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Election 2011: Reflections on the Tethong/Sangay Debate, Zurich

August 13, 2010

The Editorial Board
The Tibetan Political Review (TPR)
August 11, 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 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, he is being
encouraged to run by a circle of family and
friends. He said that he understands the gravity
and responsibility of the position of Kalon
Tripa. In our view, 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. In essence, he
seemed to be suggesting that his openness to
serving was tempered by his recognition that an
effective Kalon Tripa must have 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 recognize that Tethong’s
principle is one that is rooted in the Tibetan culture.

2. Sangay: A Western Approach of Open Competition

Sangay’s attitude toward political power appears
more Western, in the sense that he appears to
believe that power should be sought more
directly. He responded immediately following
Tethong’s statement about karma/merit, saying
that there is a joke in Dharamsala to the effect
that "I’m not running for Kalon Tripa but if I’m
elected I won’t say no." After the joke he added
his own position saying personally "I’m not
saying no" and then stoped right there, saying he
is joking. Coming on the heels of Tethong’s
statement, and taken in conjunction with what he
later said about running, it also is a relatively
clear criticism of Tethong’s traditional approach, or the “Dharamsala way”.

Later in the debate, Sangay spoke about his
desire to serve as a way of repaying his debt to
His Holiness and the Tibetan government. He added
that this service does not necessarily mean
heading the Tibetan government. He noted that he
plans to visit the Tibetan settlements in South
India to do a sort of "listening tour" to see if
he can make a difference by serving as Kalon Tripa.

This is something that is quite common in the
West before a politician officially launches
their campaign. For example, Hillary Clinton made
her famous "listening tour" of upstate New York
prior to running for Senate in 2000.

 From a Western perspective, the "listening tour"
is a good way for the potential candidate to
learn about constituents’ concerns, make sure the
candidate feels ready to jump into the political
arena, and to introduce themselves to the voters.
If used properly, it can be a positive tool to
develop better policies and make the politician
more accessible and accountable.

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 was asked a question about President
Obama’s lack of experience. The objective
observer will recognize that this is an indirect
way of asking Sangay to comment on the possible
criticism that he himself is too young and
inexperienced for the role of Kalon Tripa. Sangay
responded 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."

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 ought to
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 ("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. To be clear, neither candidate
was asked specifically what their criteria are.
Rather, the analysis below is our best effort to
determine these criteria based on the points the candidates emphasized.

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: the "Five Pillars" and "Education, Education, Education"

Unlike Tethong’s broad approach, Sangay’s
approach showed an affinity for numbers that no
doubt reflects his legal training, which stresses
categorization and precision. Again, this
reflects his particular analytical style noted above.

He presented five relationships in which the next
Kalon Tripa should excel, which he likened to the
"five pillars" or "five fingers." In this view,
an important criterion for choosing the next
Kalon Tripa is how well that person manages the "five pillars."

Specifically, the "five pillars" are the
relationship of the Tibetan government with (1)
the international community, (2) Tibet, (3)
China, (4) India, and (5) the Tibetan
settlements.   Sangay said modestly that he has
done some work on areas 1 through 4. He also said
later that he grew up in a settlement so he has knowledge about 5.

In our view, Sangay’s best claim to expertise is
with respect to #3 (China). This is due to the
six Track II conferences he has organized at
Harvard, most recently in 2007 (disclosure: two
of the TPR editors have participated). In these
dialogues, he has leveraged the "Harvard name" to
promote a dialogue with Chinese scholars and
officials who might otherwise not attend. He has
also undertaken a series of public debates with
Chinese scholars such as Hu Xiaojiang, a
well-connected researcher on migration patterns in Tibet.

We would like to hear more from Sangay about #2
(Tibet). He has had dealings with certain
officials from Tibet through the Harvard
conferences, but what of the non-elite?  This is
not to say that another candidate is better in
this category, but we would like to hear from Sangay on this.

We would also like to hear more about Sangay’s
thoughts on #1 (the international community).
Does he have new ideas for taking the Tibetan
struggle onto the global stage?  We are
cautiously optimistic that Sangay has been
exposed to global currents and new ideas in
Cambridge; we would like to see specifics.

We have concerns about Sangay’s experience on #4
(India). Having spent the past roughly eight
years in the United States, and before that being
quite young, this is perhaps a weak point. Other
candidates will be stronger in their
relationships with the powers in India, the
Tibetan government’s most important ally. On the
other hand, those candidates will not necessarily
have Sangay’s other qualities, so voters may have to weigh and balance.

Lastly, we would also like to hear more from
Sangay on #5 (the settlements) beyond the fact
that he grew up there, and eats dal and tingmo
(and is presumably therefore a man of the
people). What, specifically, are his policy positions?

Sangay also made an interesting comment that the
top agenda item for the next Kalon Tripa should
be education, education, education, education,
education ("sheyon, sheyon, sheyon, sheyon,
sheyon"). At first take, we thought that he was
saying that education should determine the best
person for the job.  He somewhat confusingly
stated, "Whoever becomes Kalon Tripa, the most
important is education." However, it became clear
that Sangay was instead stating that advancing
education in the Tibetan community is a critical task.

In this statement, we agree.  TPR’s compiled
questions for the Kalon Tripa candidates includes
a question on how the candidate intends to
improve education in the Tibetan schools. We
would like to hear Sangay’s ideas on this, or
more generally on advancing education in the community more broadly.

It is a laudable but tall job to push an agenda
of "education." It also opens a host of specific
questions that should be answered. For example,
how to combine the best the world has to offer
with a respect for Tibetan tradition?  It is as
Gandhi once said: one can open the window to the
winds of the world, while refusing to be swept off one’s feet.

Similarly, a curriculum of "education" calls for
a corresponding curriculum of "ethics," which in
our case comes best from our Tibetan cultural
traditions.  As 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."

This is a worthy task, but a large one.  We would
like to hear how Sangay proposes to carry it out,
and whom he might call upon to lead his
Sherig/Education Department in this complex task.


We hope these analyses are useful for the voters.
It is clear looking back that Sangay’s more
detail-focused approach provides far more
material to analyze, for better or for
worse.  Conversely, Tethong’s broader approach,
while perhaps reflective of a different
temperament and training, provides less in the way of specifics to critique.

As election day draws closer, all candidates
should be called upon to provide more concrete
policy proposals and ideas. Sangay, notably, will
have a head start on his competitors in this
regard. 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.

* Note: This editorial has been revised to
reflect a translation error in the original. The
editors apologize for their mistake, and have
instituted a triple-checking policy for future
translations. We have also added additional
detail to our reporting of what the candidates
said, in order to further illustrate the reasons
why this editorial makes the conclusions it does.
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