By now, everyone should have heard about India’s change of policy towards the Tibetan people’s struggle to regain their country. While it is glazed with the usual dose of diplomacy, the Indian government’s message to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is clear — it’s time to go home.
Tibetan politicians have come out in force to put on a show of gratitude towards Mother India and at the same time, sought to put Modi’s government in a moral bind. Dhardon Sharling, the Secretary for the CTA’s Department of Information and International Relations, said in a recent interview that India is the foundation of the Tibetan cause, hinting that if the Tibetan people’s struggle were to fail, it is on India’s head. But that is not entirely correct.
If India is the CTA’s crutch, then the United States of America (US) must be its wooden leg. The impact of India’s decision to distance itself from the Tibetan struggle is exacerbated by the fact that at the same time, the US under the Trump presidency appears to no longer view the Dalai Lama and the Tibet card as valuable assets in its geopolitical manoeuvring amid the changing global order spurred by China’s relentless rise.
In his concluding remarks at the 5th session of the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, the CTA President Dr Lobsang Sangay boasted success in the procurement of ongoing US support for the Tibetan struggle. He was alluding to a spending bill President Trump signed a day before which, among other items the US Congress passed, included a grant to the CTA and the Tibetan struggle. Sangay claimed that the US grant “sends a political message” presumably that the Tibetan struggle can expect to remain vibrant, with the US playing the offensive line to Sangay’s quarterback.
However, the reality is not as flattering as Sangay would like the Tibetan refugees to believe. President Trump had in fact proposed zero aid to the Tibetan cause, but may have had to concede some spending as quid pro quo for certain items he wanted from Congress such as an enhanced defence budget and money for his vaunted ‘Mexican wall’. The CTA getting the money was the result of a trade-off and does not reflect Trump’s support of the Dalai Lama’s mission to regain control of Tibet. Trump is first and foremost a businessman, and any businessman worth his salt can see that there is far more to gain in making friends with the rising mighty dragon than to flog a somewhat anaemic old donkey.
In fact, Trump was not shy about making his feelings known, and he insinuated in the post Bill-signing press conference that the CTA grant ($8M for NGO programs in Tibet, $6M for programs in Tibetan refugee settlements, $3M for the CTA) was amongst those he considered a waste of American taxpayers’ money.
But Tibetans had begun losing US support even before that. During the December 2017 hearing on U.S. Policy towards Tibet, actor Richard Gere, as Chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, urged the Committee to deploy a number of actions needed to maintain the impetus of the Tibetan struggle.
He got none of what he asked for apart from what is in truth a minuscule grant which, when divided by the number of its intended beneficiaries, amounted to merely a few dollars per year per Tibetan refugee. This, under the utopian circumstances that the CTA will spend most if not every dollar on the Tibetan refugees.
This paltry sum that Sangay was celebrating pales into insignificance when weighed against an estimated $27 billion in foreign aid that was earmarked by the US for 2018/2019. The $17M received by the Tibetans represents a mere 0.06% of this sum and even then, it had to be forced out of Trump. And so, if indeed the US was sending a political message to the CTA, then the message is simply that the Tibetan struggle has outlived its usefulness.
What went wrong?
The CTA and supporters of the Dalai Lama would of course blame China’s deep pockets for the relegation of the Tibetan cause. They say China flashed the yuan strapped to her lacy garter belt and the nations of the world quickly abandoned their values and ethics and left the poor Tibetans to their own devices. China’s ascendancy is without a doubt a prime factor, but to blame everything on China is far too simplistic and shallow, although rather convenient. China didn’t become an economic powerhouse overnight, and it was decades before she managed to shake off the effects of Chairman Mao who, on his death, left China an economically backward and deeply divided and damaged nation.
There is more to the failure of the Tibetan cause than the China factor alone. The Tibetan leadership itself made its own significant contribution to the breakdown of the movement through a series of missteps that led to its loss of legitimacy, and it must accept a large share of the blame.
Here are some of the ways the CTA precipitated its own demise:
1. Feudal lords by any other name
In a recent interview, the President of the CTA, Lobsang Sangay suggested that the CTA was a better choice than the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore deserving of global support, as though the comparison was between ‘Communism’ and ‘Buddhism’. While this grandiose assessment may sound appealing to some, it is nothing more than sophistry. Tibet pre-1959 was nothing like a Buddhist paradise for almost the entirety of its population. In fact, it was hell on earth and the majority of Tibetan people were not even regarded as citizens but as chattel, owned by their feudal lords.
A more apt comparison would be between a historically and characteristically strict Communist regime that is making some effort to be more open and liberal, and an old and brutal feudal theocracy that, while it wears the mask of democracy deemed necessary to win the hearts and minds of Western supporters, in fact still thinks and acts like an overlord of the Tibetan people in exile.
The Tibetan leadership is characterized by the way it treats public resources like its own property (see the way Lobsang Sangay directed $1.5 Million from the Tibet Fund to prop up his Sikyong election campaign); demands and rewards personal loyalty to the point that corrupt officials such as the now suspended emissary Tenzin Dhonden are placed in key positions not for their capability but as a reward for their fealty to one or another of the CTA’s modern overlords, (Kaydor Akutsang is another example); and imposes a hierarchical social structure reinforced by religion. These are all traits of feudalism, not Buddhism.
Moreover, as much as one rejects or fears the CCP, it is also a fact that the Chinese government is opening up and relaxing its strict laws on matters such as religion.
In the meantime, the Tibetan leadership has all the veneer of a democratic government but has not hesitated to undermine its own constitution by:
- Commandeering the management of Radio Free Asia (RFA), established to be the voice of democracy;
- Unilaterally changing the ultimate objective goal of the Tibetan struggle without consulting the public;
- Gerrymandering electoral rules to ouster political opponents such as Lukar Jam;
- Firing officials (Penpa Tsering) for raising questions about irregularities in the accounts of a representative office of the CTA;
- Prohibiting the practice of religions the leadership deems to be in competition for the people’s loyalty, and using parliamentary instrument to oppress the victims — see the CTA’s Dorje Shugden persecutions;
- Forcing the closure of Mangsto (“Democracy”), a Tibetan newspaper that reviewed and commented on Tibetan exile politics;
While the above are just some of the known travesties perpetrated by the CTA, they mirror the reality of the CTA’s political intention, and the public knows this. And therefore whilst the CTA has managed to arouse enough condemnation of China, it has failed to transcend its own poor rap sheet, and ultimately failed to convince the world that it could do a better job than the CCP for the 6 million Tibetans back home.
2. No substance beyond rhetoric
The American politician William Clay once said of politics, “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” and never has this saying resonated more than in the situation the CTA finds itself today.
In a nutshell, the Tibetan leadership has failed to recognize that simple truth and to leverage the nigh 60 years of support it received from friendly and powerful nations in many different forms. The CTA never did bother to develop and finesse approaches and campaigns to engage with China even though it claimed not to seek rangzen (independence) but only umaylam (autonomy) which China has to some extent shown that she is capable of offering vis-à-vis Hong Kong.
Instead, for 60 years, the Tibetan leadership was a one-trick pony. And that trick was to avail itself as a ready and willing instrument of US-led NATO members to needle China, to embarrass her in the eyes of the global public, and provoke her at every opportunity into actions that would justify NATO in further condemning her. This worked brilliantly for the CTA during the Cold War when NATO was in need of agents provocateurs, but when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev took steps to thaw relations between the two respective blocs, and when the Berlin wall came down in 1991, the utility of the CTA began to decline. By 2018, India and the US’s interest had shifted towards China; the CTA now finds itself out in the cold.
Today, it would be quite challenging to find just a handful of supporters of the Tibetan struggle who can define accurately, let alone comprehensively, what exactly the ‘Tibetan cause’ is. Not even the Tibetans in exile agree on what they are supposed to be fighting for. Whether this is by the CTA’s design or negligence, the Tibetan leadership has allowed three generations of Tibetan lives to be no more than propaganda pawns, and when examined closely the so-called ‘Tibetan cause’ is all form and no substance.
Over time the global public has started to see that the CTA is quite content being a subsidized professional nuisance without much of an agenda apart from keeping the same song and dance going, an attitude very much reflected in the behaviour of the many pro-Tibet NGO’s who see the Tibetan people’s woes as an opportunity to help themselves.
3. Splintering the force behind the Tibetan struggle
The worst crime the CTA inflicted on its own people was to sow the seeds of discord amongst an estranged community that was already small and weak. But the CTA’s lack of a plan, lack of sincere effort, and complete absence of progress meant that sooner or later, the Tibetan people would demand answers, and so it became necessary to create intra-communal conflicts. This, they did extremely effectively, interfering in the succession of the Karma Kagyu’s leadership, imposing prohibitions on the Dorje Shugden practice, promulgating old regional interests and conflicts, splitting the Tibetan people in exile over rangzen versus umaylam arguments. It is far easier to divide and rule than to do the hard yards and engage with China.
So whilst the CTA waxed lyrical about the critical importance of uniting behind a common cause, they were in fact creating causes for the opposite to happen. The Dorje Shugden prohibition was especially damaging to the Tibetan people for the simple reason it was an assault on the Gelug lineage which accounts for the largest percentage of the Tibetan populace. Ironically it also did the most harm to the CTA’s integrity because it exposed the CTA’s lack of sincere interest in upholding a democracy, the basis of its claim to be better than Communist China.
The Shugden ban was enforced by CTA proxies globally, and in their turn adherents of the ancient and sacred ritual defended their religious rights globally, turning the world into a reluctant stage for the airing of the Tibetan government’s dirty linen.
The CTA blames China for creating and feeding the conflict but it could never explain why China would foment unrest affecting 6 million Tibetans inside China whom it would eventually have to deal with. The Chinese government’s biggest headache is internal discord that could escalate into uprisings in its border regions and in fact, a conflict such as the Dorje Shugden turmoil does not benefit China. The CTA however, finds this ability to create problems for the CCP inside their own borders to be quite useful. History will judge whether the CTA sacrificed the ultimate Tibetan dream and mortgaged the unity of its own people so that it could continue to receive grants and subsidies simply for being a thorn in China’s side.
4. Personal agendas weaken leadership
There is no denying that the odds were against the Tibetan government in exile. All the more important, then, that the Tibetan struggle should be carried forward by a capable leader who, in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, is a dealer in hope and can inspire the people to action.
In 2012, the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile made changes to its by-laws which in effect placed Lobsang Sangay at the apex of the Tibetan political structure. This is the man Tibetans had empowered, who would lead them into the Promised Land or into oblivion, depending on his calibre and the strength of his resolution.
It should have raised concerns that from the very beginning, Lobsang Sangay already had one foot out the door. The Tibetan people’s struggle does not mean the same to Lobsang Sangay (and indeed many CTA officials) as it does to ordinary Tibetan refugees.
To the people, the Tibetan cause goes way beyond merely seeking to reclaim their homeland. Its failure means that they have given up their lives for nothing, that they had hoped in vain for three generations, that they will have nothing to look forward to and to build their future on.
In the meantime, Lobsang Sangay’s home is in leafy Boston, USA, where his entire family resides. Sangay is an American citizen with a slush fund ready and therefore for him, it’s not a do-or-die mission but a question of a career move. If the Tibetan struggle eventually collapses, it would be no big affair for Sangay to resume his life as an American college lecturer and make a very good living by accepting speaking engagements and writing books reminiscing about a Tibet he has never set foot in. Hence, there was never any urgency, nor passion, nor innovation in Sagay’s lead.
In fact, under his presidency the CTA was beset by infighting and a string of allegations of corruption and abuse of power. As a result, the Tibetan struggle lost traction and began to fade as one country after another distanced itself from the Tibetan cause.
Sangay tells the Tibetan people to remain as poor refugees even though many qualify for Indian citizenship. Under his directive the CTA made it effectively taboo for anyone to even consider Indian citizenship, which is a key to a new life. Sangay feared that if enough people were given the opportunity to reconstruct their lives, the Tibetan cause would lose the vital element of human suffering. In order to retain his relevance, he needed the Tibetan people to remain a visible reminder of China’s oppression. In the meantime, Sangay and most of his Cabinet were quietly hanging on to their foreign passports and permanent residency.
In the end many Tibetan refugees found that they were better off on their own as they began to strike out for distant lands such as the US, Canada and parts of Europe — as well as the more immediate Nepal — rather than wait for the leaders to get their act together. As news of Tibetans in China doing better became more common and residents of the Tibet Autonomous Region experienced increasing prosperity ), other Tibetans in exile decided to find their way home without relying on the CTA.
The simple fact is the CTA has suffered from poor leadership whose initiatives did nothing more than arm the Dalai Lama’s charisma and send it into war with China. As the Dalai Lama grew older and weaker, so did the Tibetan cause.
Lobsang Sangay would argue that facing tremendous disadvantage, there was little he could have done. But then again, Nelson Mandela shaped the evolution of South African politics while sitting in prison for 27 years and Aung San Suu Kyi achieved her objectives for the Burmese people during her 14 years under house arrest.
The Tibetan Government in Exile has had almost 60 year to prove its mettle. During that time, it has enjoyed moral and financial support from around the world in its David versus Goliath struggle with China. But in its single minded focus on one-upmanship and demonization of its powerful neighbour, it has forgotten about the very people for whom it is supposed to be fighting, and even today, its plans and programmes to facilitate their homeland, or at least improve their future — or even their present — remain nebulous at best. The CTA has fast become irrelevant, and it has only itself to blame.