The Issue of Democratisation

The Dalai Lama’s proposal of a western-style democracy, put forward in the 1988 Strasbourg Statement and repeated since, is designed to gain western support, but does not reflect the Dalai Lama’s actual intention. This can be understood from several different points of view. Throughout the history of the Dalai Lamas, as shown above (Appendix 1), there has never been any interest in democracy on their part. The Tibetan government, with the Dalai Lama as its head, has always been, and continues to be, a feudal theocracy.

The Dalai Lama’s system of government did not arise from the wishes and aspirations of the Tibetan people; it did not arise through an electoral process or referendum. It was imposed ruthlessly and even violently through a series of military campaigns and political intrigues that in the end established the Fifth Dalai Lama’s absolute political and religious supremacy over all of Tibet.

The continuing lack of interest in democracy shown by the present Dalai Lama’s government is also evident in the fact that even after fifty years in exile within the democratic state of India, the Tibetan exile government is still undemocratic; the Dalai Lama retains total authority and control. No decision of the Tibetan exile parliament has ever gone against his wishes, and it is inconceivable that this could ever happen. As the Tibetan writer and former editor of Tibetan Review, Dawa Norbu, has commented:

‘It is unfortunate but equally true that the Dalai Lama in exile has tended to discourage the emergence of alternative leaders, unless officially approved by him.’227

And as Dr. Ursula Bernis has pointed out:

‘The effort to democratize has not extended to separating the domains of religion and politics. Since the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala is not legitimately a government by legal and international standards, it is difficult to analyze this problematic [sic] in an easy or straightforward way. Democratic it is not. The Tibetan people have never been asked to vote on any of the major political decisions concerning the future of their country either inside or outside Tibet.

‘Often not even the Assembly and Cabinet (Kashag) are asked. Even more basic, freedom of speech, the very foundation of democratic striving, is woefully absent among exile Tibetans. Criticism of official exile government business is usually dismissed as being of Chinese origin.’228

In 1963 a draft Constitution for a free Tibet was laid down by the Dalai Lama with the help of an Indian lawyer. Under this constitution the Dalai Lama retained supreme authority, and as Grunfeld points out: ‘If that statement [within the Foreword of the Constitution, that the Constitution “takes into consideration the doctrines enunciated by Lord Buddha”] is to be accepted at face value, then the Dalai Lama can never be deprived of his powers— spiritual or temporal—unless he abdicates.’229

In the Tibetan Constitution adopted on 14 June 1991, Article 19 on Executive Power reads:

‘The executive power of the Tibetan Administration shall be vested in His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and shall be exercised by Him, either directly or through officers subordinate to Him, in accordance with the provisions of this Charter. In particular, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shall be empowered to execute the following executive powers as the chief executive of the Tibetan people.

‘(a) approve and promulgate bills and regulations prescribed by the Tibetan Assembly;

(b) promulgate acts and ordinances that have the force of law;

(c) confer honors and patents of merit;

(d) summon, adjourn, postpone and prolong the Tibetan


(e) send messages and addresses to the Tibetan Assembly whenever necessary;

(f) dissolve or suspend the Tibetan Assembly;

(g) dissolve the Kashag or remove a Kalon or Kalons; (h) summon emergency and special meetings of major significance; and

(j) authorize referendums in cases involving major issues in accordance with this Charter.’

And Article 20 on the Kashag (elected Cabinet) and the Chief Kalon (Chief Minister) specifically states:

‘There shall be a Kashag and a Chief Kalon primarily responsible for exercising executive powers of the Tibetan Administration subordinate to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.’230

Despite the appearance of attempting to separate the powers of ‘church’ and ‘state’, they still converge in the person of the Dalai Lama, which results in a passive and powerless National Assembly and a political system that follows advice received by its leader, the Dalai Lama, from a spirit medium, the Nechung oracle.

As already quoted, in his autobiography Freedom in Exile the Dalai Lama states:

‘I seek his [the Nechung oracle’s] advice in the same way as I seek the opinion of my Cabinet and just as I seek the opinion of my own conscience. I consider the gods to be my “upper house”. The Kashag constitutes my lower house. Like any other leader, I consult both before making a decision on affairs of state.’

Not content with comparing unelected ‘gods’, to whom only he has access, with a cabinet of ministers elected by the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama continues:

‘… my relationship with Nechung is that of commander to lieutenant; I never bow down to him. It is for Nechung to bow to the Dalai Lama.’231

With this attitude it seems highly unlikely that the Dalai Lama will ever bow down to the will of the people, a fundamental principle of democratic government.

In 1998 Swiss National TV (SNTV) reported that the Tibetan National Assembly had never in its history made a decision against the wishes of the Dalai Lama. The Swiss journalist Beat Regli asked the Vice-President of the Assembly if this could ever happen. The Vice-President smiled benignly and responded with a chilling, ‘No … No’.232

As the unelected political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama’s influence over his government, executive and people is all-pervasive. Because of the exalted position he enjoys, his decisions are beyond reproach or even serious debate. Indeed the vast majority of Tibetans ‘are overawed [into silence] by the mere mention of the name of their religious and temporal head’.233 So powerful is this control that almost no Tibetan will dare criticise the Dalai Lama’s activities for fear of the swift retribution that they know would follow. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the repression of freedom of speech in the Tibetan exile community.

An advertisement published in both the Times of Tibet and the magazine Sheja (Knowledge), and which was widely circulated in Tibetan communities, reads:

‘Anyone who is against the Dalai Lama must be opposed without hesitation with men, money and possessions. This is to say with any means, including violence.’234

SNTV introduces Tashi Angdu as, ‘the general secretary of the society that published the advertisement demanding ruthless action against all critics of the Dalai Lama. He is a well known politician and president of the Tibetan regional council.’ Willingly he confirmed to SNTV earlier in 1998, ‘… their society also threatens to use violence against those Dalai Lama critics who won’t listen to them.’235

Shortly after expressing concern about the Dalai Lama’s ban on Dorje Shugden, in June 1996 a retired government minister was stabbed and badly wounded; he barely survived.236

A free press is a sign of a healthy democracy, giving avenues of expression and allowing views other than the official to be heard. There is no independent press within the Tibetan exile community in India. The only independent newspaper in Dharamsala, Democracy (Mang-Tso), stopped publishing in March 1996 under pressure from the Tibetan government. Palden Gyal, writing in Tibetan News, explained that the newspaper Mang-Tso ‘… was started in 1990 by a group of Tibetan intellectuals with the aim of providing international and Tibetan news. It also hoped to educate young Tibetans about democracy.’ It was popular and influential and had a healthy circulation. He continues:

‘The newspaper has always dabbled with criticisms of government ministers and open discussion of their policies. Then, in May 1995, it published a piece about Shoko Asahara, the Japanese cult leader, highlighting the fact that he had been friends with the Dalai Lama before being accused of killing eleven people in a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The article suggested that perhaps the government should be careful about who it conducted relations with in the future. Not long after that, in March 1996, the newspaper ceased publication.’237

Among the reasons given by the publishers for shutting down was, ‘subjective antipathies towards the publishers which had made publication difficult.’ As Palden Gyal says, ‘Even running news stories about the Dalai Lama, if they do not reflect on him well, can provoke anger among Tibetans.’ He also quotes Robbie Barnett of Tibetan Information Network concerning the pressures that are brought to bear on publications that do not toe the party line, ‘… antipathy towards the publishers usually comes in the form of anything from death threats to ostracisation to whisper campaigns.’238 In short the paper had dared to question the activities of the Tibetan leader and paid the ultimate price.

As Jamyang Norbu, a leading Tibetan intellectual writing in 1996 says:

‘… not only is there no encouragement and support for a free Tibetan press, there is instead a near extinguishing of freedom of expression in Tibetan exile society … Samdong Rinpoche, the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in exile, … declared … that the Tibetan Parliament should find new ways to control the Tibetan press.’239

This profound intolerance of criticism pervades all avenues of expression. As the well-known Tibetologist Heather Stoddard has written:

‘… [a] considerable number of new books written in Tibetan … have been censored or banned from publication [by the Tibetan exile government] because they do not conform to the desired image of traditional Tibetan society. Any serious discussion of history and of possible shortcomings in the society before 1959 is taboo.’240

In the foreword to a collection of essays by Jamyang Norbu, Lhasang Tsering, formerly twice president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, writes:

‘The ban on books for the simple reason that the writers had expressed ideas that do not conform to the official line of thinking – be it on history or politics – has been among the biggest blots against our exile government.’241

It is deeply ironic that the leader and government of a people who have been treated so badly by a totalitarian regime that brooks no criticism, cannot tolerate the slightest criticism themselves. On this core issue of freedom of expression not much has changed since the exodus from Tibet, despite some fifty years of open contact with democratic societies.

As expressed in his remarks to The Times of India in May 1996, the political-ideological attitude of the Dalai Lama is Marxist-Socialist, which he considers ‘a part of Buddhism’; it is not western-style democracy, and he dismisses the West as ‘… simply thinking about money and how to make more profit.’242 Even after the numerous atrocities committed in the cause of Marxism within the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe, China and Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s political views still remain unchanged.

The Dalai Lama has many faces, including a democratic face for westerners and a communist face in the hope of influencing the Chinese. But the face the Dalai Lama shows to westerners is false. Although he has been in the West for fifty years he has made no real efforts to establish true democracy within the exile Tibetan community, and although for many westerners he is the figurehead for Tibetan freedom he has never really worked for Tibetan independence, and has long accepted that Tibet will remain under Chinese rule.243 Even though he spoke in Strasbourg in 1988 of Tibetan autonomy under the sovereignty of China, the Dalai Lama continues to perpetuate the illusion among Tibetans and within the popular culture of the West that he is still working for a free, independent Tibet. Is it any wonder that he cannot be trusted?

For years the Dalai Lama maintained a high level of expectation within the Tibetan exile settlements that a return to a free Tibet was imminent. Living within a closed society with no voice allowed to his people – no freedom of speech, no freedom of press – the Dalai Lama has managed to maintain the myth of promoting an independent Tibet as ‘the Tibetan Cause’, even though he already abandoned that as a political objective many years ago.

These factors need to be taken into consideration in any assessment of the Dalai Lama’s statements on democracy. The political views he expresses to western audiences in the USA and Europe are not the same as those he expresses in Asia. The Dalai Lama’s advocacy of a western-style democracy for a future free Tibet is strictly for western consumption. The type of government over which he would actually preside if Tibet were ever to regain its independence would be far from democratic.