by Karma Tensum, founder and executive director of the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation based in Helena, Montana. TRAS has funded school projects in India jointly with the TCEF.
The Tibetan refugee story is fascinating – full of human dramas of immense suffering. It is also an inspirational one – and also a story of overcoming those challenges, surviving, and even thriving in exile. A fair amount has also been recorded and written about those facets, but today, I wanted to broach this remarkable story of Tibetan democracy in exile. Today, September 2, is Tibetan Democracy Day.
Not enough is written about this and not enough credit is given to HH, The Dalai Lama, and the early Tibetan leadership for ushering in what must have been massive shifts in thinking to embrace the trends of the times and to embrace democracy. We have to place this in our historical context. We had a unique theocracy for centuries where the Dalai Lamas ruled and shared the powers with the powerful monasteries and aristocracy. Yet, within the very first years in exile, while tackling all the other problems of rehabilitation, His Holiness and the early Tibetan leadership came up with a draft constitution for a future free Tibet in March 1963.
This draft constitution then became the foundation for Tibetan democracy in exile. With time, the democratic process and institutions were set up and grew. Perhaps a good starting point to write about this would be the Tibetan parliament in exile. It had elected representatives from the three main chokes or provinces of Tibet – U Tsang, Dhotoe, and Dhomey, plus representatives from the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It elected its own speaker and deputy speaker, debated Tibetan issues, passed legislation, and functioned as any other democratic parliament – all within the constraints of being in exile and operating on a much smaller canvas.
One of the most impressive aspects of Tibetan democracy in exile is that we practiced it at the grassroots level. Perhaps we drew inspiration from the local village panchayats spread all across India. So, within each Tibetan settlement or community, we had a locally elected assembly or body – often with a chairperson and vice chair. The local assembly, especially its office bearers, would work closely with settlement heads appointed by the Tibetan administration in exile in many ways – if there is a 10th March demonstration to be organized or even an election to be conducted. Knowing this short history of Tibetan democracy and how nascent it is made this aspect of grassroots democracy all the more remarkable.
In June 1991, the Tibetan parliament in exile adopted The Charter of the Tibetans in Exile. Based on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights spirit, the Charter guarantees all Tibetans equality before the law and enjoyment of rights and freedom without discrimination based on sex, religion, race, language, and social origin. It provides for a clear separation of power among the three organs of the administration: judiciary, legislature, and executive.
The Kashak, or Executive branch, was headed by HH The Dalai Lama till 2011. That year, His Holiness voluntarily devolved power to pave the way for elections for a new executive head. Even before fully devolving power in 2000, His Holiness took measures to step back and initiate actions to bring some genuine democratic initiatives. In that year, His Holiness suggested that the Tibetan people in exile should elect their own Prime Minister.
Samdhong Rinpoche was always the front-runner. He is one of the most well-known Tibetan public figures. As the speaker for the Tibetan parliament in exile for many years, he had done an outstanding job shaping how business was conducted in the house. In July 2001, Samdhong Rinpoche was duly elected Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister, for five years. He easily won a second term.
Not enough has been written about the wisdom and nobility of this act from His Holiness to voluntarily step down and devolve power in 2011. I’m in absolute awe, and I write this in the context of our times when we see leaders go to extraordinary lengths to hold power, keep power, and stay in the limelight. And, here was His Holiness – the most popular Tibetan leader ever, who would have won any Tibetan election hands down, stepping down quietly, with grace and dignity – all with the genuine belief that this was in the best interest of the fledgling Tibetan democracy.
There was much buzz and excitement about the election of a new Tibetan head in 2011. A young, charismatic Tibetan leader who checked all the boxes suddenly loomed into the limelight just months before the elections. Here came Lobsang Sangay – a young, dynamic Tibetan youth leader with a Fullbright scholarship at Harvard University throwing his hat into the ring. He blew away all the opposition – several veterans of the Tibetan administration in exile and became our next prime minister or Kalon Tripa.
In his second year, instead of the term Kalon Tripa or the prime minister, the termSikyong was adopted. The word Sikyong comes from our history. When the Dalai Lama was young, some regents would hold political authority until the Dalai Lama came of age and assumed control. Sikyong – or political power holder- was a term used for that person. In our democracy in exile, the executive head was now referred to by that term. So Lobsang Sangay became our firstSikyong in our modern democratic setup. Lobsang Sangay also easily won a second term and was Sikyong till 2021.
At the time of writing this, Penpa Tsering – former speaker of the Tibetan assembly in exile, is the new Sikyong.
Democracy and elections spread to non-governmental organizations also. In exile, two prominent organizations that readily come to mind are the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association. Both of them are impressive. Aside from a primary central body, they have regional chapters in almost all areas where Tibetans reside. Office bearers at all levels are duly elected through an impressive democratic process. Within a few decades, democracy as a way of life, thinking, and doing has been firmly entrenched among Tibetans in exile and in diaspora. This is remarkable because we don’t have a history of democratic institutions and practices. We embraced it with enthusiasm in exile!
Karma Tensum, Executive Director
Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping preserve the Tibetan culture, educating children in exile and being of service to Tibetan elders.