Age Discrimination and Gerontocracy in Tibetan Exile Politics?

Ageism is a form of discrimination toward an individual or group based on their age. The term often refers to the treatment of older people but is occasionally used to define prejudice against young people as well.

With the re-election of a Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, whose policy is that Tibet remains part of China, the public appointment and subsequent speedy withdrawal (in the space of two days) of the sole female member of the Tibetan Exile Government Cabinet, Dhardon Sharling, has led to more incredulity by members of the exile community and their friends and supporters.

The Tibetan Charter states that a member of the Tibetan exile Cabinet cannot be younger than 35 years old. Sharling is apparently 3 months short of 35 years old and so the Tibetan PM withdrew her nomination after a row broke out about her appointment.

According to a report in Phayul, the Tibetan Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay stated that Sharling:

… told me that she was born in 1981 which if taken only on the basis of the year of birth amounts to 35 years of age. Of course, under the circumstances, she had not noticed that she was ineligible by a few months. Hence I apologize to the house and declare that it was not an attempt to deceive anyone.

Tibetans reacted strongly to the decision on social media. Some cited it as incompetence and dubious motives of the Tibetan Prime Minister and his advisors. Others called for the minimum age requirement to be changed. One Tibetan, Wangchuk Tsering, stated on Facebook that:

This is the height of irresponsibility by our elected Sikyong & Chithues as well as the Chief Election Commissioner. How could such an important matter go un-noticed by all of them? Disgraceful!

Many people associate ageism with elderly people but it also often effects younger people as well.  There are several forms of ageism, including adultism, gerontocracy and jeunism. Adultism is a favoring of adults over children and teenagers. Gerontocracy is a form of government wherein the leaders are all significantly older than the average adult population. Jeunism is the favoring of younger people and youthful beauty over older people. Women in particular are often subject to all three, a no-win situation.

Ironically, for Tibetans in particular, such a form of leadership is common in communist states in which the length of one’s service to the party is held to be the main qualification for leadership. In the time of the Eight Immortals of Communist Party of China, it was quipped, “the 80-year-olds are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire”. For instance, Party leader Mao Zedong was 82 when he died, while Deng Xiaoping retained a powerful influence until he was nearly 90.

A new definition of ageism was introduced by Iversen, Larsen, & Solem in 2009:

Ageism is defined as negative or positive stereotypes, prejudice and/or discrimination against (or to the advantage of) elderly people on the basis of their chronological age or on the basis of a perception of them as being ‘old’ or ‘elderly’. Ageism can be implicit or explicit and can be expressed on a micro-, meso- or macro-level (Iversen, Larsen & Solem, 2009).

As Hung Vo, UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board, North America Representative, points out in Youthists and Age Discrimination:

Age discrimination is something that is prevalent in many countries. This is evidenced in the United States: The average senator and congressman are the ages of 60 and 55, respectively. While age does not reflect competency, there is a disservice done when there is such a disconnection between the policymakers and the youth. Although those under 18 may not be able to vote or sometimes may not have the intellectual ability equivalent to an adult, it does not mean that we do not have a right to have our voices heard…….

In countries of extreme poverty, age discrimination can manifest itself as cruelty. Violence is an expression of power, and since children do not have power, they are often left vulnerable to abuse. The devaluing of youth contributes to problems such as human trafficking, abuse and the existence of sweatshops. The core of this problem can be extrapolated as society viewing young people as being of inferior intellect, and as a result, they are left doing physical work. When children are discounted, they do not express themselves when they are hurt or abused because they do not see adults as friends or confidants, only as a threatening authority figure. The deconstructing of age stereotypes and the fostering of mutual understanding is another step for all young people to have the opportunity to pursue the happiness they so rightly deserve.

The new Tibetan Cabinet has an average age of 55, with three members of the six being above 60. However, according to data the Tibetan population is overwhelmingly young:

 In fact, 35.27% of them are under 19 years old while 54.69% are under 29 years old! The 2010 world population has a similar breakdown – 35.33% and 52.06% for ages 19 & under and age 29 & under respectively. However, when we look at the population of China alone (Tibetan population included), only 24.10% are age 19 & under while 41.24% are age 29 & under! These differences mean that for both these age groups (19 & under and 29 & under) in China – the population of Tibetans is greater by ~46% and ~33% respectively.

Researcher James Connell whose PhD is on subjectification, historical trauma and marginal youth agency in the Tibetan exile community said:

I suppose in many ways the withdrawal doesn’t surprise me and reflects what I have generally found -despite the mostly tremendous care for the ‘seeds of the future’- that intergenerational inequalities in exile (particularly in terms of political participation) are hampered by patrifilial norms that have been institutionalised and very much internalised. Even quite politically aware youth are constrained by a profound respect for elders which is, of course, tightly bound to the political cause -making ‘standing’ or ‘speaking’ up not only socially taboo, but also quite painful for fear of betraying the elder generation or HHDL. It’s disappointing because not only is Sharling the youngest, but she’s also a woman -and both groups desperately need better representation in exile. I hope -as I guess you do- that this will prompt closer attention to the general exclusion of young voices and an effort to institute change.

Sharling is only 3 months short of the arbitrary age restriction. Considering that the election rules were quickly changed by the Tibetan Election Commission to ensure that Independence candidate Lukar Jam was removed from the final round of voting, it is  disappointing that the Tibetan Prime Minister caved into pressure to abide by these rules on this occasion.

If Sharling is old enough to be elected she is old enough to be chosen by the elected Prime Minister for a Cabinet role. To deny that is both undemocratic and ageist.


One thought on “Age Discrimination and Gerontocracy in Tibetan Exile Politics?

  1. Stephen

    When i was in graduate school, my prof refused to see age as the 4th catagory of analysis along with race, gender and class. Until it is accepted as a analytical lens in the Social Sciences these arguments will fall of deaf ears, unfortunately.


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