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Two Khampas, who will be on the right side of history?

Professor Samdhong Rinpoche has pointed out what the law is, which no one has refuted. Dr Lobsang Sangay dominates the politics, which, unfortunately, has negated the law, leading to a constitutional breakdown at the Central Tibetan Administration. Kunsang Tanzin* calls for wisdom and courage on the part of those who dominate the politics to do the historically right thing when they meet on May 20. 

(TibetanReview.net, May04’21)

My first encounter with Samdhong Rinpoche began at Central School for Tibetans in Dalhousie when I, along with my other relatives, moved there from Kangra refugee collection school. Apart from being a charismatic and strict disciplinarian principal I have no memory of Rinpoche taking any classes of subjects we were studying those days. So unlike my subject teachers, that too mostly Indians, Rinpoche had a very little impact in my upbringing in a residential school. But somehow general students and Tibetan staff had great respect and affection for him. When Rinpoche was transferred to Varanasi some of my classmates even cried. I was not emotionally moved by that event.

Samdhong Rinpoche came into political limelight of Tibetan society when he became the Speaker of the Tibetan Assembly after becoming its member in 1991. During his tenure in the Assembly for two decades Rinpoche was successful in breaking new grounds in strengthening Tibetan democratic institutions, thereby setting new direction for our nascent democracy. As a key member of the 1991 Drafting Committee Rinpoche steer headed in introducing key components of systems and procedures that ensured smooth functioning of the three branches of our administration. 

He was the first leader in our exiled society ever to emphasize the need for establishing “rule of law” in our society. Even the authority and powers of HH the Dalai Lama were made to derive from the sanctity of the newly adopted Charter of 1991. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was respected as the father of the Indian Constitution. No doubt it is beyond my imagination to find within the Tibetan society a comparable leader who can match up with Dr. Ambedkar’s deep knowledge, wide understanding and steep authority over constitutionalism. But within our limited context Samdhong Rinpoche could be safely described as the father of our Charter. His contribution in developing a sound and well founded constitutional framework that provides democratic sanctity to the authorities exercised by the Kashag, by the Assembly and by the Supreme Justice Commission respectively would undoubtedly be the longest lasting legacy of Samdhong Rinpoche’s political life.

In 2001 Samdhong Rinpoche made another milestone achievement by becoming the first directly elected Kalon Tripa. There was much euphoria and expectations at the beginning but some of those slowly dwindled as months and years went by. Some of the policies that Rinpoche pursued became controversial. I did not like his policy of privatization of Paljor assets and businesses. I opposed his education policy for being out of tune with time and need.  Myself being a Rangzen sympathizer did not appreciate Rinpoche’s treatment of Rangzen sympathizers under his policy of creating environment for dialogue with China under the Middle Way Approach. I was particularly mad when Rinpoche boycotted the Assembly for several days as a reaction to some disparaging remarks by one of Dhotoe Chithue in the Assembly. That time I had strong reasons to believe that Rinpoche violated democratic principle of accountability. I openly opposed the practice of according exclusive recognition and awards to Rinpoche after his retirement as if contributions made to our society by previous Kalons, Kalon Tripas and Principals were less worthy. Ex-Dalhousie students during the school Golden Jubilee Celebrations and the board members of Tibetan Canadian Tibetan Cultural Centre in 2012 stand witness to my position in this regard.

Samdhong Rinpoche is now once again in the limelight because of his interview with Voice of Tibet (VOT) recently on the subject of impeachment of Tibetan Supreme Justice Commissioners. For many what Rinpoche explained in that interview served as an eye opener and assisted them forming their own independent opinion about the impeachment and its larger ramifications on our democratic system.  Six months before Rinpoche’s VOT interview I wrote a piece titled “Constitutional Crisis in Gangchen Kyishong” in Tibetan Review in early October 2011.  Above all, based on what I have studied (Political Science and constitution of several countries) for five years as a student at the University of Delhi I have no hesitation to conclude that every explanation Rinpoche offered in that interview were authoritative both in spirit and letter. 

As is the case in other societies there is a section in our society who chose to see this interview from a different angle. As a result certain sections of our society vehemently criticised the interview. However, and interestingly enough, I am yet to come across one critique that could pinpoint, with certain validity, a single inaccuracy in the entire interview. 

Undoubtedly the highlight of the interview was when Rinpoche stated that there exists a “constitutional breakdown” in Gangchen Kyishong. The term “constitutional breakdown’ is used to describe a political situation when the government, in our context the CTA, is not functioning according to the constitution (the Charter). Rinpoche’s statement that there exists a “constitutional breakdown” is proven by the fact that as of today there is no pathway under the current broken political structure that a smooth transfer of power could take place according to the provisions of the Charter. Frantic efforts are being made to recruit new Assembly members barely a month away before the term of current Assembly expires. This is by itself yet another world record, a sad one, set by our Assembly members. These desperate attempts further prove that there exists a “constitutional breakdown” as the main purpose of these frantic efforts is to stich up the broken structure to some manageable shape so that the new administration under Penpa Tsering could come in to take charge.

Other criticisms mainly revolve around the timing of the interview and the alleged motivation behind the interview. Criticism such as these are difficult to be clarified and I dare not venture in that direction except to quote this; “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of the bad people but because of the silence of good people”.

My encounter with Lobsang Sangay in person was in Toronto at a public debate during the 2011 Sikyong election. I was one of the several hundred people in the audience. I found him to be mentally smart. Nevertheless I was not impressed with his presentation. I wrote an article around that time in the Tibetan Political Review where I wrote, “he lacks courage to accept mistake.”

However, in 2011 Lobsang Sangay received a huge public mandate to lead us as our first directly elected political leader. While I was the President of Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre as well as CTA0, I decided to invite Sikyong as the chief guest. He arrived in Toronto in the month of February 2012 and we honoured him with a grand reception at a scale that was not seen before in Tibetan society. Those days our Centre was going through severe financial constraints. In spite of our difficulty, we arranged Sikyong’s accommodation at one of the most prestigious downtown hotels in Toronto. After the official program ended I accompanied Lobsang Sangay to the hotel. While waiting at the lobby for room check-in, Sikyong with a certain air of astonishment asked me about the reasons behind the scale of the reception we arranged in his honour.  I remember telling him there that he was the first directly elected leader who had inherited the political authority of HH the Dalai Lama, that we Tibetans have begun a new era with you as our political leader, and that we Tibetans must be first in the world to recognise your constitutional authority and legitimacy. The kind of grand reception we arranged in Toronto became a precedent to be followed wherever else Sikyong made his official visits.

Ten years since then, due to the ongoing political turmoil, Lobsang Sangay is in a tight situation. It may not be a direct reaction to Rinpoche’s VOT interview as such but Sikyong did make a TTV appearance a few days ago after maintaining silence for a considerable period of time. In stark contrast to the remarks by Samdhong Rinpoche regarding the prevalence of constitutional breakdown, Sikyong during the TV appearance refused to acknowledge its existence. But, strangely, all his description of a possible dangerous situation under which he and his Kashag might have to unwillingly continue in office beyond the expiry of their tenure clearly fits the description of a political situation under constitutional breakdown. Internally Sikyong knows the looming danger ahead and, thus, he looked concerned, as he should be. In another major contrast to Rinpoche calling upon the general public to shoulder responsibility of the situation, Sikyong tried to reject any scope for the public taking responsibility by demanding an end to the exercise of free speech and expression through petitions and letters.  Further Sikyong tried to paint a negative image of the fourth estate of our democracy. These utterances might damage his image as a democratic leader, I thought.

In spite of the above variation of political perspective between the two, Samdhong Rinpoche and Lobsang Sangay share a lot of similarities. Both are Khampas, they are both charismatic, both academically renowned (Khewang), and both are extremely eloquent. But their understanding of Tibetan politics and its system are starkly different. It might be relevant to note that the Tibetan people very graciously provided both of them with extraordinary privilege and opportunity: Samdhong Rinpoche as the first ever directly elected leader as Kalon Tripa for ten years and Lobsang Sangay as the first ever elected political leader as Sikyong for ten years. In return if the general Tibetan public are looking towards them for guidance and direction at this crucial stage, it is due as well as justified. The session on May 20th may or may not vindicate their respective positions. But surely Tibetan people will eventually judge which one of the two stood with the right side of history.

Samdhong Rinpoche is retired.  After the VOT interview, there is not much Rinpoche can do now. Circumstantially Lobsang Sangay is in a much better position to make some difference, if he desires. Lobsang Sangay as Sikyong had some big achievements. In spite of these achievements his future legacy hinges now on his skills and capacity to weave a smooth consensus in Gangchen Kyishong so that when Chithues meet on 20th May they have a solution on table that is both morally and constitutionally correct and thereby pave the way for a smooth transfer of power to the new Sikyong. If that happens due to Sikyong’s endeavor, that would be Lobsang Sangay’s biggest political success. Never before his leadership skills in sober thinking and balanced approach as well as his tenacity as our Sikyong are on critical test.

It is an open secret that most of the 31 Chithues who supported the resolution to impeach the Supreme Justice Commissioners are supporters and defenders of the policies of Sikyong in the Assembly most of the time. I have no hesitation to note here that Sikyong enjoys some leverage over these Chithues to ask them to do what is legitimate and constitutional. Last time when 11 of these 31 Chithues called upon Sikyong to honour the verdict related Case No. 20, Sikyong responded positively to their call. This time it is their turn if Sikyong wishes so. 

If somehow the existing constitutional breakdown lingers and unfortunately smooth transfer of power is hampered beyond 26th May, all those 31 Chithues should be held responsible. Therefore, it is imperative that during the one-day special session these 31 Chithues, who plunged us into this mess, very well take the lead and responsibility to reverse the dangerous direction we are heading currently. To err is human, and is forgivable.  But to be adamant about one’s mistake repeatedly is simple stupidity and thus unforgiveable.

20th May is two weeks away. Let us all pray to the Triple Gem to bless our politicians with wisdom and courage to do the right thing on 20th May so that we Tibetans in exile could be saved from humiliation in front of our brothers and sisters inside Tibet.

* Kunsang Tanzin has a Master’s degree from Delhi University, had edited The March newsletter of RTYC Delhi; was Joint Secretary of All India Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society, New Delhi; was an advisor to the Tibetan Chamber of Commerce. New Delhi; was the Founder-Trustee and Chairman of Empowering the Vision, New Delhi; and was the President of Tibetan Canadian Cultural Center and Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario.

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