The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – known also Tibetan Government in Exile – celebrates ‘Democracy Day’ on 2 September every year and has done so since 1960, one year after the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped from Tibet. It was on September 2, 1960 when the Parliament of the CTA (known originally as the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies) began functioning, and since then the CTA it has presented itself as a democratic ‘government’ with a Constitution that protects the inalienable rights and freedom of its people.
As common as the concept of democracy appears to be in a modern and largely liberal world, the term has often been misused. The word is derived from the Greek word, ‘demos’ which means ‘common people’. Accordingly, a democratic society is one in which supreme power belongs to the people and is not vested in the figure of an authoritative leader no matter how popular he may appear. Neither is it a democracy when power over the people is yielded by a single-party regime that is free to bend the rules to keep itself in power because there is no mechanism or infrastructure to prevent it from doing so. In addition, a democracy functions by the principles of ‘majority-rule’ and guards against breaches of the basic rights of the common people. In a true democracy, the authority of the government comes from the people.
The CTA operates under the “Charter of the Tibetans In-Exile”, adopted in 1991 and changed in 2011. Executive authority is vested in the Sikyong (also known as the President or Prime Minister of the CTA) an office currently held by Dr. Lobsang Sangay, a US citizen living in Boston, who was elected in 2011. The Sikyong was initially directly appointed by the Dalai Lama. The first elected Sikyong was a 62-year-old Buddhist monk, Lobsang Tenzin (better known as Samdhong Rinpoche). On 10 March, 2011, the Dalai Lama proposed changes to the exile charter which would in appearance remove his absolutistic position of authority within the organization.
The democracy that the CTA claims does not in fact fit the most vital characteristics of a democratic system of government, leading critics to suspect that it is nothing more than a new coat of paint over its old feudalistic theocratic self. The CTA democracy claim began in the 1960s when the Dalai Lama promulgated a draft Constitution supposedly upholding and protecting the individual rights and freedom of the Tibetan people. Whilst some Tibetans had initially believed in the Dalai Lama’s stated intentions, it became clear in the ensuing years, as the CTA flouted one Constitutional provision after another, that ‘democracy’ was perhaps just a clever ruse for the Dalai Lama’s government to distant itself from a social and political genealogy that it now wished to hide.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama saw that it would be much easier to garner global support for his struggle if the ‘Tibetan cause’ was presented as a wrestle between the Chinese Communist Party, an oppressive totalitarian regime, and the CTA, a ‘democratic government’ forced into exile. This, as opposed to being a fight between a communist regime and a brutal feudal lordship which the Tibetan leadership in fact was. Up until 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet, the majority of the people in Tibet were serfs and slaves owned by a monastic ruling class and aristocrats. When we lift the veneer of democracy, it becomes clear that much of the CTA’s attitudes in governance today is a reflection of its feudal theocratic roots.
During the recent Berman Lecture at Emory University, the CTA President or Sikyong, Dr. Lobsang Sangay attempted a rather awkward justification of what he referred to as ‘Tibetan democracy’. He presented what he regarded as certain unique features of Tibetan democracy which, when examined more closely, offer unmistakable signs that ‘Tibetan democracy’ is a complete fabrication, pointing out three features of the ‘Tibetan Democracy’.
In an exile government, the emphasis is on one leader
Dr. Lobsang Sangay began by admitting that the principles of democracy are in conflict with the goals of an exile government such as the CTA.
“In an exile administration, the emphasis is usually on unity, a single leader and a single voice. It is understandable because the purpose is to return. Unity is paramount in such exile set-ups. Once it is a democracy, there is a contradiction because in a democracy, instead of unity, you have to support diversity. Instead of a single leader, there are oppositions. Instead of a single voice, you must have freedom of speech”.
It should be highlighted that it is because of this disjunction – whether to afford space for diversity or to continue to enforce a single agenda decided solely and unilaterally by the Dalai Lama – that the decision of the CTA exposes its half-heartedness to operate as a true democracy. Stopping short of spelling it out, Dr. Lobsang Sangay was as good as saying that the CTA does not permit freedom of speech, dissenting opinions to that of the government, or diversity, because its exile agenda (read the Dalai Lama’s agenda) does not allow it to. And yet, the CTA insists it is a democracy.
In other words, the only democratic thing about the CTA is its self-appropriated label.
Sincere Buddhists cannot insist on exercising democratic rights
Dr. Lobsang Sangay claimed that the second feature of ‘Tibetan democracy’ is how the Tibetan people have had to step further away from their spiritual bond with the Dalai Lama. Dr. Lobsang Sangay referred to an old Tibetan lore that “all the Tibetan kings were manifestations of Buddha. Such is double bind of Tibetan politics that as long as the Tibetan people regard themselves as sincere Buddhists they cannot insist on exercising their inalienable human rights under a democracy without alienating themselves from their God.
The Dalai Lama and the CTA know this well and hence it is deceitful to suggest to the people of the world that the authority of the Tibetan leadership comes from the people when in fact it comes from their religion, of which the Dalai Lama is a living embodiment.
A true democracy is defined by rule by the majority, but for the Tibetan community in exile, the term means something quite different. Despite the CTA having an administrative configuration that resembles a democratic system, at the apex of the power structure is the lone figure of the Dalai Lama – both a god and a king who is not elected but rules by what is traditionally believed to be divine birthright. For centuries, the Tibetan people have been told that it is the duty of every Tibetan to obey the diktat of this king. But this King is also regarded as the most important god by the Tibetan people, and there is no aspect of his being which is not divine. Therefore, his secular and political decrees are also immediately taken as spiritual precepts to abide by.
The CTA can assemble their governmental structure in whatever way they like, and yet to defy the Dalai Lama is not only treasonous but also highly sacrilegious. And therefore, whether it is by law, by religion or by custom, the Tibetan people are trained to listen to the Dalai Lama without question. The Dalai Lama knows this well and can therefore toy with the idea of the CTA mimicking a democracy without losing any control over the Tibetan people.
A good case in point is the ban on the religious practice of Dorje Shugden. In spite of having a Tibetan Constitution in which Article 10 guarantees the Freedom of Religion, the Dalai Lama did not hesitate to override this charter to deny the people their right to religious freedom enshrined in the CTA’s highest law. A CTA minister of parliament who questioned the wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s religious ban was stabbed. Time and time again, even at the slightest hint of the Dalai Lama’s dissatisfaction at something or someone, the CTA immediately sets aside its democracy masquerade and becomes the enforcer of the Dalai Lama’s will. The Dalai Lama and all the officers and nominees who act in his name are in fact above the law. No democratic system permits this. On the other hand, it describes a feudal theocracy very well.
In 2011, the Dalai Lama apparently retired from all political activities and is said to have relinquished his authority to what the CTA regarded as a democratically elected Sikyong, or President of the Central Tibetan Administration. It was both an opportunity and a test of the CTA’s will to govern as a democratic administration. It could have abolished the Dalai Lama’s religious prohibition on the Dorje Shugden practice, or it could have chosen not to give additional expression to the Dalai Lama’s opposition of this religious ritual. But in 2014, instead of upholding the ‘Freedom of Religion’ and ‘Equality Before the Law’ provisions of the Tibetan Constitution, the CTA Parliament passed yet another official resolution to criminalize the Dorje Shugden practice. Again, this shows that there is no room for disagreement with the Dalai Lama regardless of the Tibetan exile government’s democratic façade.
Those like Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent advocate of Tibetan independence (called Rangzen) who is familiar with how the Tibetan government works, insists that “HH (Dalai Lama) is still the boss, not Sikyong. Lobsang Sangay’s showing the face in the media, on stage; being the head of CTA is still nominal and has little meaning. HH calls the shots.” In other words, CTA democracy is just a charade.
The populace agrees 100 percent with what the leadership says
Dr. Lobsang Sangay suggested that “the third unique feature of Tibetan democracy as its ability to exist without a physical border” and that “…when the Tibetan cabinet makes a decision, they send the notice to Tibetans around the world and it is followed by all…You have to realize that we don’t have a police to enforce the decisions, nor do we punish anyone if the decisions are not followed and yet it is followed by all without fail.” This despite the fact that there are no sanctions for those who do not follow.
It is true that once the Tibetan leadership makes a decision, all Tibetans tend to toe the line. Dr. Lobsang Sangay made the statement that there is no need for the leadership’s instructions to be administered by enforcement, to give the impression that the populace agrees 100 percent with what the leadership says. In truth, there is a big difference between submission out of assent and submission due to fear.
Given the political and spiritual centrality of the Dalai Lama in every Tibetan person’s life, the highest transgression that a Tibetan can be accused of is to be ‘anti-Dalai Lama’. And it is this threat that the Tibetan leadership wields as a weapon more powerful than a police force because its use is completely arbitrary and not bound by any rules of engagement.
In the 2016 elections for the post of Sikyong, Lukar Jam was the only candidate that stood for Rangzen (Tibetan independence) and so he was easily demonized by the other candidates as being ‘anti-Dalai Lama’. To vote for Lukar would be to vote against the king of Tibet, to vote against a Buddha. And to make sure that Lukar Jam had no chance of becoming Sikyong, the Election Commission, which takes its cue from the incumbent leadership, even changed its rules to disqualify Lukar’s candidacy in the final round of the Sikyong election, sparking protests from long-term Tibetan supporters to protest which, in the end, fell on deaf ears.
So, whilst Dr. Lobsang Sangay was right to say that the CTA does not have a police force, it is because there is no need for one. As we have seen time and time again, in the Dorje Shugden controversy and elsewhere, to be labelled ‘anti-Dalai Lama’ is a punishment in itself and carries with it the implied duty of every good Tibetan to shun and assault the victim. Lukar Jam, the political candidate, discovered this as did the journalist Milla Rangzen and the CTA Minister of Parliament Sharchock Cookta. All of them challenged the Tibetan leadership’s views at some point, or called out the CTA’s wrongdoing as they would have been entitled to in a democracy, and were punished for their audacity. Isn’t this more the mark of a totalitarian regime?
During his Berman lecture speech, Dr. Lobsang Sangay boasted that voter participation amongst the Tibetans in exile was up by 70%. Dr. Lobsang Sangay offered this as evidence that the exiled Tibetan people were becoming more involved in the democratic process. What Dr. Lobsang Sangay did not mention was that a Tibetan is only entitled to participate in the electoral process if he or she is issued with a Green Book by the CTA and it is here that the CTA holds a sword of Damocles over the head of every Tibetan in exile. The Green Book is in effect the only official documentation that identifies the Tibetan refugee, allowing him or her to claim ‘citizenship’ of a free Tibet once the CTA regains the homeland. Without a Green Book, the Tibetan refugee has no identity, no legitimacy and no entitlements whatsoever, so it is easy for the CTA to bend every Tibetan in exile to their will with the threat of denying him or her the Green Book. This is a mechanism that is subtle and yet supremely effective, hence Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s confidence that instructions emanating from Dharamsala, the CTA’s seat of government, are followed without fail. The Green Book must be renewed every five years which provides the CTA with a series of opportunities to control the Tibetan Diaspora.
For Tibetans who refuse to comply with the Dalai Lama and CTA’s arbitrary terms such as Dorje Shugden practitioners unwilling to denounce their faith, they not only live in fear of their lives, but are also considered persona non-grata, an exile within an exile community. A democratic government does not subject its citizens to such fear and conditions.
Indeed, in the CTA Constitution itself we see the supremacy of the Dalai Lama instead of the supremacy of the rule of law. For instance Article 20, which addresses the CTA Cabinet and the elected CTA Presidency, clearly identifies the Dalai Lama’s leadership even though he is supposed to have devolved himself of all political authority. Similarly, Article 36, which vests the Tibetan Assembly with the powers to create laws, states that such power can only be exercised with the assent of the Dalai Lama. And this submission to the Dalai Lama’s authority runs through the Tibetan Authority, although it need not have. The Dalai Lama’s authority does not come from the letter of the law but from heaven itself, and to every Tibetan person, there is nothing higher than that.
The five most important rights provided to citizens in a democracy
It would have been easy enough for Dr. Lobsang Sangay to prove that Tibetan democracy is real by showing that the CTA upholds the five most important rights provided to citizens in a democratic state:
1. Freedom of speech and expression – The most fundamental right that all citizens are afforded in a democratic state is the right to express oneself and one’s opinion. But this is manifestly absent in the Tibetan community governed by the CTA. In fact, the opposite is true.
For instance, as the Tibetan activist and writer Jamyang Norbu noted in ‘The Sad Painful Joke of Tibetan Democracy’, simply voicing one’s opinion in favor of Rangzen (Tibetan independence, as opposed to the Middle Way promulgated by the Dalai Lama) is enough for the Tibetan parliament in exile to call for one to be banished from the Tibetan exile society. Norbu further noted that such an act was in fact an order for members of the exile community to teach a lesson to the errant member who has the audacity to speak his mind.
If there is any doubt that the CTA employs violence in suppressing dissenting voices, then Tashi Angdu, the President of the Cholsum Organization, confirmed in an interview with Swiss TV that his organization enforces the CTA’s views and insists that no one should do anything that contradicts the views of the Tibetan leadership, and that they will resort to violence if necessary. “Anyone who is against the Dalai Lama must be opposed without hesitation with men, money and possessions, that is to say, all means including violence”.
2.The right to a fair trial and procedural fairness – The independence of the judiciary is not only a cornerstone of a true democracy but also the foundation of the rule of law. The reason the judiciary is protected from tampering by other branches of government in a democratic system is to ensure people’s rights can really be protected.
But in the CTA’s case, the judiciary becomes yet another tool for the ruling elite to oppress the people. When the Dalai Lama banned the Dorje Shugden practice in 1996, Article 63 of the Tibetan Constitution was amended to preclude the appointment of Dorje Shugden believers, who are forbidden from holding office in any branch of the government or judiciary by virtue of their religion. And yet Articles 9 and 10 of the same Constitution guarantee equality before the law and freedom of religion. This by itself irrefutably demonstrates the hollowness of the Tibetan Constitution and the ease with which the CTA bends the law to justify its acts.
It was only after constant ridicule from Tibetan and international observers that Article 63 was again amended to read:
Article 63 (3): A Tibetan who is appointed as the Chief Tibetan Justice Commissioner shall, before assuming office, take and subscribe an oath and affirmation of office in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama according to the form prescribed by law.
This essentially disqualifies any candidate that the Dalai Lama objects to, a subtler and yet no less effective means of denying any judicial fairness to those targeted by the government.
3.The right to a free and unperturbed media – Far from allowing a free press, the only independent Tibetan newspaper Mangtso (Democracy) was forced to close down for daring to publish news items that were not complimentary of the Dalai Lama or the CTA.
Jamyang Norbu who was a key member of the newspaper noted:
At Amnye Machen we published the newspaper Mangtso (Democracy), that attempted to report on Tibetan politics in an open and truthful manner. Our staff members and some young men who sold our paper on the streets were constantly bullied and threatened. The editors received death threats on a regular basis, and gangs and mobs often poured into our office, scaring the girls at the reception desk and harassing everybody else. All these incidents were clearly organized and instigated by the religious-right coalition in order to shut down the paper.
4.The right of every citizen to exercise his/her vote freely in public and open elections – In a true democracy, the highest power is vested in the people who affect how their government is chosen through the power of their vote in an electoral process.
However, as we have seen in the case of Lukar Jam, not only can the ruling class use the Central Election Commission to change its rules and regulations to disqualify candidates – which it does – but no Tibetan in exile can vote unless he or she is in possession of the Green Book, which is only issued at the prerogative of the CTA.
In the case of Dorje Shugden practitioners who refuse to obey the Dalai Lama’s religious ban, they are denied the issuance or renewal of the Green Book which is how the CTA ultimately manipulates and oppress the very people it is supposed to serve as a democratic government.
5.The right to worship religion in a free setting – Perhaps the most glaring example of Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s parody of democracy is the CTA’s ban on the religious practice of Dorje Shugden. This denial of freedom of religion not only breaches the Tibetan Constitution but also the Constitution of India, the host nation of the CTA, as well as a good handful of United Nations Human Rights provisions.
An entire section of the CTA’s official website is dedicated to the persecution of Dorje Shugden practitioners. For good measure, an identical section appears on the Dalai Lama’s official website.
How can Dr. Sangay claim a ‘Tibetan democracy’ when the CTA uses all branches of the government as well as the authority of its highest religious leader to deny the Tibetan people even the most basic rights that their law is supposed to uphold? As a matter of fact, the CTA under Dr. Lobsang Sangay is an affront to democracy, which makes his delivery of the Berman Lecture on democracy at Emory University a complete mockery.
‘Tibetan democracy’ is the Dalai Lama’s sleight of hand at its best. It is a deception and one of the best in modern history. No other authoritarian regime has pulled off this level of artifice. The Central Tibetan Administration is a government without a state to govern and a ‘democracy’ that uses state instruments to enforce a feudal lord’s will, all this while operating outside every single global framework that ensures checks and balances. ‘Tibetan democracy’ is an oxymoron and the CTA should be taken to task over its abuse of the term.