Here is the first part of an extensive conversation—well, as extensive as it can get in 30-plus minutes—that I had with Sikyong candidate Speaker Penpa Tsering. We met in one of Parkdale’s ubiquitous Tibetan-owned establishments, Shangri-la restaurant, where we discussed his Sikyong 2016 campaign so far, the state of Tibetan democracy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lukar Jam, Tibet Support Groups, Donald Trump, and Rob Ford, among others.
Mr. Tsering invited me to speak with him after our initial back and forth during the Q and A portion of his public event on Jan 24, 2016, at the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. You can read my recap here.
The conversation was conducted in a mix of Tibetan and English. I have translated it as best as I could, editing parts of it for brevity and for the flow of the conversation. You can judge my attempt when I post the entire audio record in the next instalment of this interview.
This portion of the conversation covers Tibetan democracy, the meaning of unity, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Lukar Jam.
Gelek Badheytsang: Thank you for making time. Let’s get into it: we are now approaching the end of the elections. How long have you been on the road? When did you leave Dharamsala?
Speaker Penpa Tsering: I left on the 9th [of January] from Dharamsala, but it took a while to apply for the Shengen VISA in Delhi. Arrived in NYC on the 14th, then did some fundraising and public engagements on the 15th and 16th. San Francisco on the 17th. Portland on the 18th; left Portland on the 19h. Spent the afternoon of the 20th in Washington DC speaking with VOA (Voice of America) and Radio Free Asia, then the evening with the public. The 21st in Chicago, 22nd in Madison, 23rd in Minnesota, and then the 24th in Toronto.
It has been a packed itinerary!
As you’re out on the road on your campaign trail, you must have met Tibetans from all walks of life, heard their opinions and feedback. What has your experience been like so far?
The people are definitely engaged. I don’t know if Lobsang Sangay la will be visiting all the communities, but all the places that I’ve been to—I have received great attention from the public. I understand that it’s hard for people to make time on weekdays when they’re working, so I wasn’t sure if they will be able to attend some of my events in the numbers like they do during weekends. But all the places I’ve been to so far, even if it’s a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the people have gathered in good numbers.
This is this your second time running for the Sikyong seat, right? You campaigned in 2010 as well.
Yes. I participated in a couple of debates in Bylakuppe and Dharamsala, but I wasn’t seriously campaigning at the time.
Have you noticed any differences between the 2010 elections and the one we are in currently?
Since I didn’t travel to all the different areas [during the 2010 elections] I can’t really say I feel like there is a significant difference. The thing to keep in mind about 2010 was that His Holiness had just retired as the political head of our government that year. There was a palpable air of and desire for transformation among the Tibetan people at that time. Obama had just been elected as the President in America—there was all this talk of “change” and everything—and so there was definitely a desire among the Tibetan people to see change in our own community. With Lobsang Sangay as the young newcomer in the race, I feel like people felt that excitement and participated accordingly.
I want to touch on a few of the things that you discussed in your public talk last Sunday [Jan 24, in Toronto]. As you know, we had a brief interaction [during the Q and A] which got heated at times, and I apologize if I got too excited.
Hopefully this conversation will be a little less heated.
I’m curious, as one of the two Sikyong candidates this year, I think—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—one of the main points of emphasis in your candidacy has been in highlighting the importance of “unity” within the community. And in making sure we follow in the footsteps of Kundun.
How do you define “unity”?
Unity for me, and I explained this in my talk in Minnesota as well, unity doesn’t mean everyone has to act or think in the same way. As a community, we will have different opinions, attitudes and beliefs. Even within a relationship, as a couple, the goal is to stay committed to each other for the rest of your life. So that when you do have troubles among yourselves, you try to work it out together.
When you consider our community, I am calling for unity within the different chölkas (regions) and chölgus (sects), but I am not saying we all have to follow the same thing. The Sakyas have their own beliefs, and so do the Kagyus, Nyingmas and so on. As long as there is no ill-will and anger at each other, we all have the autonomy to do our own thing. We just need to respect each other, which is important.
In that same vein, we have different strategies when it comes to rangzen and umay-lam, and again it’s important that we respect each other; there is no need to bicker amongst ourselves. The important thing is making clear who our main opponent is.
If you are a rangzen supporter, look after your goals and responsibilities, without harming the other [umay-lam]. And the same for an umay-lam supporter.
Right now in our community we have all these internal disagreements, and like I said at my last talk, if a rangzen advocate is going about their work, regardless of whether they collaborate with umay-lam or not, they have to ensure that they don’t harm the other party. And the same goes for an umay-lam supporter: they could be recruiting members, or raising funds, or organizing an event, it’s up to a rangzen advocate whether they want to participate in it or not. But once you’ve decided to join an [umay-lam] event, there is no need for all that internal strife.
Can you give me an example of what damages this sense of unity?
There was that incident last year during the Uprising day.
The one on March 10 in New York – New Jersey?
Right. When you consider cases like that, from the point of the public, we had a unified mandate from the Kashag and Chitue. I was the head of that task force. One of the things we agreed from within the Chitue and Kaghag was that we can’t control what people do individually during these protests. But from the perspective of the Tibetan govt-in-exile, we had decided that we would take responsibility for making the banners. This would be our way of sending a message to China. How rangzen advocates or umay-lam supporters decide to participate in the protests individually, that we can’t control.
We [the government] tried not to harm the unity within the community and be flexible that way. We still needed to ensure that all the banners were uniform, and making sure we didn’t harm each other [within the community].
So, when we’re trying to follow the government’s edict, and then there’s this other group that’s trying to do their own thing separately, that’s when we start harming each other and people start thinking of all sorts of things.
That’s one example. Secondly, when you have something like this happening, these days with social media being so prevalent, I also don’t think it’s helpful that so many people take pictures and post comments and spread them everywhere. We need to be a little more judicious in how we share these things; figure out whether this harms our unity or not, whether it’s actually necessary. For instance, with the Shugden followers, they spread all kinds of information because they need that spotlight. And so when we start sharing these kinds of posts without giving it much thought, we become a kind of an agent in helping Shugden. That’s why we need to be more careful about things like that.
I want to explore that a little further. When you talk about the social media and how people engage in it without considering the different consequences—I think Lobsang Sangay la said the same thing recently at a public talk in Dharamsala—I think, and allow me to be a little philosophical here, when our government accepted democracy, we did so understanding all the good things and bad things that came with it.
There’s that saying, “democracy is a messy thing”.
Right now we have the American elections going on, with the Republican and Democratic primaries happening shortly. There are all sorts of characters participating in this election, along with their supporters, some of whom are more extremists while others more moderate. But all of them are included, they’re all ingredients swirling within this bowl of thukpa. Regardless of how much they disagree with each other, I don’t think—and I could be wrong—but I don’t think one supporter has ever said to another, “oh, there’s no need for democracy if there’s people like you with your ideologies.”
This is something that I find unique in our exile community. And granted, compared to other countries, our government is young and a lot of things are still discombobulated because we all had to flee an occupation and set ourselves up in exile. So, we’re dealing with all kinds of issues that are unique to us.
Do you know Donald Trump?
He’s getting all kinds of notoriety right now. But even back in 2012, he made these allegations that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America… he demanded his birth certificate. A lot of people knew back then Trump was making these accusations just because Obama was black. It was a very racist thing. But in spite of all the things he’s said, he’s now running in the elections, and could become the next president of America. But when I see someone like him, who I deeply disagree with on every little thing, I still wouldn’t deny him his right to run as a candidate or participate in debates. Debate him. Because otherwise, in my opinion, to use you as an example—and I know you’ve made it very clear that you’re not saying Lukar Jam has no right to run as a candidate—you’ve said that you wouldn’t debate him in public, participate in panel discussions. Let’s say, hypothetically, Lukar Jam passed the preliminary elections and met the 20% cutoff criteria that the Elections Committee enforced, and became one of the three candidates: would you still debate him?
I’ve made it clear that I wouldn’t debate him, it’s my principled position. I haven’t denied him his democratic right to run as a candidate or say what he wants to say. That’s his right and privilege. Who I decide to compete against is my right. I am not undermining democracy; I’m very clear on that.
Now, if he had passed the preliminary elections and become the third candidate, I still wouldn’t debate him. We actually still don’t know if there will be debates at all [this year], but that’s another matter. But on the matter of debating [Lukar Jam], I’ve made my position very clear from the beginning and I haven’t changed it now.
So, just to make it clear: even if he became a candidate in the general elections, you wouldn’t debate him?
I wouldn’t debate him in person. Now, if the news media wants my comments on him and we have a back and forth that way, that’s up to them. The public needs to know our opinions, but it doesn’t mean we have to share the same stage together. We can both express our thoughts separately, but I remain steadfast in my position that I will not share a platform with him. Even if it means that I lose the elections, I won’t regret that.
That is your principled stance, as you say. What is your principled stance against Lukar Jam?
The reason we have a thriving community is all thanks to His Holiness. He [Lukar Jam] demeans His Holiness. Whether he agrees or disagrees with His Holiness is another thing. But to demean His Holiness without any sense of propriety at all… as a Tibetan I can’t tolerate it.
Maybe it could be because I am too sensitive. But as a Tibetan, I just can’t tolerate it. If he actually has disagreements [with HHDL] on reasonable grounds, then I’m OK with that. HHDL has said, Buddha has said it, you don’t have to take my word for it: you burn, cut or rub a gold nugget to test whether it’s truly gold.
Debating is actually an important aspect of Kundun’s Gelukpa tradition. It’s one of the foundational aspects on which they learn and progress.
I came here about 10 years ago from Nepal, so I guess you can say my formative years, or half of it, was in Canada—Canada is a place with people from all kinds of backgrounds. In our elections here, for instance, in Toronto, we had a famous mayor by the name of Rob Ford. He was caught smoking drugs and everything, but he still became our mayor. He also had many challengers who couldn’t stand him, what he stood for and his values, but still they accepted him and challenged him as an equal counterpart. The point that I’m getting to is, when you draw a line and say that you won’t participate with him in public once he crossed the line, for reasons because you think it creates disruption and divisiveness within the community… is that why? Is it because you think it harms our sense of unity?
He demeans Kundun and for that reason I won’t share a platform with him.
Now if he wants to meet with me in my office, I’m not saying I won’t meet with him.
Is it written in our constitution that you can’t demean Kundun?
No. It isn’t.
So this is just your personal preference then?
This is my principled stance. There hasn’t been anyone more important in our community than His Holiness. And that will most likely be the case in the future as well. I cannot abide by anyone demeaning him. I don’t think this has anything to do with democracy.
For instance, if he [Lukar Jam] was one of the three candidates today or if he even won the elections, that’s the people’s choice. If he becomes the Sikyong, there’s nothing I can say about that. It’s just one of my principled stances that I won’t debate with him, and I don’t think this undermines our democracy. The situation here [in Canada] is different. They have their own systems and in any case, they don’t have someone like His Holiness. Our situation is different. If he doesn’t believe in religion, that’s his right. I am religious, and that’s my right too. I am not infringing on anyone’s rights.
We know Kundun has retired from the political scene and entrusted the Tibetan people to continue sustaining the movement. If there was a referendum down the line, between reinstating Kundun as our political leader, versus having parliamentary democracy, which one would you support?
As you know, democracy was bestowed to us by Kundun; it is with us. There’s no point trying to select between the two because such a scenario will never arise. His Holiness himself has stated that there is nothing good in one person or a religious institute individually controlling the entire government. So this [referendum] will not come to pass. We can’t keep talking about hypotheticals because at a certain point it stops serving any purpose.
From one standpoint it is hypothetical, but from another it isn’t all that hypothetical. When Kundun made his declaration in resigning as the political head of our government, our Chitue voted many times, four or five times, requesting Kundun to please not resign.
Yes, that happened in the past.
Right. It happened, and Kundun made it very clear to us to please not keep him involved in politics. And I agree with Kundun. For our community to mature we have to go beyond one person. But from what I have seen, even in this election, Kundun is an unavoidable spectre. We can’t seem to have any conversation without including Kundun’s name. Isn’t that an issue for us Tibetans? Because on the one hand, yes, we are grateful to His Holiness, every Tibetan knows this, or most Tibetans. But if we keep invoking his name, it feels like, and if you’ll allow me to be a little frank, it feels like we’re in some kind of Olympics to prove who’s the most loyal to Kundun. And, in my opinion, that then becomes the whole point of the campaign.
So, for instance, in your last public talk, you covered a lot of different areas, but there were also many issues that we didn’t get to discuss, because this whole thing about demeaning Kundun took a lot of time. How will we tackle the Chinese government—you touched on it by mentioning the importance of preserving the language and cultures back in Tibet, but there weren’t any concrete steps or proposals mentioned because we simply didn’t have the time. Don’t you think it would be good if we moved beyond… understanding that we don’t have to keep mentioning Kundun’s name, that every Tibetan is loyal to Kundun? That we should tackle these other issues instead?
I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on this, but if these things come up during questions, like how you are questioning me, then I have to answer them, right? In my last two and half hour talk, you can calculate the total time I spent on this issue [of demeaning Kundun]; it couldn’t have been more than five or ten minutes. Not even more than five minutes total. I am talking about the importance of unity, and unity is something that we need. We are not more than 150,000 people [in exile] and if we don’t have unity here then how will we get anything done?
Can we talk about unity for a moment? Because it feels to me like the definition of unity is according to what you think is harmonious. And if someone differs from that, then they are falling outside of that unity. Isn’t that a little bit like authoritarianism? You’re not saying that this person can’t participate or whatever, but the idea is still there. If someone threatens to disrupt the unity of the Tibetan community because, and this is a very clear example, he or she might disagree with Kundun, then you are not for it [democracy]. That you are against it. Is that clear?
I have only one condition; anyone who demeans Kundun, whether individually or as an organization, I will challenge them. I will debate them. Otherwise we can have all sorts of disagreements, but up to this point—you can look back at my personal history—I have always tried to work along with that reality. I haven’t tried to exclude anyone. The only condition I have is when it comes to disrespecting His Holiness. Otherwise, yes, we all have difference of opinions. That is a reality of our community and we need it too. We can’t expect to shepherd everyone like sheep.
I understand your principled stance—my parents are the same way and we’ve had many discussions about this—but I think it is a big obstacle. At the last talk I had asked you if in our democracy we are allowed to disagree with Kundun.
Yes, you can. Of course. Like I said earlier, even the Buddha himself has spoken about testing the purity of gold, and His Holiness has said the same thing as well. So yes, you can disagree with His Holiness, but it has to be based on reason and truth. If you do your due diligence and present your evidence and then say, for this reason I disagree… . It could also be that as you investigate further, you may circle back and end up believing in His Holiness even further.
So, no one is saying you can’t disagree with His Holiness. It’s just the part where someone demeans, blasphemes him, without any sense of respect…
Why is that important?
If someone, without any reason, starts saying terrible things about your parents, whom you cherish the most, would you be happy about that?
For that same reason, I consider His Holiness to be even more precious to me than my parents. So, if someone starts berating His Holiness without any reason, then I can’t tolerate it. He is one of my jewels, and I should have the right to feel about him the way I do. That is one of my principled stance. I am not denying anyone else their democratic right.
[Part 2: Where we talk about Lobsang Sangay and the matter of Tibet Support Groups, and how they fit into the whole Tibetan strategy.]
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