Exiled Tibetans mull new political ruler
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - In response to a hint from Tibet's spiritual leader, the
Dalai Lama, that he will retire from his political role in the
government-in-exile within a year, Tibetan exiles are gearing up to elect a new
political leader. A preliminary poll for the next prime minister of the Tibetan
government-in-exile has chosen two US-educated Tibetans as top runners.
Speaking on Indian television earlier this week, the 75-year-old Dalai Lama
said: "In order to fully utilize democracy, I feel it is better I am not
involved and that I am devoted to other fields, like promotion of human values
and peace and harmony. But first I have to discuss this, to inform members of
the Tibetan parliament."
The Dalai Lama will address his retirement at the next session of his exiled
parliament in March and then look to scale back his
responsibilities in the following six months, said Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman
for the Dalai Lama's office here. Taklha stressed that the Dalai Lama cannot
renounce his spiritual duties but plans to retire from his ceremonial
responsibilities as head of his exiled government.
Aware of the Dalai Lama's inevitable retirement due to his age, the Tibetans in
exile have attached much importance to the selection of their future political
leadership. According to rules, Tibetan exiles choose their leaders through two
rounds of elections. The preliminary poll was held on October 3, in which
exiles cast their votes to elect the successor to outgoing kalon tripa (prime
minister) Samdhong Rinpoche, who has already served two five-year terms since
2001. His current term will end in August 2011. The government-in-exile is
headquartered in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama has been based since a
failed uprising in 1959 against Beijing's rule.
The leading candidates for the top post after the preliminary election are Dr
Lobsang Sangay, a senior research fellow at Harvard Law School, and Tenzin
Namgyal Tethong, a diplomat who also lives in the US. Pending the second round
of elections early next year, one of them will be the leader of the exiled
Tibetan community and the Free Tibet movement, with full authority after the
Dalai Lama's full retirement. Both men were educated in the US, and given their
background, analysts believe there will be a greater influence of Western
values on Tibetans in exile, leading to a more confrontational attitude to
Out of the 79,449 registered voters, slightly over 47,000 (approximately 61%)
cast their votes in the preliminary polls across 56 locations in India, Nepal,
Bhutan, European countries, the US and Australia. Lobsang Sangay lead the first
round with a total of 22,489 votes, while Tenzin Namgyal Tethong received
Dolma Gyari, the only female candidate, secured third place with 2,733 votes;
she currently serves as the deputy speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.
As many as 17 candidates competed for the post during the preliminary poll, and
the Tibetan Election Commission, as per its electoral rules, selected the top
six candidates for the final round of polls to be held on March 20, 2011.
Tibetans from different walks of life, including students, bureaucrats, women
and monks were seen jostling on the preliminary poll day with green
registration books to cast their votes. Although the Tibetan
government-in-exile is not recognized by any other government in the world,
Tibetans in exile have taken the election of the next leader, who will fill the
vacuum left by the retirement of the Dalai Lama, very seriously.
Lobsang Sangay, the frontrunner in the first round of elections, is an expert
on international law. One sign of his popularity is that he regularly visits
the exile capital Dharamsala and interacts with officials of the Tibetan
During the run-up to the primary election campaign, many Tibetans posed
questions on the web to the prospective candidates. One of the questions put to
Lobsang Sangay was: "What do you see as the key responsibilities of the next
He replied: "First we have to define whether the kalon tripa is a leader
or an administrator. If he is simply an administrator, then experience, both
institutional and personal, is a must. However, His Holiness (the Dalai Lama)
himself has stressed that as our democracy progresses, the kalon tripa should
assume more political leadership. For the kalon tripa as a leader, the
primary responsibility is to resolve the Chinese occupation and alleviate the
challenges faced by our brave compatriots in Tibet. Secondly, it is to gain
support from the international community and to raise the profile of the
Tibetan government, which is rather weak."
On the issue of rights of Tibetans, he recently said: "They have the right to
self-determination, to demand rights. They are in a position to get something.
The ultimate goal of the Chinese is to turn Tibetans into Chinese." He also
said he was looking forward to supporting the Dalai Lama's "middle way" of
dialogue between the Chinese government and the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The second contender, Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, is a distinguished fellow at
Stanford University. He began his work in the Tibetan exile community in India,
teaching Tibetan students in refugee schools. He has also served as a
representative of the Dalai Lama in United States. He said the results of the
preliminary elections "confirmed the wide public support for his nomination by
several important Tibetan organizations and groups, as well as many
individuals." He was highly encouraged by the results of the preliminary round,
Interestingly, Tibetan exiles have seen these US-educated-and-based candidates
as more acceptable than others. Analysts believe this suggests that the exile
community is increasingly under the influence of the US, as the exiles believe
America can play a major role in bringing about a solution to the Tibet issue.
"The US has a significant stake and role in maintaining stability in Asia,
especially when China's rapid rise as a superpower is proving to be the most
pressing challenge for the US. We are hopeful that the US government will not
lose sight of the strategic significance of Tibet's territorial integrity,"
reads a letter signed by the Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest
pro-independence group based in exile, during US President Barack Obama's visit
"It is certain that being educated at such prestigious US universities does add
more weight to their candidacy, and the two top contenders are welcome here to
accept the role and lead the government," said Tenzin, an exiled Tibetan in
Nancy Pelosi, outgoing US house speaker, has always been supportive of the
Tibetan people, and helps maintain the strong Tibetan connection with the US.
In her statement marking Dalai Lama's 75th birthday in July of this year,
Pelosi said: "The Dalai Lama has made the human rights situation in Tibet an
issue of international concern, and it is long past time to resolve it. A
negotiated agreement would ensure internal stability in Tibet and bolster
China's reputation in the world."
A statement on Pelosi's official site also cites her commitment to "continue to
support the struggles of the Tibetan people and honor the sacrifice of those
who gave their life fighting for freedom. We must be committed to meeting the
challenge of human rights in Tibet if we are to work for human rights around
It will be interesting to see how the final round of elections will go in
March. Will the new leadership in exile carry on the Dalai Lama's middle way
approach, or will there be a long-term strategy to make the movement less
vulnerable to China's strong antagonism? Needless to say, Beijing is also
closely watching these developments, wary that the new Tibetan leader will
become more radical and pro-Western.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India. He can be
reached at [email protected]