Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Cause Greater than the Individual: Will the Tibetan Cause Outlive the Dalai Lama?

As reported in the Bangkok Post; Saturday August 26, 2006

By Anurag Mohanty-Viswana

Speculation over the health of the 14th Dalai Lama has triggered questions regarding the future of the Tibet issue.

Political developments in the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGE) headquartered in Dharamsala, northern India, however, attest to the fact that a slow but steady move has been on the anvil to strengthen the democratic process of the TGE, as well as prepare the exile community for a future -- without the Dalai Lama.

The recently re-elected Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration), Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, took office on Aug 15, after being elected by a thumping majority: 91% of the total votes cast. This election was the second since 2001.

Prof Rinpoche, on assumption of office, pointed out that the process of elections was to nurture young and progressive Tibetans to take up leadership roles.

In his oath-taking ceremony, he said, ''This trend, once firmly established, will also send a clear message to the other side [China] that the Tibetan political leadership does not depend upon a few individuals, and that there exists a huge potential and choices for leaders among the broad masses of the Tibetan people."

His indication was that the Tibet issue was over and above an individual; at stake was the future of six million Tibetans, thus ''untying'' the destiny of the issue with that of the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama has also indicated once again (this year) that should the resolution of the dispute occur with China conceding to grant ''genuine autonomy'', then his rebirth will be in Tibet (since there will be no more exile community) and if it not, the rebirth of the 15th Dalai Lama will be in exile.

While preparations are on for the sixth round of talks between the TGE and China, this move not only pre-empts a closure of the issue, should anything untoward occur to the present Dalai Lama, but also discourages any move by China of a scenario for a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama, as has been the case with the 11th Panchen Lama, the second highest spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama.

China claims that both the titles, Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama were conferred by the Qing Dynasty.

In the past it has also said that the Kuomintang government played an important role in installing the 14th Dalai Lama in 1939, thereby leaving the room open for a future Chinese role.

Since the Panchen Lama identifies the re-incarnated Dalai Lama, China would like to hope that the ball is in its court -- but this might turn out to be wishful thinking.

Tibetans claim that the title Dalai Lama was offered by the Mongol King Altan Khan to Sonam Gyatso in 1578.

Dalai Lama is, in fact, a Mongol title meaning ''Ocean of Wisdom'' and is considered to be one of the innumerable incarnations of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

Tibetan scholars also point out that it was the Fifth Dalai Lama who conferred the title of Panchen Lama (meaning Great Scholar) to his teacher, the abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse in 1642.

Tibetan scholars also dismiss the clear claim that Panchen Lamas have a role to play in selecting the re-incarnate, saying that through history ''some Panchen Lamas played important roles, others had no role''.

There is an ongoing dispute as both the Dalai Lama and Chinese authorities back different candidates as the Panchen Lama.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama-recognised Panchen Lama who turned 17 years old this April, according to the Tibetan claim, ''is the youngest political prisoner'' detained (arbitrarily) since 1995 by the Chinese authorities.China, however, claims that ''he has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents''.

China recognises Gyaltsen Norbu as the Panchen Lama, whom Tibetans dismiss out of hand as ''Panchen Zuema'' -- which literally means ''fake Panchen''.

Notwithstanding re-incarnation woes, the smooth conduct of elections was a crucial step forward in the political configuration of the government in exile.

Ever since the TGE moved to Dharamsala in 1960, it established the Tibetan parliament in exile, named the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies.

Today, this Assembly consists of 46 members. U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo -- the three provinces of Tibet before it was dismembered by China and incorporated into neighbouring Chinese provinces -- elect 10 members each, while the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Kagyud, Sakya and Gelug, and the traditional Bon religion) elect two members each.

Three deputies are elected from North America and Europe and three distinguished members nominated by the Dalai Lama.In 1990, the Dalai Lama also introduced reforms in the exile administration, empowering the popularly elected Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies to elect the cabinet ministers of the TGE.

In 1991, the Assembly adopted a new democratic constitution, known as the Charter of Tibetans in Exile.

In 2001, the Dalai Lama announced his decision to hand over all administrative responsibilities of the exile administration to the directly-elected executive chief and parliament. Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, who was the first elected executive chief of the exile administration, formed a four-member cabinet in 2001.

He has been re-elected in the 2006 elections. The elections have institutionalised the democratic process, giving the exile community a say in their internal affairs. The Kashag (cabinet) today manages major departments such as Religion and Culture, Home, Finance, Education, Security, Health and Information and International Relations.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) also has three constitutional bodies: Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Audit Commission.

While the controversial assistance from the CIA has dried up since 1974, the exile community has not only managed to organise itself, but also institutionalise the democratic process as well as garner support from high-profile activists and sympathisers.

Thus far, the Dalai Lama has guided the direction of the struggle. His charisma as well as his political manoeuvring has ensured that the struggle for freedom has not withered.

By choosing to empower and strengthen the exile community, he has chosen to leave his indelible imprint on the future road map of a cause being greater than an individual.

Only time will tell.

Anurag Mohanty-Viswanath is a political scientist specialising in China affairs.