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Thoughts on Electing the Next Tibetan Leader

October 21, 2009

Bhuchung K. Tsering
The International Campaign for Tibet Blog (ICT)
October 19, 2009

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) works
to promote human rights and democratic freedoms
for the people of Tibet. Therefore, we have
always been interested in the democratic
experiment that the Tibetans in exile have been
undergoing for the past nearly 50 years.

Very soon, the Tibetans in exile will take yet
another step forward when they begin preparation
for the election of the Kalon Tripa, the Chairman
of the Tibetan Cabinet. Until 2001, this position
was nominated and appointed by His Holiness the
Dalai Lama. In 2001, at the expressed desire of
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people
in exile began to directly elect the Kalon Tripa.

There is some discussion among the Tibetans in
diaspora, mostly on the internet, about possible
candidates for the next Kalon Tripa and the
significance of the upcoming elections to the
position, taking place in 2011, to the Tibetan
movement. The present Kalon Tripa, Prof. Samdhong
Rinpoche, completes his second term by then and
the Charter of the Tibetans in exile does not
permit a third continued term for any one
individual. Also, Rinpoche himself is on record
as saying that the Tibetan people need to look
for another person, ideally younger, to be the next Kalon Tripa.

Ever since the promulgation of the Tibetan
Charter in Exile, the position of the Chairman of
the Tibetan Cabinet, i.e., the Kalon Tripa, has
achieved a legally higher profile in the Tibetan
governmental system in exile than in the past.
This has been further strengthened by His
Holiness the Dalai Lama’s regular assertion that
he is “semi-retired” and that the Kalon Tripa is
the “Boss” when it comes to Tibetan politics. In
a way, the direction of the Tibetan movement,
including the future of the Tibetan community in
exile, for the next decade or so from 2011, may
be determined by whoever occupies the position.

Therefore, among the comparatively politically
aware Tibetans there is growing interest,
concern, apprehension and optimism about the next
Kalon Tripa. In fact, there is a website
dedicated to highlighting possible candidates to
the position. Various possible names are also
being bandied about on Tibet-related websites and blogs.

While these are earnest and laudable efforts, it
is my contention that the Tibetan people need to
restructure the focus of their thinking in order
to find a good answer to the issue of the next
Kalon Tripa. Instead of trying to look for
possible candidates first, there needs to be a
public discourse, followed by a possible
consensus, about the responsibilities of the
Kalon Tripa. If people try looking at the
candidates first based solely on their individual
expectations they may never find a suitable
candidate. Not one individual out there will have
all the criteria that people may think the
position should have. However, if there is a
broad consensus on the responsibilities first,
then any and every candidate that may come up
would be clear on what he or she should be
focusing on when in office in 2011. This may be a
more practical and pragmatic approach. I am
saying this while being aware that the Tibetan
Charter does outline the role of the Kalon Tripa
within the democratic system in exile. But I
think the need of the time, the political
situation (both Tibetan and international), and
the recent statements by the Dalai Lama all
indicate that Tibetans should take a fresh look
at, if not redefine, the responsibilities of the
position to really prepare the Tibetan people for
the long run. This would mean the
next Kalon Tripa will have to alter his or her priorities.

In order to consider what the responsibilities of
the Tibetan leader should be, the Tibetan people
need to look at the position’s current
responsibilities, which can be divided into two
broad categories: i) administering the Tibetan
community in exile, which includes looking after
the various institutions that deal with the
socio-economic, cultural and educational needs of
the people; and ii) providing political leadership to the Tibetan people.

I believe that the next Kalon Tripa needs to
devote himself or herself primarily to the
responsibility of providing political leadership
to the Tibetan people. Although the
administration of the community in exile is
important, the day-to-day management can be
assigned to an appointed professional official
who is well versed in such a task. The next Kalon
Tripa should devote his or her time and effort to
the consolidation of the Tibetan community,
becoming their spokesperson and look into
creation of a system providing a continuation of leadership.

There are three main ways to implement this provision of political leadership.

First, the position needs to understand that the
basis of the Tibetan people’s support to the
leadership currently is the historical role of
the institution of the Dalai Lamas. The next
Kalon Tripa needs to work on a strategy to
continuing this relationship and to strengthen
the institution to prepare for any and all eventualities.

Secondly, the Kalon Tripa needs to be the seen as
the leader of all Tibetans and not just of the
hundred thousand or so Tibetans in exile. The
strength of the Tibetan leadership under His
Holiness the Dalai Lama today is that it enjoys
the loyalty and support of the broad majority of
Tibetans who are in Tibet. The millions of
Tibetans in Tibet have shown this in different
ways, time and again. The next Kalon Tripa needs
to find creative ways to strengthen this special
bond between the Tibetan people and the leadership.

Thirdly, the next Kalon Tripa needs to clearly
comprehend the reality of the position in terms
of relationship with the international community
and the governments throughout the world,
including that of India. Accordingly, he or she
needs to come up with a strategy to secure the
formal or de facto acceptance by the governments
as a spokesman for the Tibetan people. He or she
needs to be able to stand on his or her own feet
(think beyond the structure of Dharamsala) and be
recognized as being on the helms of the Tibetan
leadership by the international community.

The Tibetan people need public discussions along
the above lines first, as this has implications for the long-term future.
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