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Tibetan Democracy and the Freedom Movement

Late Geshe Palden Gyatso, France

Many Tibetans around the world are anxiously monitoring the results of the March 20th elections for the Tibetan government in exile. Our democratic system is far from perfect, but, unlike in China, it exists and is here to work on and improve. This is clearly something all Tibetans are proud of and was one of the main points made in the election-day interviews of both the incumbent, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, and his challenger, the speaker of the Tibetan parliament, Penpa Tsering.

The fact that this democratic system exists is thanks to the extraordinary vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the many Tibetans who came before us. In spite of the grief and trauma they experienced – having lost their homes and land, seeing their families and sacred places of worship attacked and ripped apart, and being forced to find safety in a foreign land – they worked tirelessly to rebuild not just our community, but our nation in exile. And they didn’t just go ahead and re-establish the old political system, they worked to create something better and stronger that we could one day offer to our people inside Tibet.

Lhadon Tethong, Free Tibet Activities
As Tibetans, we can never forget this part of the founding vision — that this was a nation-building project, and not just a cultural preservation project. It was about political progress and hope, even in the darkest times. It was to reject the backwardness of China under the Communist Party, and the system of authoritarian government there, and demonstrate that Tibetans were indeed the modern and progressive ones.

If there was a time to lose hope and feel desperate, it was in those early years in exile, not now. Back then the international community did not know of the Tibetan plight, or even the name of the Dalai Lama, and Tibet seemed lost to the world, locked up by China and almost completely cut off behind the highest mountains on earth. In those dark times, as my parents and so many of our people witnessed, Tibetans in the refugee camps died by the hundreds and thousands of simple and curable sickness and disease.

Now, though life remains very difficult for Tibetans inside Tibet, much has changed and there are many reasons to have hope for a better future. For one thing, the dawn of change is on the horizon as China looks closer to the brink of major upheaval. As history shows us, with change in China comes opportunity for change in Tibet. And, most importantly, Tibetans inside Tibet are holding strong to the desire for freedom. A new generation has taken up the struggle and people from every walk of life are engaged. Despite the massive obstacles and challenges they face, clearly they have not given up, so how can we?

As I see it, our responsibility to Tibetans in Tibet is to keep up the pressure on China by continuing to take action and build the strength of the freedom movement. Tibet needs to be an issue that confronts Chinese leaders and future generations of Chinese leaders at every turn. It has to be an issue of global concern – one that is raised every time China is discussed and consistently tugs at the conscience of the international community – for decades to come.

The only way this happens is if we keep the Tibetan freedom movement strong and free. By ‘strong’ I mean by engaging many more people in the struggle – especially Tibetan students and youth, and non-Tibetan allies across the globe. By ‘free’ I mean through openness and inclusivity; by not just allowing, but actually encouraging diverse voices and approaches. These are the conditions that foster creativity, maximize the numbers of people involved and will ultimately ensure Tibetans have an active and effective grassroots movement that can help build leverage for the Tibetan side vis a vis the Chinese leadership. These are the conditions that used to exist in the Tibet movement and, I would argue, are a main reasons why our struggle has been so successful to date. As long as people remain nonviolent, they should not be controlled or told what to do by those who think they “know best”.

If we want to honor the democratic vision laid out by His Holiness, we will continue to work on improving our democratic system. We will not be trapped by the conservative, and wrong, view that democracy means only “rule by majority” where the voices of those not in the majority are shut down and shut out. There are many countries in the world that have this kind of democracy right now. They are ruled by vicious and authoritarian leaders who like to use the facade of elections to cover up their despotism.

When the Tibetan election results are officially announced, all of the people who voted for the losing candidate technically become the “minority”. But this does not mean that their voices no longer count; that everything they say is no longer valid and that they should be marginalized. In a liberal democracy, which is what Tibetans should aspire to, the voices of the minority, no matter how large or small, are not silenced by those in power, nor at the grassroots level. The “majority” should seek to understand their views, should make space for them and protect their right to speak. And, even if they do not agree with these views or positions, should not try to shut them out of the national conversation. This is the beauty of a truly democratic society. This is what should distinguish the Tibetan system from that of the Chinese. This is what we should be proud of.