Tibetan leaders struggle to speak for split populace

The government in exile is popular but faces pressure from moderates and radicals.

Mark Sappenfield
Widespread: Pema Jungney is a member of parliament in the Tibetan government-in-exile, which even its critics praise for its work on behalf of the Tibetan refugee community. The governing body oversees 80 schools and 40 refugee settlements across South Asia and holds elections every fives years in three continents.
Mark Sappenfield
Popular rule: To share power, the Dalai Lama has pushed through democratic reforms for his government-in-exile, whose parliament meets in this white building in Dharamsala, India.
Mark Sappenfield
DISSENT: The Tibetan Youth Congress wants independence for Tibet – not autonomy, as the Dalai Lama prefers. Still, even high-ranking TYC members appreciate that the leader and his government-in-exile are open to opposing viewpoints. "Even if our objectives are different, they will not stop us,"says cultural secretary Lhakpa Tsering. "They are not forcing us like aCommunist government or a dictatorship."

As a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, Pema Jungney is increasingly finding himself caught in the middle.

With rioting in Tibet and young radicals at home pushing for a harder line against Chinese rule, he's under pressure to explain his government's support for the Dalai Lama's "Middle Path" of dialogue and reconciliation.

Then again, the last time parliament tried to review the Dalai Lama's Tibet policy, protesters gathered at the steps and declared a hunger strike.

In the past 20 years, the Dalai Lama has transformed the Tibetan government in exile from the semitheocracy he brought from Tibet to a relatively independent democracy. In doing so, he has invested it with more responsibility.

Now, the government must struggle with how to bridge the growing generation gap, finding its own voice while also paying due reverence to the Dalai Lama, whom most Tibetans worship as a god.

It has successes upon which to build. Even critics praise its work on behalf of the Tibetan refugee community – managing 80 schools and 40 refugee settlements across South Asia as well as holding orderly elections on three continents.

But among the 110,000 Tibetan refugees worldwide – many of whom follow Dharamsala as their true government, though it is not recognized by any nation – the government-in-exile will be judged upon how it handles the Tibetan issue, where frustrations are mounting.

"It will be very difficult for the Tibetan government," says Mr. Jungney. "Right now, the direction is toward violence."

Keeping the Tibet issue alive

Since rioting against Chinese authority broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on March 10, the government-in-exile – officially named the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – has sought to be a mouthpiece for disgruntled Tibetans in China. It has repeatedly contested the official Chinese version of events, suggesting that more than 140 Tibetans have been killed in the crackdown.

Here in Dharamsala, where the CTA's collection of weather-worn buildings clings to a pine-studded spur of the Himalayas, autopsy photos of dead Tibetans stretch above narrow, potholed streets like gruesome prayer flags – commemorating those allegedly killed by Chinese law enforcement.

For its part, the Chinese government has dismissed as "totally fake" a list of 40 victims released by the government-in-exile two weeks ago.

With China refusing to deal with either the Dalai Lama or the government-in-exile, the best the government can hope for is to keep the issue of Tibet alive globally. The list is a part of that, as are embassy-like missions in 13 cities from New York to London to Tokyo. Officials are there to lobby governments and "gather support for the issue of Tibet," says Thubten Samphel, secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations.

Violence is no part of that mission, say government officials. Mr. Jungney, of the parliament, says his emergency committees are coming up with nonviolent ways to protest when the Olympic torch comes to New Delhi later this month – acting out scenes of Chinese torture, for example.

Chinese officials dispute that assertion. They say the "Dalai clique" – which includes the government-in-exile – is masterminding the riots in the Tibetan heartland and that 22 people died in the initial protests in Lhasa.

But the government-in-exile's support for the Dalai Lama's "Middle Path" of dialogue and reconciliation with China is well known. Among refugees, it is the parliament's most controversial position.

In abandoning calls for independence and settling for autonomy, the government-in-exile is betraying "the call of the nation," says Sonam Dorjee, an executive member of the Tibetan Youth Congress.

In the dim light of a diner, Mr. Dorjee speaks with the conviction of a revolutionary. The uprising in Tibet is evidence that Tibet wants freedom. "The Tibetan freedom struggle is very sensitive," he says. "But if [the government-in-exile] never listens to what people are saying, there is no use of having a parliament."

Members of parliament argue that they are listening to the people – and the people support whatever the Dalai Lama says.

'Work as [if] there is no Dalai Lama'

To some degree, the Dalai Lama is trying to wean Tibetans off this reliance, repeatedly expressing his desire to "retire" from his political duties. Making the government-in-exile more robust is key to making the Tibetan exile movement sustainable beyond one man. "He always says, 'You should work as though there is no Dalai Lama,' " says Jungney.

To this end, the Dalai Lama has been the architect of his government's democratic reforms. In 1989, he disbanded the parliament, commanding a new one to be formed under a democratic charter. Among other powers, the charter gives parliament the ability to impeach the Dalai Lama as the head of state.

That parliament would ever use this power, however, is unthinkable. Many Tibetans have resisted democratic reform, preferring his leadership. In local communities, many posts meant to be determined by elections remain unfilled, with locals asking the Dalai Lama to send someone instead. "People always think, 'We don't want democracy. We can depend on the goodness of His Holiness,' " says Tashi Phuntsok, the CTA's chief election commissioner.

Yet on the streets of Dharamsala, there is appreciation for the Dalai Lama's reforms. Amid his store of tourist kitsch, shop owner Tenzing Tsering takes pride in drawing a distinction between his government and China's. "In China, [Tibetans] don't have the right to speak even a single word against the government," he says.

Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress agree. "Even if our objectives are different, they will not stop us," says cultural secretary Lhakpa Tsering. Even executive member Dorjee does not dismiss the government-in-exile. When it comes to caring for the needs of the Tibetan refugee community, Dorjee says, "I will give it 100 out of 100 on that ground."

India has given the government-in-exile broad autonomy to rule Tibetan refugees here. The CTA's Department of Education creates its own curriculum. It administers 80 schools in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Another six departments here handle everything from public health to elections for the 43-member parliament, which are held every five years in the subcontinent, Europe, and North America.

Still, Dorjee outlines the challenges ahead, as upheaval in Tibet and a new generation of refugees create pressure for new policies. "The people inside Tibet have raised their voice, and many in parliament wish for independence, too, but they will not speak out for it because it goes against the Dalai Lama," he says. "[But] they must listen to their hearts."

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