[Revised as of August 11, 2010]*
By the Editorial Board of the Tibetan Political Review
The best way to see the difference between two choices is to hold them up together. The Zurich debate in April between two prominent Kalon Tripa candidates, Lobsang Sangay and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, shows stark differences.
I. ATTITUDE TOWARD POLITICAL POWER
Tethong’s attitude is, perhaps, because of his previous experience as Kalon Tripa, when he served at the calling of His Holiness. Incidentally this attitude is shared by other Tibetan leaders like Samdhong Rinpoche, who was the first directly-elected Kalon Tripa despite his assertion that he did not in fact want the job. His Holiness the Dalai Lama even says that the institution of the Dalai Lama will exist only as long as the Tibetan people consider it useful.
Furthermore, we were struck by Tethong’s comment that one's ability to fulfill the Kalon Tripa role is not dependent solely on one's belief that one is ready to serve. Rather, because one is serving His Holiness, one must also have the requisite karma and merit ("ley dang sonam"). Someone lacking this requisite karma/merit may end up as a “useless person” ("mi phen-tho-ya may-pa"). Tethong did not claim that he had the requisite karma/merit. In essence, he seemed to be suggesting that his openness to serving was tempered by his recognition that an effective Kalon Tripa must have the requisite karma/merit.
We may not be in a position to judge who does or does not have adequate karma/merit to serve His Holiness and the Tibetan people in this vital role. However, we recognize that Tethong’s principle is one that is rooted in the Tibetan culture.
2. Sangay: A Western Approach of Open Competition
Sangay’s attitude toward political power appears more Western, in the sense that he appears to believe that power should be sought more directly. He responded immediately following Tethong’s statement about karma/merit, saying that there is a joke in Dharamsala to the effect that “I’m not running for Kalon Tripa but if I’m elected I won’t say no.” After the joke he added his own position saying personally “I’m not saying no” and then stoped right there, saying he is joking. Coming on the heels of Tethong’s statement, and taken in conjunction with what he later said about running, it also is a relatively clear criticism of Tethong’s traditional approach, or the “Dharamsala way”.
This is something that is quite common in the West before a politician officially launches their campaign. For example, Hillary Clinton made her famous “listening tour” of upstate New York prior to running for Senate in 2000.
From a Western perspective, the “listening tour” is a good way for the potential candidate to learn about constituents’ concerns, make sure the candidate feels ready to jump into the political arena, and to introduce themselves to the voters. If used properly, it can be a positive tool to develop better policies and make the politician more accessible and accountable.
II. THE ISSUE OF EXPERIENCE
The larger point is, Sangay avoided the question about his experience to serve as the highest elected Tibetan leader. We call on him to answer this directly.
III. ANALYTICAL STYLE
IV. THE CRITERIA FOR KALON TRIPA
It was interesting how both candidates described what they see as the most important criteria for choosing the next Kalon Tripa. Not surprisingly, they both emphasized factors that might go to their advantage. To be clear, neither candidate was asked specifically what their criteria are. Rather, the analysis below is our best effort to determine these criteria based on the points the candidates emphasized.
He presented five relationships in which the next Kalon Tripa should excel, which he likened to the “five pillars” or "five fingers." In this view, an important criterion for choosing the next Kalon Tripa is how well that person manages the “five pillars.”
Specifically, the “five pillars” are the relationship of the Tibetan government with (1) the international community, (2) Tibet, (3) China, (4) India, and (5) the Tibetan settlements. Sangay said modestly that he has done some work on areas 1 through 4. He also said later that he grew up in a settlement so he has knowledge about 5.
In our view, Sangay’s best claim to expertise is with respect to #3 (China). This is due to the six Track II conferences he has organized at Harvard, most recently in 2007 (disclosure: two of the TPR editors have participated). In these dialogues, he has leveraged the “Harvard name” to promote a dialogue with Chinese scholars and officials who might otherwise not attend. He has also undertaken a series of public debates with Chinese scholars such as Hu Xiaojiang, a well-connected researcher on migration patterns in Tibet.
We would like to hear more from Sangay about #2 (Tibet). He has had dealings with certain officials from Tibet through the Harvard conferences, but what of the non-elite? This is not to say that another candidate is better in this category, but we would like to hear from Sangay on this.
We would also like to hear more about Sangay’s thoughts on #1 (the international community). Does he have new ideas for taking the Tibetan struggle onto the global stage? We are cautiously optimistic that Sangay has been exposed to global currents and new ideas in Cambridge; we would like to see specifics.
We have concerns about Sangay’s experience on #4 (India). Having spent the past roughly eight years in the United States, and before that being quite young, this is perhaps a weak point. Other candidates will be stronger in their relationships with the powers in India, the Tibetan government’s most important ally. On the other hand, those candidates will not necessarily have Sangay’s other qualities, so voters may have to weigh and balance.
Lastly, we would also like to hear more from Sangay on #5 (the settlements) beyond the fact that he grew up there, and eats dal and tingmo (and is presumably therefore a man of the people). What, specifically, are his policy positions?
Sangay also made an interesting comment that the top agenda item for the next Kalon Tripa should be education, education, education, education, education (“sheyon, sheyon, sheyon, sheyon, sheyon”). At first take, we thought that he was saying that education should determine the best person for the job. He somewhat confusingly stated, “Whoever becomes Kalon Tripa, the most important is education.” However, it became clear that Sangay was instead stating that advancing education in the Tibetan community is a critical task.
In this statement, we agree. TPR’s compiled questions for the Kalon Tripa candidates includes a question on how the candidate intends to improve education in the Tibetan schools. We would like to hear Sangay’s ideas on this, or more generally on advancing education in the community more broadly.
It is a laudable but tall job to push an agenda of “education.” It also opens a host of specific questions that should be answered. For example, how to combine the best the world has to offer with a respect for Tibetan tradition? It is as Gandhi once said: one can open the window to the winds of the world, while refusing to be swept off one’s feet.
Similarly, a curriculum of “education” calls for a corresponding curriculum of “ethics,” which in our case comes best from our Tibetan cultural traditions. As His Holiness noted, "the smart brain must be balanced with a warm heart, a good heart - a sense of responsibility, of concern for the well-being of others."
This is a worthy task, but a large one. We would like to hear how Sangay proposes to carry it out, and whom he might call upon to lead his Sherig/Education Department in this complex task.
As election day draws closer, all candidates should be called upon to provide more concrete policy proposals and ideas. Sangay, notably, will have a head start on his competitors in this regard. The voters should seek candidates who best combine experience, knowledge, ethics, and vision. Whether that candidate is Tethong, Sangay or someone else is the voters’ decision.
* Note: This editorial has been revised to reflect a translation error in the original. The editors apologize for their mistake, and have instituted a triple-checking policy for future translations. We have also added additional detail to our reporting of what the candidates said, in order to further illustrate the reasons why this editorial makes the conclusions it does.