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Reflections on the Tethong/Sangay Debate, Zurich

August 7, 2010

The Tibetan Political Review
August 6, 2010

The best way to see the difference between two
choices is to hold them up together.  The Zurich
debate in April between two prominent potential
Kalon Tripa candidates, Lobsang Sangay and Tenzin
Namgyal Tethong, shows stark differences.

Four key differences between the two gentlemen are:
     (1) Attitude toward political power
     (2) Experience
     (3) Analytical style, and
     (4) Their view of the main criteria for choosing the next Kalon Tripa.


The candidates’ attitude toward political power
revealed their most stark difference.  While
Tenzin Namgyal-la’s standpoint seemed rooted in
Tibetan cultural norms of leadership as a
humbling responsibility, Lobsang Sangay-la took a
more Western-oriented idea that political power should be openly sought.

1.  Tethong: A Traditional Approach of Leadership as Service

Tethong noted that he is not formally running as
a candidate for Kalon Tripa.  Rather, others are
encouraging him to run and he is tentatively
responding to those calls.  This outlook is
rooted in the Tibetan attitude that one should
not seek power for one’s own aggrandizement, but
rather one should serve when called for.

Tethong’s attitude is, perhaps, because of his
previous experience as Kalon Tripa, when he
served at the calling of His
Holiness.  Incidentally this attitude is shared
by other Tibetan leaders like Samdhong Rinpoche,
who was the first directly-elected Kalon Tripa
despite his assertion that he did not in fact
want the job.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama even
says that the institution of the Dalai Lama will
exist only as long as the Tibetan people consider it useful.

Furthermore, we were struck by Tethong’s comment
that one's ability to fulfill the Kalon Tripa
role is not dependent solely on one's belief that
one is ready to serve.  Rather, because one is
serving His Holiness, one must also have the
requisite karma and merit ("ley dang
sonam").  Someone lacking this requisite
karma/merit may end up as a “useless person” ("mi
phen-tho-ya may-pa").   Tethong did not claim
that he had the requisite karma/merit.

We may not be in a position to judge who does or
does not have adequate karma/merit to serve His
Holiness and the Tibetan people in this vital
role.  However, we do agree with Tethong’s
general principle that is rooted in Tibetan culture.

2.  Sangay: A Western Approach of Open Competition

Sangay’s attitude toward political power appears
more Western.  He is open about his desire to be
the next Kalon Tripa. His statements throughout
the debate presented himself as a candidate,
without caveat or disclaimer.  In fact, he joked
or possibly made fun that Tethong is saying: “I’m
not running but I’m not refusing to run either.”

There is nothing inherently right or wrong with
the Tibetan or Western attitude towards political
power. We point out the difference between the
two candidates’ attitudes to illustrate their differing views.


1.  Tethong: Experienced, but Needs to Explain His Accomplishments

Tethong was modest in describing his past
experience.  This was possibly because he feels
he has nothing to prove, as he has already served
for example as Kalon Tripa, kalon of several
portfolios, and co-founder of institutions such
as the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and the
International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

Tethong, however, did not address his concrete
accomplishments as Kalon Tripa. It is one thing
to have held a position and quite another to have
held it well.  What did he do as Kalon
Tripa?  What did he learn in that role?  What
would he do differently?  We encourage Tethong to
elaborate on his specific accomplishments.

Skeptics may ask whether Tethong’s roles in TYC
and ICT indicate a pattern of setting things up
and then moving on. Why didn’t he stay to work in
these institutions?  It is important for Tethong to address this.

Another perspective on these experiences is the
possibility of being defined as someone who is
"locked into old ways of doing things."  It’s
true that prudent leaders have a respect for
precedent.  On the other hand, there is sometimes
a need to change.  We call on Tethong to address
the need to break with the past when necessary.

2.  Sangay: Evading the Question of Experience

Sangay responded to the possible criticism that
he is too young and inexperienced for the role of
Kalon Tripa by pointing out that Bill Clinton and
George W. Bush defeated their more experienced
opponents.  He also said that Songtsen Gampo
united Tibet at a young age, and mentioned other
leaders such as Alexander the Great, Barack
Obama, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln, who were all relatively young.

Sangay’s analogies missed the point.  Before
becoming president, Clinton and Bush were state
governors. Obama was a state legislator and U.S.
senator.  Kennedy was a naval officer, U.S.
congressman, and U.S. senator.  Lincoln was a
state legislator and U.S. congressman.  These
leaders all climbed the ladder of political
experience, rather than simply leaping to the top, as Sangay implied.

Skeptics may point out that the position of Kalon
Tripa is the pinnacle of the Tibetan
government.  In this view, to be Kalon Tripa
requires "climbing the ladder of political
experience."  It is not to be used as a training
ground or as a stepping stone for one's aspirations.

Additionally, a casual listener might believe
Sangay was, in fact, comparing himself with
Songtsen Gampo and Alexander the Great.  It is
probably a sign of his political inexperience
that he made such a twistable statement.

If this were American politics, there would be a
serious price to pay for making such a bold
comparison. Likely, Sangay would be accused of
arrogance and even of having delusions of
grandeur.  While this may not be fair, it is how
politics is played in the “big leagues.”  We
believe running for Kalon Tripa demands one to be
ready for the “big leagues” and Sangay might be
more careful before making such statements in the future.

The larger point is, Sangay avoided the question
about his experience to serve as the highest
elected Tibetan leader.  We call on him to answer this directly.


The debate showed that the two candidates take a
rather different approach to problem-solving.
While Tethong takes a broad and philosophical
approach, Sangay takes a specific and examples-driven one.

In discussing the nature of Tibetan democracy,
Tethong took a broad view.  He noted that
democracy is philosophically about shifting power
from a monarch to the people.  He said that
democracy is not simply about numbers, but about
the right of all people to participate in their own governance.

Sangay, on the other hand, critiqued the Tibetan
electorate by pointing out that Tibetan elections
had never achieved 50% participation, and
questioned whether this is really democracy.  He
said that the Tibetan system is poor or
substandard (“kyobo”) compared with the higher
voter participations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


It was interesting how both candidates described
what they see as the most important criteria for
choosing the next Kalon Tripa. Not surprisingly,
they both emphasized factors that might go to their advantage.

1.  Tethong: Karma/Merit and Experience

Tethong’s position is that an important criterion
for choosing the next Kalon Tripa is karma/merit.
This is may be correct but mere mortals find it
hard to measure or judge this factor!  Of course,
Tethong did not claim to have any special karma/merit.

Perhaps the best proxy for karma/merit is the
person’s ethical integrity.  Ethics is and should
be a key factor to have in our next Kalon
Tripa.  We do not presume to judge either
candidate’s ethics, but encourage voters to discuss this topic.

Tethong also implied that experience is an
important criterion.  True.  This, though, must
be accompanied by openness to initiate necessary changes.

2.  Sangay: "Knowledge, Knowledge, Knowledge"

Sangay seems clear that his sole criterion for
the next Kalon Tripa is "knowledge, knowledge,
knowledge" ("shenyun, shenyun, shenyun").

He should clarify what he means.  What kind of
knowledge?  A string of facts by itself is
useless. Theoretically, someone can have a
specialized academic degree in a narrow topic but
lack the ability to lead in the real
world.   There needs to be more substance and demonstrated leadership ability.

Additionally, we believe the criterion should not
be knowledge but rather wisdom
(sherab/namchoe/lodoe). Sangay’s focus on
knowledge (shenyun) misses this larger
perspective.  Knowledge is but one part of
wisdom, which also requires experience and ethics.

Experience gives one context in which to place individual facts.

Knowledge and ethics are interrelated.  One can
say that ethics without knowledge is feeble.  On
the other hand, His Holiness has said many times
that knowledge without goodness or ethics is
dangerous.  For example, His Holiness noted, "the
smart brain must be balanced with a warm heart, a
good heart - a sense of responsibility, of
concern for the well-being of others."    The
unity of both knowledge and ethics leads towards wisdom.
In conclusion, we hope these analyses are useful
for the voters.  The voters should seek
candidates who best combine experience,
knowledge, ethics, and vision. Whether that
candidate is Tethong, Sangay or someone else is the voters’ decision.

* By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political
Review (  As the
2011 Kalon Tripa election nears, Tibetans need to
seriously evaluate the candidates so that their
decision is well-informed.  The Editorial Board
has not committed to supporting any
candidate.  In order to further the spirit of
democratic debate, we plan to comment on and
critique the policy platforms of the individuals
nominated as Kalon Tripa candidates, toughly but
fairly.  We do this not as any sort of "experts" but simply as Tibetans.
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