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China and Tibet: Democracy in Exile

Categories: East Asia, China, India, Nepal, Human Rights, International Relations, Migration & Immigration, Politics, Refugees, Religion

Being a Tibetan in exile is a loss that manifests in many forms: the loss of homeland and natural rights fall within that. To some degree, the loss is also a blessing in disguise. Exile bestows upon Tibetan refugees in Dharamshala a reinforced national identity, a free voice, the right to practise and spread their religion without fear of persecution and the right to vote. All of these are denied to Tibetans who remain in a Han-Chinese ruled Tibet.

Chinese American academic Jianglin Li, author of 1959 Lhasa, was in Dharamshala on October 3 to observe the preliminary election of the Kalon Tripa [1], the leader of the Cabinet of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) [2], a pressure group subordinate to the 14th Dalai Lama. The CTA's stated goal is to “rehabilitate Tibetan refugees and restore freedom and happiness in Tibet”. The CTA is commonly known as the Tibetan government-in-exile [3].

As Li described in her photographic journal of the election, [4] voters turned out in droves at local polling stations. It is impossible to ignore the smiles on their faces.


The process of electing the Kalon Tripa (Chairman of the Kashag or Cabinet) is similar to a popular vote for the head of state in western democracy. Alongside it was the election of the senate, however, with a Tibetan twist. Li explained the election rule:


The senate consists of 40 seats with 10 for each of the three traditional Tibetan regions The remaining 10 seats are distributed equally among four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. So a monk of Gelug school and the Kham origin would vote for the seat of Kham and Gelug.

According to the Election Commission 79,449 people registered to vote. In the last general elections in 2006, 72,771 people registered to vote, but the number that actually voted remained less than 50 percent of those registered. The official figure of the Tibetan exile population is about 150,000. (via Tibet Sun [6])

It is hard to imagine that when the 14th Dalai Lama first arrived in India in 1959, via the treacherous Himalayan path, only a small number of people accompanied him. In the years that immediately followed, over 20,000 Tibetans followed the same route to exile. Attempts to pass through what is now the Chinese border have never ceased, seemingly undeterred by frequent fatalities. A YouTube video taken by a group of western mountaineers and circulated widely online, shows Chinese border guards opening fire on a group of unarmed Tibetan civilians in 2006 [7], as the latter attempt to cross the border. Many of the Tibetans are young and scarcely equipped for the journey.

Li related her own experience with the Tibetan in exile:


A present, a Tibetan has to go exile in order to exercise their right to democracy. Actually, I am in the same situation, my right to democracy comes from the U.S, not from China. I have to turn myself into “American Chinese” in order to exercise my right.

Li's remark certainly resonates among the Tibetan activists. Prominent Tibetan poet and writer Woeser, who lives under constant surveillance in her Beijing home and has been banned from leaving China, linked to Li's journal on her blog, the Invisible Tibet (post deleted see cache [8]). She relates to Li's observation about the “lucky” refugees:


However in my life, I have never voted in an election out my own will.

The election in India was quite smooth. However, in Nepal, the process had been disrupted by local officials. Tibet report [9] writes:

…the instability that has been the highlight of the Nepalese Government has provided the Chinese Government with willing officials there who play into their hands to deny basic and fundamental rights to Tibetan refugees in Nepal. On October 3 we witnessed on such attempts when local officials seized ballot boxes from the Tibetan community in Nepal’s capital, who were participating in this worldwide elections.

Apart from South Asia, the election also took place in Europe and North America among Tibetan exiles. Chopathar described the election scene in New York in the comment section of Woeser's post (see the cache link above):

Chopathar 10.04.2010 纽约市

The polling station in New York was extremely busy with people constantly coming in and leaving. As the lobby got overcrowded, those who had cast their votes must leave first to make room for others. The polling station was at Manhattan. I arrived very early and cast my vote first. Of course, I was the first to sign in, collect my ballot paper and vote. I feel incredibly proud to do something for my suffering motherland Tibet. Chopathar 10.04.2010 NYC

The final elections to decide the composition of the Kalon Tripa will be held on 20 March 2011. Thubten Samdup, the Dalai Lama’s representative in Northern Europe, created a website [10] to attract more candidates. From the questions which have been posted for the future candidates, readers can get a sense of the most critical preoccupations of Tibetans-in-exile:

What is your position on the China Tibet negotiations and what would you do differently?
What measures do you believe we, the Tibetan community in exile, can take to effect positive changes in the lives of Tibetans residing inside Tibet; especially those confronting land rights issues, unwarranted detentions, and inequalities in competing for education and jobs?
What would you do to revitalize our large Tibetan settlement camps and reverse the current trend of many young Tibetans leaving their communities in order to find employment elsewhere?
What would you do to improve the standard of education in our school system and how would you help young Tibetans preserve their culture while in exile?