Fletcher Features

A Compelling Paradox? Tibetan Democracy in Exile

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), popularly referred to as the Tibetan government in exile, is an anomaly among exiled administrations in its adherence to democracy, according to the CTA’s political head, Lobsang Sangay. The most compelling argument for this political affiliation, he argues, is the mere fact of the existence of his elected position as “Sikyong.”

“The paradox of exile organizations is that they oppose authoritarian regimes, but are usually not democratic themselves,” Sangay said during a talk at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy last week. “This is not surprising—amongst those in exile, the emphasis is on unity of voice, thought and action. As a result, the movement looks up to one leader or figurehead.” 

That a Western-educated “outsider” like himself, with little on-the-ground involvement, could rise to the top post is itself an indicator of CTA’s meritocracy, Sangay argued.

During the talk, titled “Democracy in Exile: The Case for Tibet,” Sangay presented his argument for Tibet’s autonomy to a packed audience that included Fletcher Dean Stephen W. Bosworth, members of the faculty, students and journalists from international media outlets.

“The Administration poses no threat to Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy; all we are asking for is meaningful autonomy. In other words, there should not be a de facto application of laws framed in Beijing to Tibet” Sangay said. “Between 2002 and 2010, nine rounds of negotiation took place between both parties – we are constantly accused of pursuing the hidden ‘agenda of independence’ but this is a weak claim. We are ready to dissolve the government-in-exile the day we are granted such meaningful autonomy.”

The CTA is based in Dharamsala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India. For an exile movement, it is highly organized. Apart from the executive organ that Sangay heads, the Administration consists of legislative and judicial bodies that resemble the other two traditional pillars of government. The government has an education department that manages 70 schools in the region, a health ministry that oversees 60 clinics, and nearly 200 monasteries in addition to offices in Tibet, New York, Geneva, Tokyo and other cities. The CTA is accountable to Tibetans all over the world, said Sangay and is noted for its progressive features.

Since the 1970s, there has been a constant share of women representatives in the Tibetan legislature. “We got there much before Switzerland did,” joked Sangay.

Much of the structural features that now define the Tibetan administration should be attributed to the Dalai Lama’s vision and acumen, according to Sangay. “His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) was instrumental in creating a constitution for Tibet as early as 1973. In 1991, it was changed to a charter, but you would be surprised to know that it even lists the procedure to impeach the Dalai Lama,” he said.

During the talk, when asked why the Dalai Lama, if he sought democracy in exile, had taken nearly three decades to hold elections and appoint a political representative, Sangay responded that “Tibetans had not been ready” for the process until now.

“We have invested in non-violence and democracy for the last 50 years. The Tibetan administration in India could be a model for marginalized communities to follow,” asserted Sangay.

Sangay’s political acumen was evident as he sought to highlight the geostrategic importance of Tibet. The Tibetan plateau is home to a great many rivers, which have nourished civilizations not only in China but also the Indian subcontinent. If the region were to be granted autonomy, its administrators would respect its shared value and seek to protect natural resources from exploitation, said Sangay.

“The exile movement is committed to non-violence and democracy; we will pursue our goal of autonomy with dignity,” Sangay added, “and strive hard to attain the identity we seek.”

-- A Student Correspondent

View additional news coverage of Dr. Sangay's visit:

Central Tibetan Administration

Voice of America

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