Testimony of Eva Herzer, Tibet Justice Center (Berkeley, CA), at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing on Tibet in Washington DC, on December 6, 2001.
In 1949, when China militarily invaded Tibet, Tibet was a theocratic state and China was in the throws of an idealistic communist revolution. Today, Chinese and Tibetans inside Tibet live under totalitarian Chinese rule, while Tibetans who fled into exile have developed a thriving democratic form of government. Unlike many of the democracies established in the 20th Century, the Tibetan democracy in exile was not imposed by a foreign power or gained through a popular uprising. Rather, it was strongly promoted by Tibet’s traditional supreme leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and voluntarily established by the Tibetan people at his initiative. The Tibetan democracy has evolved gradually over the past 40 years and has been guided not only by the principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also by Tibetan cultural values.
The Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), formally known as the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is a continuation of the legitimate government of Tibet which was in effect prior to China’s invasion. It was established by His Holiness in 1959, upon his flight from Tibet. The seat of this government is Dharamsala, India. The purpose of the exile government, from the outset, was two-fold: To restore freedom inside Tibet and to promote the welfare of the Tibetan refugee population. Both of these tasks have proven to be formidable, given the political obstacles to Tibetan freedom, the continuing influx of thousands of refugees every year and given the limited financial means of the exile government. Yet, this government has risen to the tasks at hand in an amazingly successful way. It has lead the political struggle of the Tibetan people, provided for over 130,000 refugees and worked tirelessly to preserve Tibet’s ancient culture.
At the same time it has developed a participatory democracy for the first time in Tibet’s history. The TGIE operates in accordance with a constitution, known as the Charter of Tibetans in Exile, which was drafted by a constitutional assembly and adopted by the exile parliament. The Charter appoints His Holiness as the head of the Tibetan nation and provides for independent executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.
In 1960, the Tibetan parliament in exile was created, which today is known as the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD). The number of parliamentarians has grown to 46 over the years. Of these, 10 are elected from each of the three traditional Tibetan provinces; two members are elected from each of the five religious lineages and three members are elected by Tibetans residing in the North America and Europe. Additionally, His Holiness nominates three outstanding members of the Tibetan society to the Assembly. The proportionate representation in terms of religion and geographic origin reflect Tibetans’ strong identification with their religion and the importance they accord to regional balance (Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang). The Assembly has broad legislative and budgetary powers. It communicates with its constituents through Local Assemblies in over 50 Tibetan settlements, disbursed throughout India and Nepal.
Elections take place in two phases and are overseen by an Election Commission. The electoral system is adapted to Tibetan cultural values, which promote humility and regard self-promotion negatively. Thus, in the first phase, candidates do not run for office, but rather voters suggest candidates. Those who are nominated most are then asked by the Election Commission to declare their candidacy and stand for election in a second round of voting. Some of this, however, appears to be in the process of changing, since one political party for the first time last year promoted a slate of candidates during the first phase of the election.
The Assembly continues to be in the process of increasing its effectiveness. For example, in 1997, the Chair of the Assembly was concerned that legislation was technically not drafted well enough. After discussing this matter with the Tibet Justice Center it was decided that the Assembly required legislative counsel to assure quality legislation in the future. The Tibet Justice Center thereupon developed and funded a three year training program for legislative counsel, adapted to the needs of the Tibetan Assembly. The Assembly’s Chair selected two Tibetans to receive the training. The two trainees just completed two years of study in India and are expected to arrive shortly in the United States for their third year of training. Such efforts on the part of the Tibetan Assembly clearly show its earnest commitment to the democratic process.
The executive branch of the TGIE is known as the Kashag, or council of ministers. Initially, these ministers were appointed by His Holiness. Over the years, His Holiness has actively sought to lessen his role in the government in an effort to strengthen the Tibetan democracy. In 1990, His Holiness requested that the Assembly elect the Kashag. At the time, this was a radical proposal because most Tibetans did not want to see His Holiness’s role lessened, as they continue to have utmost faith in him as their leader. His Holiness, on the other hand, has great faith in democracy and realizes that the traditional system of political leadership, based on reincarnation, is not suited to the current conditions because his death could create a potentially fatal power vacuum in the Tibetan society. Thus, between 1990 and 2001, the Kashag was elected by the Assembly from among candidates nominated by His Holiness. In turn, the eight ministers, named Kalons, elected a Chief Kalon from their own rank. In the late 1990s, His Holiness made further proposals to strengthen the Kashag. He suggested that the Chief Kalon, as the chief executive officer, be directly elected by the Tibetan people. After several years of discussion the Assembly adopted His Holiness’s proposal earlier this year. The Chief Kalon position, called Kalon Tripa, is now the equivalent of what we might call a Prime Minister. Having that person chosen by popular election represents a major shift in the Tibetan political landscape. Up to now, the only person who enjoyed clear and undisputed leadership status in the Tibetan society was His Holiness. Now, with a popularly elected Chief Kalon, a democratically elected political leadership position has been created. To strengthen the Chief Kalon position further, the Assembly approved a change, which allows the Chief Kalon to select his cabinet of ministers, subject to parliamentary approval.
The first election for Kalon Tripa was most remarkable. As in elections for the Assembly, in the first phase of the election voters nominated candidates. One person, Samdhong Lobsang Tenzin, better known as Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, made an unequivocal public statement prior to the election that he was not available as a candidate. After two terms as Chair of the Assembly, he made it clear that he intended to retire from political life. Yet when the initial election results were announced, it was Samdhong Rinpoche who received 82 percent of the vote. Samdhong Rinpoche, a monk and highly respected scholar of Sanskrit and philosophy, is known as a strong proponent of Gandhi’s strategy of active non-violence. He was astounded by the initial election results. During the final election he went on retreat in the South of India and was unreachable by the media, clearly not a campaign style that would produce results in the United States! To give you a sense of who this remarkable man is, let me read from his acceptance speech delivered after he was formally elected Kalon Tripa in the second round with 84″ of the vote:
“As you all know, I served the exile Tibetan…community in various capacities for four decades… Although I served to the best of my ability under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was not at all satisfied with my contribution. Then, my age and numerous other factors led me to a decision not to assume rank or position in the exile establishment…Thereafter, as I set out to lead a reclusive life in order to begin my efforts for the cause of non-violence, I was informed against all my anticipations that an unexpectedly large number of voters had nominated me as a candidate for the Chairperson of the Kashag…I was incredulous and filled with anxiety. In a democracy, every citizen has the fundamental right to either contest elections or to withdraw one’s name from the nomination. In line with this, I desired to withdraw my name and stick to my earlier decision. This is why I did not respond when the Tibetan Election Commission requested me to send my resume and photograph.
Meanwhile, I received a large number of…requests from most exile Tibetan communities, telling me that it would not be right to withdraw my name. A number of messages to this effect came from Tibet as well…… This moved me very deeply, forcing me to contemplate the matter more thoroughly. I normally believe that if there were a clash of interests between a large number of people and a few, it should be the majority’s will that must prevail……As I thought over this matter more closely, I realized that if I ignored the will of over 30,000 voters and insisted on exercising my own right….. I would be acting against my own belief. I also realized that my refusal to participate in the election would deal a blow to the very first democratic exercise of this kind……. It was thus that I abandoned my earlier plan and participated in the election. I have now assumed this responsibility, following the final election’s mandate…. It is, of course, a mammoth responsibility. However…. I will bear this responsibility as an opportunity to serve the Tibetan people and His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a critical juncture when the Tibetan identity is under the threat of extinction. I have made a firm commitment to toil sincerely and selflessly. Whether I am able to produce results or not is another matter.”
This new leader clearly enjoys an overwhelming popular mandate and has the stature, experience and capacity to lead the TGIE though the challenges ahead. To what extent he will propose changes in policy is not yet known, though it is clear that he intends to expand and strengthen the non-violent strategies of the Tibetan movement. Very importantly, the position of a directly elected Chief Kalon, with the power to form his or her own cabinet of ministers, is now institutionalized and thus lessens the Tibetans’ dependency on the continued leadership of His Holiness. It should also be noted that HH, earlier this year, requested to turn over all of his political responsibilities to the Chief Kalon and the Assembly. This, however, has not yet occurred because both the Assembly and the Chief Kalon have asked HH to reconsider his request.
The third branch of the TGIE, the judiciary, is known as the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission. The Commission is headed by a Chief Justice Commissioner and two Associate Justice Commissioners. While Tibetans living in India are subject to Indian law, the Justice Commission bases its jurisdiction on India’s arbitration law, which allows civil disputes to be decided by arbitrators chosen by the disputants. In this case, Tibetans choose the Supreme Justice Commission as arbitrator. In the past five years the Commission has promulgated rules of procedure and evidence. It has already ruled for the first time on the constitutionality, under the Charter, of an act of the Assembly, finding that the manner in which the Assembly promulgated certain election rules violated the Charter. In 1998, the Tibet Justice Center coordinated a tour of the Chief Justice Commissioner to the United States, where he met with judges, law professors and attorneys to discuss the advantages of different systems of judicial administration. Over the next years the court is expected to establish local justice commissions in the Tibetan settlements.
Democracy, of course, does not depend only on its institutions but also on popular participation. In the first years of exile, the exile population, which did not have a tradition of participatory democracy, tended to defer to His Holiness’s judgment. His Holiness, for at least the last three decades, strongly encouraged political debate and explicitly urged Tibetans to express their disagreements with his views. This has been a slow but evolving process, due to the utmost respect Tibetans have for His Holiness, and their hesitancy to disagree with their spiritual and political leader. Part of that evolution has been the growth of Tibetan NGOs, such as the very active Youth Congress, the Women’s Association and regional bodies, as well as the development of the National Tibetan Democratic Party. Very importantly, the Tibetan media has grown tremendously over the years and now consists of at least six major Tibetan and four English language publications. This has contributed greatly to the spirit of often heated political discussions.
The most controversial political topic is by far that of Tibet’s political future: Independence versus autonomy. Since 1988, His Holiness has proposed a political solution with China, which would provide Tibetans substantial self-governance within the framework of the Chinese state. Many Tibetans strongly disagree with His Holiness’s request for a political status less than independence. His Holiness’s proposal gave rise to two important tasks: One, for the TGIE to clearly define what kind of an autonomy it is proposing for Tibet, and two, to further an educated discourse in the Tibetan community on this issue. In order to assist with the first task, the Tibet Justice Center conducted a study of 34 autonomous regions around the world and systematically analyzed how governmental powers are divided between the autonomous and state governments in those areas. The goal of this study was not to suggest any particular model of autonomy for Tibet, but rather to provide Tibetans with information on how other peoples have achieved self-governance short of independence. Tibet Justice Center presented this study in 1999 in New Delhi to Tibetan ministers, parliamentarians and NGO leaders at a conference organized by the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Center. After this conference, which thoroughly examined the possibilities and dangers inherent in autonomous arrangements, the TGIE established a governmental task force to work on a detailed proposal for autonomy.
Many Tibetans who are not part of the government reject autonomy outright, due to the dismal example of the current Tibet Autonomous Region, without understanding that autonomous arrangement vary tremendously depending on the allocation of governmental powers and their legal framework. On the other hand, some Tibetans support an autonomous arrangement simply because His Holiness has proposed it, without having a clear understanding of the options inherent in various forms of autonomy. As a result, much of the debate about autonomy versus independence in the past has been lacking in informed understanding. After consultations with His Holiness and Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, the Tibet Justice Center, together with the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Center developed a community training program on autonomous arrangements in order to stimulate community discussions and to help generate well informed discourse between the community and its political representatives. As a result, we held two 3-day training sessions for over 60 Tibetan teachers and settlement officers last fall in New Delhi, training these participants to lead workshops in their respective communities. These sessions were extremely well received. Most participants stated that they had no clear understanding of the options inherent in autonomy before the workshop and that the training, for the first time, had enabled them to truly understand and evaluate autonomy proposals. A similar training session was scheduled to be held in Bangalore in September of this year but had to be postponed due to the events of September 11.
In conclusion, the TGIE is a unique model of how a freedom movement and the development of a participatory democracy can go hand in hand. Combined with the Tibetans’ commitment to a path of non-violence, their freedom struggle could clearly be a model for peoples around the world for how to achieve self-governance in conformity with internationally accepted norms. In this time of terror and incomprehensible violence, should we not ask ourselves why the international community has not supported the Tibetan freedom struggle more decisively through actions, rather than mere words and occasional gestures of aid? We, at the Tibet Justice Center, feel that our government and the international community must not only actively oppose terrorism but that it must actively promote freedom struggles which take the path of non-violence and democracy. Were we to invest the amount of political and financial resources we spend in fighting violence, in supporting non-violent and democratic struggles, we would surely better protect our own interests and contribute more efficiently to peace internationally. In this spirit, I respectfully urge all of you to use your resources to the fullest extent possible to support the TGIE’s goal of achieving a negotiated solution for genuine Tibetan self-governance.