The formal swearing-in ceremony in Dharamsala on 27 May 2016, of Lobsang Sangay, re-elected as “Sikyong” or political leader of Tibetans in exile, marked the end of the second elections to the post since the Dalai Lama handed over political authority in March 2011. These elections attracted notice, though, because they revealed the divisive differences simmering within the Tibetan diaspora. The Dalai Lama’s undiminished influence over the Tibetan people was at the same time demonstrated when he intervened to temper campaign rhetoric. His presence at the swearing-in ceremony endorsed the election process and indicated confidence in the 48-year old Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay.
The recent elections to choose the Sikyong and 45 members of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, brought differences and discontent to the surface. Extant ferment among exiled Tibetans was exacerbated by personality clashes, factional and regional rivalries and apparent generational differences among competing politicians, with a section of younger Tibetans questioning the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach. The development has the potential to weaken cohesiveness of the Tibetan community in exile. It will also aid China’s persistent efforts to undermine the influence of the present Dalai Lama, sow division among the different Tibetan Buddhist sects, and facilitate acceptance by them of the next Dalai Lama who the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership in Beijing has declared it would appoint. At least three Tibetan Buddhist sects have till now shown an inclination to engage with China.
The first sign of trouble was the rumour that spread after the first round of elections in October 2015, when largely younger supporters of pro-Independence (“Rangzen”) candidate, Lukar Jam, claimed that the counting had been rigged. There was, however, no questioning the immense lead obtained by Lobsang Sangay or the “Speaker” Penpa Tsering. The Central Tibetan Administration had, on its part, ensured that the elections provided a platform to candidates representing differing viewpoints including the “Rangzen”, or pro-independence group.
There were other indicators of discontent. A set of new rules announced by the Tibetan Election Commission on 19 October 2015 for selecting candidates for final voting for the post of Sikyong in March 2016, prompted objections. Within a month, 52 Tibetans living in various countries questioned the rules and said if the independent Election Commission does not follow the rule of law it sets a bad precedent for Tibetan democracy and can “lead to rule by the people in power and authority in future”.
Within weeks, 27 long-time, foreign-based, Tibet supporters expressed reservations about the Tibetan electoral process. They accused the Tibetan Election Commission of “politicising” the process and opening the possibility of “behind-the-scenes manipulation for political purposes”. Pertinently, their letter warned that the financial assistance and support extended by Tibet Supporters and Tibet Support Groups around the world should not be taken for granted. Their public initiative remains inexplicable.
There were other more direct signs of dissatisfaction. On 28 February 2016, Dicky Chhoyang, a Canadian citizen of Tibetan descent, stepped down as Kalon (minister) and issued a statement implicitly critical of Lobsang Sangay.
Later, 77-year-old Prof Samdong Rimpoche, a widely respected Tibetan Buddhist monk and first elected head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, expressed disappointment at the trend of the elections and decided to “boycott” them. He regretted that the election process was moving away from the ideals of a party-less democracy, which did not “involve competition or opposition” and that “representatives are involved in opposing each other through their individual campaigns”. He observed “the exiled government is not heading in the right direction”.
Soon thereafter on 4 April 2016, the State Oracle of Tibet, Nechung Choegyal and Deity Tsering Chenga (Tashi Tseringma) reprimanded the CTA’s top hierarchy for their conduct during the elections. Two days later, the CTA’s two-term Minister for Security, Dongchung Ngodup, resigned. Though Dongchung Ngodup told reporters “it was a personal decision” and not due to differences or disappointment with the present Kashag, his resignation prompted speculation that it was another expression of lack of confidence in the Sikyong.
China closely monitored these elections. On 9 March, Zhu Weiqun, presently chairman of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), described “the developments of the Tibetan exile polity as being a society engaged in infighting and fragmented along the lines of various social diversities”. The Dalai Lama too, in his keynote speech at the swearing-in on 27 May, cautioned against the sharpening factional and regional rivalries. Such developments could hamper the emergence of a popularly elected leadership possessing the moral authority to guide the exiled Tibetan community through what is likely to be a difficult period of transition ahead.
For the Tibetans, who have been steadfast in their religious belief for centuries despite extreme adversity and hostile terrain, the Dalai Lama’s intervention would have given pause for thought.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.