We need to talk about Tibetan Democracy – Part 1

Yesterday, inside the cavernous hall of the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre (TCCC) in Toronto, Sikyong candidate Penpa Tsering began his public talk by stressing on the importance of harmony and unity, as a way of framing his campaign policy. In what eventually turned out to be a rambling three-hour speech that spanned everywhere and nowhere—a performance that at turns resembled a professorial lecture on the mechanics of bureaucracy, nostalgia for bygone times, and a church sermon—Speaker Penpa Tsering reinvigorated some of the charged proclamations that brought much notoriety to his campaign last year and, consequently, captured the attention of the Tibetan diaspora.

He also revealed new opinions (new for me anyway) that left me scratching my head and “stunned tweetless”, a term I used since I was live-tweeting the event in person. Right from the outset, he shared an opinion that may well prove to be a decisive turning point in his quest to be the new leader of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

Specifically, he said this: “Regardless of who wins between Lobsang Sangay and me, I hope you all support your Sikyong after the election results. If we don’t, and we continue to have discord within the community, then I don’t think democracy is all that useful.”

Now, please keep in mind that this is a rough translation of a part of a speech that was dictated wholly in Tibetan. “[…]དམངས་གཙོ་ཆོད་ཞེ་དྲགས་མཐོང་གི་མིན་འདུག།” I may have missed a nuance here or there, but in this instance, I am confident that I have captured what he said accurately.

Please also keep in mind that this is coming from someone who wants to be the democratic leader of the Tibetan diaspora. Someone who has served as Speaker for the Tibetan Parliament in Exile (TPiE) since 2008. Someone who came in second in the preliminary elections of 2015 due in large part to his impassioned stance against rival Lukar Jam (a rangzen advocate who came in third, and was subsequently disqualified from the general elections due to an arbitrary bylaw introduced and enforced by the Elections Committee at the eleventh hour). That one half of the two Sikyong candidates (the other being the incumbent Dr. Lobsang Sangay) has this kind of apathy towards democracy paints a murky outlook on the process, vitality, and maturity of the democratic values and principles within the exile Tibetan community.

Mr. Tsering offered this nugget as he was prefacing his talk to the Tibetan Canadian supporters gathered before him. He wanted to make sure we all realized how important it was to be united as one people, and to not get distracted by all the nitty-gritty disagreements that we have amongst ourselves. Above all else, he stressed multiple times, was our fulsome devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL), and for us to continue solidifying our Middle Way Approach (དབུ་མའི་ལམ་) with the Chinese.

That he would start his public talk by seemingly offering our democracy on the chopping block was astounding to me. I tilted my head and waited for the audience to take in that bit of what seemed like an incredibly incriminating revelation, and to murmur amongst themselves. But I didn’t hear any. At the Q and A session afterwards, four people were ahead of me in the lineup to ask questions. None of them broached this part of the speech that we had all just sat through.

Instead, the rancour was was reserved for issues like the importance of protecting the honour of HHDL, CTA’s budget allocation, and the importance of protecting the honour of HHDL.

When it was my turn at the microphone I asked him to clarify what he meant by saying that we were better off not having democracy if it meant so much disruption within the community. He said that I must have misunderstood him, owing to my young age and the fact that I may not understand Tibetan fully well since I used some English in my questions. His clarification was this: if democracy causes so much divisiveness within the community, such that people can speak and do whatever they want, then maybe democracy is not useful for us right now.

He reassured us that he didn’t say democracy was not good. Rather, it might not be good for the exile Tibetans.

You can listen to his answer below (I start asking him questions at around 2:26:00).

As you can tell from the video, my interaction with Mr. Tsering during the Q and A was fraught with cross-talk, interruptions from the moderator, and an audience seemingly hostile towards any questions that challenged the Speaker.

I was caught up at times in the heat of the moment during the Q and A, but I was level-headed enough to realize that he basically doubled down on his original comment. Here was a man running for the top democratic office of the Tibetan diaspora, feeling emboldened enough by the rapt provincialism of the audience and their devotion towards HHDL, to marginalize the very institute that was the raison d’être for his vocation and this particular event. This was not during a family dinner with close confidants. This was at a public talk at one of the largest Tibetan exile communities outside of Nepal and India.

It was like seeing two mathematicians arguing over a mathematical problem, and then one of them saying: look, the math isn’t that important anyway.

Penpa Tsering acknowledged that young Tibetans need to be more engaged in the elections and the CTA. To that end, he invited me to have a separate meeting with him, and to bring along some Tibetan youth so that they too can ask him questions.

I plan on meeting him tomorrow to ask his clarifications on other puzzling opinions he shared, namely against Tibetan NGOs like the Students for a Free Tibet (which I did broach at the Q and A, and which I feel he didn’t respond sufficiently to). I want to understand the mindset of a democratic leader who is apparently willing to suspend democracy if there is no order. How does one reconcile an authoritarian-lite bent like his with the practice and ideals of democracy?

I had many other questions for Penpa Tsering which, to his credit, he answered or attempted to answer. There was one final question I had, which was this: “do you believe that within our democracy, are we allowed to disagree with HHDL?”

He didn’t get around to answering it.

Next part: The need for Tibetan Secularism (to be posted later this week)

Follow me on Twitter: @gelekb



  1. Tenzin nyima

    Dear friend, firstly I think you need to learn how to speak properly in Tibetan. You are really lacking the most important quality (politeness) as a real Tibetan. Your questions make no sense to us Tibetans.

    • driftsdrafts

      Tenzin la,

      I agree I could’ve lowered the righteousness of my tone in questioning the Speaker. But my questions would’ve stung anyway.

      There is no polite way of asking a democratic leader to describe what he meant when he said democracy was useless to Tibetans.

      Tell me, as a Tibetan: do you believe in democracy?

  2. Lobsang Namdol

    Tenzin Nima la, You really need to first pinpoint yourself……. How you can call yourself Tibetan…. just a blood is not enough. I think you really need to learn Tibetan….. which will atleast take 10 to 15 years. Then you need to learn the manner

    • driftsdrafts

      Lobsang Namdol la: your attempt to derail the conversation by pointing out my Tibetan illiteracy is not a new tactic. Rest assured: I know fully well how you intend to exclude people from conversations that you don’t like.

      I’m not running to represent the Tibetan diaspora. I’m asking questions as someone who is a part of the exile community (although that is something you feel I am not worthy enough to say so). Don’t you have questions for the Speaker in regards to his views on democracy?

  3. Nawang

    Tibetans as a whole will never ever realize the full potential of democracy when all they do is pinpoint lack of Tibetan language skills etc. By doing so they will move on with their old mentality of bygone days of Tibetan politics. Have faith youngsters for the likes of you will some day lead your countrymen however your stumbling blocks would be so called “Tibetans” who are only too eager to disregard any intelligent dialogue by young educated Tibetans. It’s no wonder younger Tibetans hardly ever take interest in Tibetan politics other than shout their lungs out on 10th March. As for SFT it’s another territory altogether. To say one can’t ask questions to a seemingly democratic leader in itself is the biggest fiasco I say to your Q@A session.
    Good Luck & Tashi Delek Driftsdraft.

  4. nyimtse

    It was very concerning to see PT’s response to your question. He was patronizing and dismissive of your question — not in its content but in how it was asked and in your ability to speak Tibetan – and playing to the crowd.

    For the others, while fluency in Tibetan is important, if we are to win Tibet back, it will happen in the International forum by those who are fluent in the ways of the International community. So, let us refrain from our self-righteous policing and lecturing of anyone who struggles in Tibet.

    Realise that Dharamsala politicians are used to being treated like feudal lords and will use the tone of your questioning to undermine you and to attack you.

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