CTA has meant that contacts between Beijing and CTA/TGIE have been through envoys and intermediaries, leaving the CTA without any political traction or systematic process for developing dialogue with counterparts or building organizational relations with Beijing.

3. The full devolution of power from the Ganden Phodrang to the CTA through democratization of the Tibetan exile political system has had the effect of excluding the Dalai Lama from the political process, even as he remains unequivocally the most potent figure for Tibetans living under Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama’s departure from the formal exile political framework has led to a degree of confusion and demoralization for Tibetans in Tibet. As well, it has put foreign governments on a more cautious footing in dealing with Dharamsala lest they be accused by China of recognizing the CTA officially.

For these reasons, the CTA today is unable to engage with China directly, unable to develop new ties with foreign governments, and unable to fill the leadership vacuum in the minds of Tibetans in Tibet. 

Change Demands Change

Given these sea changes facing the Tibetan struggle, it has become urgent that exile Tibetans recognize and acknowledge what is politically dysfunctional, control inherent strengths and weaknesses, and make the bold and critical changes necessary to restore hope to Tibetans inside Tibet. The ongoing political and constitutional crisis in Dharamsala, together with the debilitating polarization and disaffection of the exile electorate, exposes the critical need to avert political disaster while the Dalai Lama is still with us – while there is still time to recover the Tibetan movement and forge an effective, united pathway forward to secure Tibet’s future. Toward this end, this proposal urges that two key and fundamental political changes be made.

  1. Strengthening the Role of the Dalai Lama Institution 

Without the Dalai Lama as a central figure in the Tibetan movement, it is highly likely that Tibetans in exile in due time will become simply another weakly-linked diasporic population, slowly dissolving into their host societies, even in India. The security and future of exile Tibetans will become largely dictated by changes in the West and India’s relations with China, even as Beijing selects the next Dalai Lama and applies diplomatic pressure on nations to dampen support for Tibetan protests against the puppet Dalai Lama. Furthermore, without the moral and strategic role of the Dalai Lama for Tibetans, the exile democratic process, already proven to be fragile, could lose the mandate and trust of the people if it continues to come under pressure from undemocratic forces within Tibetan society and the United Work Front Department. 

Since seven million Tibetans continue to look to the Dalai Lama for vision and guidance, and he is already perceived by both the world and China as Tibet’s sovereign leader, this proposal urges His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to accept all responsibilities for dealing with Tibet, resolving the Tibetan issue with China, and negotiating the conditions for the Dalai Lama’s possible return to Tibet. A necessary first step for such a pivot would be for the Ganden Phodrang bureaucracy to transition to a more effective and sustainable operating structure that can function strategically and globally to implement the work of the Dalai Lama, and even in his absence, hold the mandate and trust to direct the discovery, upbringing, and installation of the next Dalai Lama in a well-organized and transparent manner that wins the hearts and minds of all Tibetans and the world.

  1. CTA Transition to Government for Tibetans in Exile 

While the CTA/TGIE has always been relatively small as an organization and never recognized as a formal government, it has always been hampered with complex regulations and inefficient ways of operating that are more suited to large government bureaucracies. It is now time for the CTA to reform and transition into becoming a focused and efficient administration strongly motivated for the primary task of serving the economic, educational, and political needs of exile Tibetans. While politically it would still have the essential end goal of developing a Tibetan global community that is grounded in political and cultural awareness, the CTA’s main responsibilities would be to develop education/skills/capacities and economic well-being of diasporic exile Tibetans while cultivating a political environment for global advocacy for Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s resumption of responsibilities on dealings with China on Tibet would free the CTA from being an ineffective, and even possibly obstructive, component in the dialogue process and instead allow it to become focused and streamlined in its core mission of serving the diaspora community. 

Under these proposed changed conditions, the CTA would continue to function in a fully democratic manner, but also transition from formally representing itself as a ‘national government’ for all of contemporary Tibet, to a legitimate and effective government for Tibetans in exile. As such, the CTA would be reconstituted to work for the unity, success, well-being of the global Tibetan society, while fostering international support for the Dalai Lama-led engagement to secure Tibet’s future. Such a pragmatic and outcome-oriented CTA for strengthening and growing global Tibetan society and politics would make the unproductive and self-destructive Rangzen-Umaylam rift, as well as regional and sectarian fault lines, less important and obsolete in the long term. 

The New Global Moment

The world is now on the brink of new geopolitical realities and alignments. With the waves of changes overwhelming the international system, it is now time for a paradigm shift in our perception of the Tibetan political struggle and what is necessary to meet this new global moment. This proposal calls on the exiled Tibetan leadership to critically rethink the dynamics of our politics and to boldly choose the steps that will forge a more powerful and effective pathway to an alternative future for Tibet. To realize that greater Tibetan potential, it is urgent to optimize and strengthen the role of the Dalai Lama institution while the 14th Dalai Lama is still with us. Guided by his singular clarity of purpose and universally recognized leadership, the current Dalai Lama is an unprecedented source of Tibetan power who holds the key to realizing a self-determining Tibetan future. 

It is incumbent upon the current generation of Tibetans to find the wisdom and unflinching courage to embrace these new steps to meet the new moment we are in. To fail to do so will be a tragedy of proportions no less than the loss of Tibet in the middle of the twentieth century. 

This proposal has been written with the intention and purpose of seeking a pathway to securing the future of Tibet and the Tibetan people. Bod Gyalo.

* The author is a visual artist and former Service Chief at VOA Tibetan Service. Born in Lhasa, he left Tibet with his grandfather, Sitsap Lukhangwa Tsewang Rabten, and later attended schools in the UK and the US. He spent his early career working in New York City advertising agencies, during which period he also created political cartoons for the Tibetan Review and logos for the International Campaign for Tibet, Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, Students for a Free Tibet, Machik, and The Tibet Fund. 

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