Between a Rock and a Hard Place? Exile Tibetans Seek Freedom and Unity in Democracy

“Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world–and never will.”  – Mark Twain

“In true democracy every man and woman is taught to think for himself or herself.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Last month was the 55th Commemoration of Tibetan Democracy in Exile. As per tradition, Tibetans celebrated it with pomp and ceremony in the seat of exile, Dharamsala, India. With Tibet still currently under political and media lockdown by the Chinese communist dictatorship, the 2015-2016 Tibetan exile election season for Sikyong (prime minister) and Chithue (members of parliament) has officially begun. Primary voting will be on 18 October 2015, and the final vote will take place on 20 March 2016. There are four main candidates in the running, Lobsang Sangay, Penpa Tsering, Lukar Jam and Tashi Wangdu with a fifth, Tashi Topgyal, just recently entering the competition.

The Incumbent Leader – Lobsang Sangay

Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration Lobsang Sangay is welcomed by the local Indian officials and Tibetan representatives at Bangalore Airport, South India, on 29 July 2012.
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay

Some predict that the incumbent leader, Lobsang Sangay, will gain the popular vote again. Darling of the conservative, mainstream yet a man accused of a shady past and questionable legacy. Rangzen advocates and political opponents have consistently argued that Sangay is not to be trusted with the facts not only concerning his personal relations with women but also finance and his watering-down of the Middle Way policy to one of assimilation to Chinese rule. According to Moira Moynihan:

While studying at Harvard Law School, Sangay made a very public alliance with Ms. Hu Xiaojiang, whom intelligence sources identify as a Chinese Ministry of State Security co-optee. Ms. Hu helped arrange Sangay’s 2005 trip to Beijing and Shanghai. Indian intelligence officials have expressed concerns over Sangay’s willingness to declare himself a Chinese “overseas national” while continuing to hold a Tibetan refugee identity card issued by the Indian government. Sangay denied that he made his 2005 trip on Chinese papers until he was confronted with irrefutable evidence in 2011. 

Sangay’s personal leadership style of VIP cars, bodyguards, dark sunglasses and preference for speaking to and about ‘educated’, wealthy and powerful Tibetans are considered by some as inappropriate for a person leading an exile freedom struggle and community.

Independence Advocate and Former Political Prisoner – Lukar Jam

The ‘underdog’, candidate is Lukar Jam. Despite being the only candidate to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and Tibetan, born and raised in Tibet and who suffered torture as a political prisoner, Jam has been glibly dismissed by opponents as a rogue choice. Jam is a Rangzen (Independence) advocate whereas all the other candidates, including Sangay, support the Middle Way (Autonomy).

Lukar Jam

As Jam points out:

“I have been forced to stand for this election. Its importance lies not in winning or losing but its importance goes beyond reason.”

Having faced hostility and isolation in the Dharamsala exile community (accused of being a Chinese spy among other things) Jam’s down-to-earth and straight-talking approach is important and a welcome breath of authentic fresh air in the conservative, and at times petty-minded and tribal, political and social landscape. In a similar vein to Gandhi, he has vowed to abandon the VIP car, pomp and privileges of the current Sikyong if he gets elected. For his opponents, however, he is too emotional, inexperienced in governance and practicalities, with a personal style not suited to diplomacy or negotiation.

Idealism aside, Jam and some of the more visibly prominent Rangzen US activists, raised or educated  in the heated atmosphere of US racial inequality, post-colonial literature and Leftist political correctness, have been accused of focusing too much on the ideology and not enough on the pressing and practical concerns of ordinary, working-class Tibetan exiles in India and Nepal.

As one social media commentator, Ugyen Jigme put it:

We need strong leaders at settlement level. Firstly, we need to make our settlements economically and financially self-reliant.

Jam is also accused of being opposed to the heart and spiritual leader of Tibetans, the 14th Dalai Lama. Jam’s response to this in a recent interview is:

I do have that controversial tag, but I don’t think I have to justify myself. I have faith in his Holiness, and I have never commented on the religious side of things. Some people have their own agendas, so they muddle things up and make Rangzen advocates look bad. It is the theocratic system of governance that I question. Does it make sense for a monk to be involved in politics? Even his holiness has accepted this [The Dalai Lama devolved his political authority in 2011]. It is the non-secular attitude that needs to change if we want to move forward, because it affects everything.

An opinion piece by Tenzin Nyima, critical of Jam, argues that:

It is wrong, when someone says that Rangzen Supporters are against His Holiness (Dalai Lama) but when someone also says that standing for Middle way is “Surrender of our Independence” is wrong. Lets not make this about Rangzen or Middle-Way.


….what many fail to understand is that just because someone stands for Rangzen doesn’t make him the right candidate. One should analyze what one stands for and more importantly what the person can do to resolve the Tibetan Issue and honestly all these pseudo intellectuals and activists are incomparable to what His Holiness represents and what he has done for Tibet and the Tibetan Struggle.

One thing that Jam clearly stands for, which is a departure from all the other candidates is a clear, uncompromised belief in Independence for Tibet and commitment to the secularisation of Tibetan society and politics:

The current sikyong, Lobsang Sangay has declared that they will not challenge Chinese communism or fight for complete democracy. But even if the middle way policy was a realistic approach then what is the use of India giving us refuge out here? It totally defeats the purpose of helping the Tibetan people if we are just going to side with China in terms of border disputes and territory issues. That’s what the middle way policy is, in the end. It’s like going to the governments with a begging bowl and a picture of his Holiness.
For more specific details of Lukar Jam’s manifesto see here.
The Speaker who Refuses to Debate – Penpa Tsering
Penpa Tsering

Others look to Penpa Tsering as a potential political leader. Despite having significant ‘hands-on’ experience in terms of exile politics, his candidacy is also not without issue. During a March 2015 Parliament session, a Chithue accused him of murder and corruption. In response, Tsering walked out of Parliament and resigned as speaker (he subsequently withdrew his resignation). Tsering has also been accused, on  more than one occasion, of using the Dalai Lama’s name to emotionally manipulate voters and smear the name of Rangzen supporters by suggesting they are against the Dalai Lama. For example, he controversially refused to debate with Lukar Jam, accusing Jam of insulting the Dalai Lama. Although this is Tsering’s individual right, it is hardly consistent with democractic principles of open and free debate. As one Tibetan put it:

Why is it that he can dialogue and debate with our enemy China but not Lukar Jam? Is Lukar Jam worse than Red China? Is Lukar Jam more substandard than Red China? When I saw that Speaker Penpa Tsering is lacking sincerity and the open heart to debate Tibetan issue with Sikyong candidate Lukar Jam, who has endured years of suffering and torture under Red China, I couldn’t keep silence.

The Business Man and Critic of the Health Service – Tashi Wangdu

Tashi Wangdu announces he's running for Sikyong 2016 during a press conference in McLeod Ganj, India, on 10 June 2015.
Tashi Wangdu

Then there is the ‘dark horse’ candidate, Tashi Wangdu, currently CEO of the Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives, headquartered in Bangalore. As a diplomat and bureaucrat, he has served in the Central Tibetan Administration in various capacities. Born in Bylakuppe Tibetan Refugee Camp, Wangdu, like Sangay, attended a prestigious American University (NYU) on a Fulbright Scholarship. Mr. Tashi Wangdu, however, has been accused of making a false allegation during a public talk on 22 July 2015 regarding the state of health facilities in Tibetan settlements. Wangdu alleged in his talk that:

“if there are hospitals in the settlement, there are no doctors. If the doctors are available, there are no nurses. And if the nurses are present, then they provide fake medicines.”

This was refuted by the Tibetan exile Health Department on the CTA’s official website. This refutation, according to the editorial board of the Tibetan Review, potentially violated electoral rules. According to them:

The question is whether this action was improperly directed at the Kashag (government) level, or whether civil servants in the Health Department independently issued it and then civil servants in the Department of Information and International Relations (which runs independently published it.  If it is the former, then rather than using official resources and an official platform to respond to his electoral rival about a campaign issue, the Sikyong should have responded directly as a candidate.

The Choice

Amidst all the backbiting and name-calling of the political arena, one Tibetan exile social media commentator dryly observed:

Let us maintain sanity and prudence by reminding ourselves – amidst all the hoopla, idolatry and brouhaha around Sikyong 2016 election – that individuals rarely matter when it comes a context as big as the fate of Tibet and Tibetans.

This may not be completely true though. History has shown us that charismatic, authentic, passionate, uncompromising and honest leaders are essential for successful freedom and civil rights movements. Diplomacy and appeasement have consistently failed. Perhaps now really is the time for a more direct and challenging approach, one that will eventually allow some movement on both sides. Strategically, the issue with the Middle Way (as it is currently interpreted) is that, as a result of the Chinese rejection, it does not allow  the Tibetans or Chinese to compromise in any way. For example, the unyielding, uncompromising (and sadly violent) demand from Sinn Fein and the IRA that the British government return Northern Ireland back to the Irish, was in fact the demand that led to the British Ulster government and both Sinn Fein eventually recognising the need for compromise and ‘power-sharing’.

On the other hand, a lack of unity among exile Tibetans is something the Chinese communists will welcome. For many years they have also accused the Dalai Lama and his exile supporters of separatism. Last month it was reported that the Chinese leader blames ‘Tibetan separatists’ for the Chinese stock exchange crash. A Rangzen win will certainly confirm that for the Chinese propagandists. On the other hand, it is clear that Sangay’s advocacy and numerous international visits regarding the Middle Way have not budged the Chinese (or international opinion) one bit. China’s 2015 White Paper on Tibet – that unequivocally rejects the Middle Way Policy – is clear evidence of such stonewalling.

Issues such as Shugden and giving representation to the sixth major Buddhist lineage of Tibet, Jonang are also issues that will need to be addressed by a future leader in a way which reduces conflict and preserves unity.  Some have accused the current leader and exile political representatives of failing to deal with these issues effectively or fairly.

So the ‘choice’  appears to boil down to whether or not Tibetan exiles seek a ‘hard place’ leader who unflinchingly voices and courageously personifies the inconvenient truths of a freedom struggle (that may lead to further division and hostility on all sides); or a ‘rock’ leader, willing to play the diplomatic game of international politics and acceptance while appearing to support the status quo and appeasement. Or is there room for a ‘like water’ candidate who can tread the fine line between both positions to the point where the destination is finally reached, (but without appearing inconsistent or ‘wishy-washy’)?  When I worked for Free Tibet, London, Board member Stephen Corry had the audacity to say this:

There is an obvious advantage for Tibetans to be articulating the defence of their occupied homeland, and it is a matter of eternal regret that no charismatic and internationally-respected figure has achieved that role in the last couple of generations (though, personally, I live in hope).

But there is some truth in what he says too. Aside, from the 14th Dalai Lama, no lay Tibetan has yet been able to make an impact on international conscience on a par with Gandhi, Emily Pankhurst or Nelson Mandela. With an all-male choice of candidates, some things remain the same too. For example, as far as am aware, there are no leadership candidates putting forward gender equality as an essential part of their social and political manifesto.  Despite increasing numbers of exile Tibetan women seeing this as an important issue. Lukar Jam’s wife, however, is a feminist and active member of the Tibetan Women’s Association which is more than can be said for the almost invisible spouses of the other candidates.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Whatever the result, Tibetans and Tibet supporters on all sides hope that the winner will achieve the difficult task of not only being able to unify Tibetans but leading them to genuine liberty and freedom inside Tibet. At the very least, despite China’s well-publicised wealth, power and so-called ‘progress’, the burgeoning Tibetan democracy in exile puts the Chinese dictatorship to shame and for that reason alone, it deserves congratulation, support and international recognition.