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After the Dalai Lama: Tibetan Democracy

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The Tibetans may be the first people who got something like a democracy before even getting a country, which they may never get. After the Dalai Lama who for 60 years has been a symbol of their national cause, announced that he was going to resign from his post of a political leader of the government in exile, the Tibetans voted for a leader of their own for the first time. Eventually, this is the 42 year old Harward alumnus Lobsang Sangay who got 55% of the vote. The election itself was rather strange... It took place on March 2 and the large-scale organisation of the event included TIbetans living in 30 different countries. Almost 83400 exiles had the right to vote, and over 49000 ballots were cast. In China itself of course no vote took place. So in the end, Sangay won over his rivals Tenzin Tethong who collected 37.4% and Tashi Wangdi with 6.4%.

One of Sangay's nicknames is the Tibetan Obama. He is called like that because he is young, energetic, ambitious and he brings hope for a better future. On the one side, he is the first freely elected leader of the Tibetans and the expectations are naturally excessively big. He will step into office as prime-minister in exile in August. Until now this post used to belong to the Dalai Lama, who in practice used to take all important political decisions - he had the right to pass laws, convene and dismiss parliament, fire and hire ministers and appoint referenda. In principle the prime-minister of Tibet is a position which has been in place since 2001 but until now he did not have any significant jurisdiction because most functions were in the hands of the Dalai Lama. But this will change soon because the spiritual leader wants his political functions to be only symbolic and to focus entirely on his role as a religious figure, which he intends to keep playing to his last day.

The purpose of the resignation of the Dalai Lama is to modernise and democratise the Tibetan political system which is an anachronistic remnant from a theocratic past amidst a predominantly secular modern world.

But this does not mean that he would stop traveling around the world as a spiritual leader. As a Dalai Lama he will continue to advocate the Tibetan interests and he will be the face of the Tibetan struggle for civil rights, although not in the quality of a political figure. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso has stated many times that the Tibetans need a leader who is freely elected by them, someone he could handle his political functions to, someone outside of Chinese control. The Dalai Lama also emphasised the importance of a democratic government which could function autonomously without his instruction. And his concerns have their reasoning, because the Panchen Lama who usually selects the new Dalai Lama incarnate has disappeared several years ago and is probably held by the Chinese, and a new one has taken his place.

For many Tibetans the resignation of their religious leader as the head of government in exile is a shocking and painful change. After all, Tibet has always been ruled by a Dalai Lama...

Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected prime-minister of the Tibetan government in Dharamsala will be leading the 145 thousand exiles. He will be a leader with no territory, no military force and no international recognition, who will have a huge opponent in China, one with no desire for compromise. The new leader will have to deal with the hard task to come out of the shade of the Dalai Lama and build his own authority.

Although in his youth he joined the radical Tibetan Youth Congress which was fighting for full independence for TIbet, today Sangay says that he will be following the Dalai Lama's concept for the "middle way" in finding a solution for the problem of Tibet's status, i.e. what they want is "a significant autonomy within the borders of China", and not full independence.

Meanwhile his critics are saying that he has no political and governing experience, he has never been in Tibet and what is more important, he does not speak Chinese. It will be difficult for the future leader to unite the TIbetan community in exile, because for his compatriots within Tibet itself he is totally unknown. And Beijing refuses to recognise him and does not consider him a legitimate figure to negotiate with - they agree to talk only to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese does not recognise the Tibetan government in exile as a legitimate institution and they will definitely not accept its leader as a legitimate side. This will make the negotiations even more complicated than they already are.

But getting to know Sangay is probably the lesser concern fot the Tibetans in China right now... In honor of the third anniversary of the latest blood-drowned uprising against the Chinese rule, which was led by Buddhist monks, some protests have been going on in the Tibetan monastery Kirti in Sichuan for 6 weeks now. Two elderly monks have died after being beaten up by the Chinese police in April. The confrontation between the police and the 2500 monks began when a young monk set himself on fire in March.

The Dalai Lama accused the Chinese authorities that they had done nothing to extinguish the flames and instead they were simultaneously kicking and hitting the boy. Beijing called the self-burning "a thoroughly planned criminal clearly act aiming at causing unrest". The Chinese communist authorities must have taken the lesson from the self-burning of the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi which started the "Arab spring" across the Middle East. The monastery was quickly surrounded by the military who did not allow delivery of food and other vital supplies. The district has been sealed for visits by international tourists and a media blackout has been imposed. On April 19, three days before the death of the two monks, Beijing even issued a disinformation statement that the situation in Sichuan had normalised.

The differences with the Middle East are too many, though... It is unlikely that the events in the Arab world would repeat in China. Let me remind that the Chinese security forces have no restraint in using as much brutality as needed to quell such uprisings. During the last such incident in 2008 according to Tibetan organisations over 200 people were killed during the quelling of the riots. This is nothing new and has been happening over and over again. Every now and then some limited information sneaks out about relatively small-size protests but this does not seem to imply that we will see something bigger any time soon.

The Chinese authorities have made sure that the sparkle of the Arab revolutions does not set their own rug on fire. Immediately after the Tunisian riots, Beijing increased the otherwise drastic censorship in the country, blocking messages and publications on the Internet which contained even the remotest of analogies with the word 'jasmine' because of the "Jasmine Revolution" which brought Ben Ali down. Chinese dissidents who tried to campaign for protests across the country against corruption and in support of democratic reform around the social networks, were soon hoarded into the Chinese prisons. The CCP responded with a wave of arrests of demonstrators, a mobilisation of tens of thousands of police, seizing passports and mysterious disappearances of dissidents. The whole repressive machine which is the Chinese state switched into full gear with a stunning speed and efficiency.

In Beijing and Shanghai, the police was instructed to perform frequent checks of passers-by, to prevent their stay in one place in large numbers for large periods of time, and to prevent foreign journalists from taking pictures of the protest gatherings and the protests themselves. In Hong Kong, where in principle the freedom of expression is incomparably bigger, there were clashes between the authorities and the citizens who tried to plant jasmine in front of Beijing's diplomatic mission. At least until the end of 2012 when president Hu Jintao will handle power to the next generation of party leaders, this behavior of the Chinese authorities would hardly change. Lobsang Sangay and the rest who are hoping to be heard in Beijing will have to wait at least for another one or two years.

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