Tibetans in exile elect new leader; different perceptions of Tibet’s future remain a challenge

The results of the 2021 general election for Tibetans in exile were announced on May 14. Penpa Tsering, former Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, was elected as the 16th Kashagag Secretary of the Central Tibetan Administration, becoming the new political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, replacing Lobsang Sangay who completed two terms. The election also saw the election of 45 members of the 17th Tibetan People’s Assembly. Judging from the election results, the new Central Tibetan Administration will continue the Dalai Lama’s middle way advocacy. However, Tenam, a Tibetan exile in France, hopes that the new administration will not ignore the young people who voted but are inclined toward Tibetan independence.

Bipa Tsering elected as the new Tibetan government-in-exile

Tibetans in exile scattered around the world participated in the first and second rounds of voting on Jan. 3 and April 11, respectively. According to the Central Election Office of Tibetan Administration, more than 80,000 voters were registered this year. Despite the new crown epidemic, the voter turnout reached 77%. Running against Penpa Tsering in the second round of the divisional elections was Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee, a former representative of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Tenam, a Tibetan exile in France, is a member of the Etudiants pour un Tibet libre (Free Tibetan Students) association. In a telephone interview with the station, he said he noticed that more young people were voting in the election, and that more young people were running, with the youngest candidate for parliament being only 27 years old. He particularly stressed that although this is the third time that Tibetans in exile have voted directly for political leaders since the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans, announced his retirement from political life in 2011, the building of democracy for Tibetans in exile has been initiated as early as the 1960s

Denam: “The democratization process for Tibetans in exile started much earlier than 2011. The Tibetan parliament-in-exile was declared in 1960 and a constitution for Tibetans-in-exile was established in 1963. in 2001, the Dalai Lama stated that the government-in-exile would no longer be appointed by him, but should be elected by Tibetans-in-exile. But the concrete implementation of this major political change took time. In the decade since, the Dalai Lama has remained the supreme leader, despite the fact that the head of the Tibetan government in exile is elected. It was only in 2011 that the Dalai Lama resigned from all political positions altogether and formally retired from political life. Lobsang Sangay, who was elected as the Central Secretary of Tibetan Administration in the same year, officially became the political leader of Tibetans in exile. The Dalai Lama is only the religious leader of the Tibetans. This was a very important change. Step by step, the Tibetans in exile have moved into the practice of democracy and now have an elected government that is no different from a democracy!”

Running against Penpa Tsering in the second round of the divisional political race is Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee, a former representative of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. In Denam’s view, there is no significant difference between the political platforms of the two contenders. But Bipa Tsering has been in politics for more than 30 years, having been the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in exile and, earlier, the head of the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre (based in New Delhi), among other things. Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee is a newer face in exile Tibetan political life than Bipa Tsering, having only been involved in politics for the last five or six years. Denham said he personally believes that there is no difference between the two men’s political platforms, but that Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee may have a more open stance in the discussion around the Dalai Lama’s middle way. But he is also convinced that Aukatsang Kelsang Dorjee will not change his position on this issue.

Denam: I don’t want to be part of a country where peace is a threat

The Dalai Lama proposed the Middle Way in 1979, advocating that Tibet strive for a high degree of autonomy under the framework of the People’s Republic of China. But this proposition has also been questioned at times among Tibetans in exile, particularly by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), which advocates for Tibetan independence. In the 2016 divisional elections, the pro-independence candidate received the third highest number of votes in the first round of voting. Apparently this year is the same. The only female candidate in this divisional election, Gyare Drolma, is also the only one who has publicly stated in the campaign that it is time to revisit this middle way, as years of efforts have not yielded any results, Denam said.

Dronam: “Gyare Drolma came in third in the first round of the race and failed to make it to the second round. But it is true that some of the Tibetans in exile, especially the younger generation, want to revisit the middle way, and they advocate for Tibetan independence. Judging from the final results of the election, Bamba Tsering received about 5,400 more votes than Gogacang Kelsang Dorje. I know that among the voters who voted for Gogacang Kelsang Dorje, there are many young people who support Tibetan independence. Therefore, I hope that Bamba Tsering, who has been duly elected, will take into consideration these young people who want Tibetan independence, not the middle way or autonomy.”

As for the future of Tibet, Denam stated

Denam: “Dialogue between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Beijing government on Tibet has been suspended since 2010, and since Xi Jinping took office as China’s president, he has hardened his stance on the issue of minority policies. This is true for Uighurs, Tibetans or Mongolians, as well as for the pro-democracy faction in Hong Kong. Personally, I have no optimistic predictions for Xi Jinping. Seeing what happened to the Uighurs, to the people of Hong Kong, seeing the almost daily threats to Taiwan, and looking at China’s relations with India, China’s relations with Bhutan, China’s relations with Australia, and with the European Union …… I don’t want to be a member of a country that is now becoming a threat to peace. As a Tibetan, the most important thing for me is what is happening in Tibet. But I am also a humanitarian, how can I claim to be a member of this country when this government is committing genocide against the Uighurs and is breaking all the democratic mechanisms in Hong Kong! It has become impossible for me to demand to stay under the framework of the People’s Republic of China. I think this will be the biggest challenge that the new Secretary of State needs to face, which is how to re-establish contact with the Chinese government. Today, in his speech, Bienpa Tsering said that he would make every effort to re-establish contact between Tibetans in exile and the Chinese authorities. But I personally am not optimistic about this at all.”

Three major challenges for the new secretary-general

Denam believes that the new secretary-general needs to face three major challenges: first, to re-establish contact between the Chinese government and Tibetans in exile; second, because the Tibetan issue has almost disappeared from the public eye, he needs to re-introduce the Tibetan issue into the discussion of China’s relations with the world; and third, how to face the split among Tibetans in exile, because between the younger generation and the older generation, between those who advocate Tibetan independence and those who advocate Tibetan autonomy There is a rift between the younger and older generations, between those who advocate Tibetan independence and those who advocate Tibetan autonomy.