Today, we celebrate the fifty-first anniversary of Tibetan Democracy Day. On this auspicious occasion, in which we celebrate our shared aspiration for human freedom, I extend my warm greetings to fellow Tibetans around the world particularly to those in occupied Tibet.
I pay my sincere and heart-felt tribute to our most revered leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose vision of a democratic and secular Tibetan society I am fully committed to realizing. Let me begin by acknowledging and celebrating the pivotal role of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is a true democrat and a magnanimous people’s leader. He was drawn towards fairness and democratic principles even when growing up as a young child in the Potala Palace. Being from a humble peasant family himself, he befriended the Palace sweepers, gatekeepers and cooks, and these people became his source of information about ordinary Tibetans and conditions in Tibet. Two years after assuming leadership of the country, His Holiness established the Reform Committee in 1952, which had exempting poor farmers and indigent Tibetans from heavy taxes as one of its objectives. However, the occupying Chinese forces disrupted the work and disbanded the committee.
I would like to share my own experience of His Holiness’ magnanimity in 1995. Along with other students, I received an audience with His Holiness just before we were to leave for further studies in the United States. As I was introduced, His Holiness mentioned an article that I published in the Tibetan Review entitled “Human Rights and Asian Values.” I was struck and honored that he took notice of an article published by a young and ordinary Tibetan. I know countless others who have had similar encounters.
The story of Tibet’s democracy, after the early attempts in 1952, continued in 1959 after His Holiness sought refuge in India following the occupation of Tibet. At a time when anti-colonialism was taking hold and new democracies were being established around the world, the first step towards establishing the Tibetan parliament began at Bodh Gaya, where the Na-gyen Chenmo (great oath) was taken and Tibetan leaders pledged an iron-like unity under one leadership. On June 29, 1960, at a very emotional public event, His Holiness shared his vision of democracy to Tibetan construction workers of Indian highways near Dalhousie. It must have been a traumatic experience for Tibetans; who having lost their nation, homes, and family members; had to witness their 26-year-old leader as a refugee amidst makeshift tents that served as their home. Tibetans – young and old – were overwhelmed with emotions – many cried and were deeply moved.
Tibetans elected (actually selected) their members of parliament and had their first meeting on September 2, 1960, which from that day on came to be commemorated as the Tibetan Democracy Day. As for selecting the regional representatives, Tibetan road workers from Sikkim to Manali met on roadsides and nominated candidates by raising their hands. The elected representatives, carrying tin box full of documents, met under a tree (not far from Tsuklagkhang) on weekends to conduct parliamentary business. Women members were elected as early as 1963, when some advanced democracies still did not have female parliamentarians. In 1977, representatives of Bon were also included.
In 1963, the constitution of Tibet, modeled after India’s, was adopted and His Holiness the Dalai Lama insisted that the constitution include a provision that allowed for his own impeachment which went against the wishes of his own people. In 1970, the Tibetan Youth Congress was established by Tibetan youth leaders, and in 1984 the Tibetan Women’s Association was re-established in exile. Both organizations have played an important role in producing leaders with emphasis on non-sectarianism, non-regionalism and unity.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall and the spread of “third wave” of democracy around the world in the early nineties, more democratic reforms ensued in the Tibetan community. These reforms occurred while the Chinese government was cracking down on its own people seeking democracy during the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1991, the Charter of the Tibetans – the supreme law governing the functions of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – was drafted and adopted by the Tibetan parliament. The parliament was expanded and constitutionally empowered to elect the Kashag. The parliamentary procedures and functional processes akin to Indian parliamentary system became more disciplined, sophisticated and effective over time.
Tibetan democracy continued to flourish in the 2000s when the world witnessed the color revolutions in Eastern Europe. As per an amendment in the Tibetan charter, the first direct election for the post of the Kalon Tripa, administrative head of CTA, took place in 2001. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche won the election with more than 80 percent of the votes and provided admirable leadership.
A decade later, in March 2011, amid the Arab Spring and where some leaders are still violently resisting their people’s demands for change, His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced his devolution of power ten days before the final round of Kalon Tripa and parliamentary elections. He expressed his strong desire to transfer all his political and administrative powers and announced his decision to “devolve his formal authority to the elected leader.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama rejected impassioned appeals by both the parliament and the people to stay on even as the nominal head of state.
It is important to note that His Holiness Dalai Lama made significant changes that coincided with major global developments. In retrospect, it is clear that His Holiness’ decisions were not driven by these developments. Rather, he was taking advantage of these events to hasten the democratic reforms that he had initiated (which his people resisted) since coming into exile. The timing of each one of His Holiness’ major steps: the impeachment clause in the 1960s, establishing a leader’s position between himself and the Kashag in the 1980s, and the direct election of Kalon Tripa in the 2000s, has been brilliant. The timing of the devolution of political power in particular is masterful as His Holiness’ decision has legitimized the outcome of the 2011 Kalon Tripa elections – the largest and most democratic round of elections in Tibetan history.
The recent elections is a testament to the growing maturity and vibrancy of Tibetan democracy. The historic elections attracted an unprecedented number of Tibetans from 30 countries, particularly the youth. Tibetans from Tibet also showed keen interest and solidarity by going to monasteries to pray for the success of election, following developments closely and bursting fireworks when election results were announced. The Kalon Tripa elections were intensely but fairly contested with the three final candidates participating in around seventeen debates and visiting majority of the Tibetan communities in exile. The parliamentary elections resulted in fifty percent new members, including substantial number of women and new arrivals from Tibet. The successful outcome of these elections have given new hope for our compatriots inside Tibet, and sent a strong message to Beijing that the Tibetan movement is gaining new momentum.
His Holiness’ magnanimity and democratic values is again reaffirmed by his remarks at the recent oath-taking ceremony of the Kalon Tripa. His Holiness when transferring a piece of important history and more importantly the political legitimacy of the 369-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama to the leader with democratic mandate stated, “When I was young, an elderly regent Takdrag Rinpoche handed over Sikyong (political leadership) to me, and today I am handing over Sikyong to young Lobsang Sangay… in doing this I have fulfilled my long-cherished goal.” The transferring of the 1751 seal of the 7th Dalai Lama to the current Kalon Tripa, a lay Tibetan from a humble background who grew up in a refugee settlement, truly represents continued legitimacy and symbol of Tibetan leadership.
My fellow Tibetans, history of Tibetan leadership and its glorious legacy will continue.
Today our democracy, while nascent, is a successful model of an exile community establishing a strong democratic base and governance system. This is in large part due to the generosity of the Indian government and people, our host. In fact our experience has attracted the interest of other exile and refugee communities and students of democracy. The CTA and some of our non-governmental organizations have shared our five decades of experience in implementing democratic principles, processes and mechanisms with others, and we invite everyone to examine and study our experience. Having said that, our democracy is still far from perfect and we must make it even more robust.
I can say with confidence that our exile democratic administration is far superior to China’s colonial rule in Tibet. Tibetans in Tibet live under harsh autocracy while those of us in exile enjoy democracy. While I have the mandate of the Tibetan world, the Party Secretary of “Tibet Autonomous Region” (TAR) is hand picked by Beijing, and has never been a Tibetan. We are part of a democratic family in the world, China is not. The Kalon Tripa is the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people, while China’s rule in Tibet is undemocratic and illegitimate. China cannot be a legitimate superpower without accepting the universality of freedom. I call upon the Chinese regime to respect the freedom of both the Tibetan and Chinese people.
Finally, let me conclude by stating that the devolution of political power is not solely to me, but to all Tibetans. The time has now come for us to demonstrate that we can survive and indeed thrive independently with our new responsibilities. We must actively participate in the democratic process by ensuring that our leaders remain accountable and true to the democratic spirit.
My election as the Kalon Tripa is a vote of confidence in the newer generation of Tibetans. So, it is expected of the younger generation to work with renewed dedication and conviction. We must live up to the expectations of His Holiness. This is no time for cynicism but optimism. Our focus must be to pursue the sacred cause of supporting the brave men and women inside Tibet who continue to sacrifice their lives for the preservation of Tibetan identity and dignity. With Tibetan spirit as strong as the majestic Mount Jomolangma, we must all work hard towards ensuring the return of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and emulate the honorable service of our elder generation who successfully ensured the 13th Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet.
My dear fellow compatriots inside Tibet! Many of us in exile have never seen Tibet, but Tibet is in our heart and soul. With determination, dedication, and Dharma on our side, we will make sure to achieve our parent’s dream to return to our homeland. I want to reiterate my deep conviction that with unity, innovation and self-reliance as our guiding principles we will ensure the restoration of freedom, reunification of Tibetans and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.