The democratic election and recent swearing in of Lobsang Sangay by the Tibetan people in exile as their prime minister and political leader are important events not just for the Tibetan people, but for spirit of democracy worldwide.
For more than 40 years, the introduction of democracy has been an urgent ongoing project of the Dalai Lama's. It has been much delayed, perhaps more due to the reluctance of his people and their different perceptions than anything else. All Tibetans agree that the institutions and policies he has created for the refugee community have contributed greatly to the survival of Tibetan culture, yet His Holiness is well aware that his policies, for example the 'Middle Way,' are not unanimously accepted by all Tibetans.
In the early Nineties he told me:
"If we fight militarily against China for total independence, the odds are hopeless. And even if we somehow won such a war it would probably come at the cost of complete destruction of what is left in Tibet, our culture, our way of life. I personally feel it is better to simply be autonomous yet still have our way of life, our culture, our dharma. This is most precious."
Sometime later, speaking about the advent of democratic elections, he said:
"But the people themselves must choose."
In modern history the Dalai Lama is something of an anomaly: invested with a centuries-old lineage of temporal power and spiritual authority going back 14 generations, literally worshipped by his people, yet intent on divesting his power to them. To suggest that this is merely a humble spiritual sentiment, would be a serious underestimation.
The previous Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, tried valiantly to bring his people forward into the 20th Century, realizing early on that Tibet would be a pawn in the 'Great Game' of global political ideologies which posed a serious threat to the sovereignty of Tibet and the survival of its culture. Old Tibet was not idyllic. To survive it had to change, but the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's initiatives met with resistance from Tibetan society.
His current successor, Tenzin Gyatso, politically tempered at an early age and thrust out into the world, is better positioned to shift perceptions, albeit at a bitter and brutal cost.
Because the existence of the Tibetan nation-in-exile is fragile and complex, his perspicacity and firmness have been essential in introducing such far-reaching changes. Yet he himself is keenly aware that powerful leadership can be double edged: it can provide decisive action when needed; but it can lead to dependence and the inability of the populace to take responsibility for itself.
A Tibetan friend, close to the government-in-exile, suggested that vested interests have also caused some of the resistance to 'proper democracy':
"There are not a few Tibetans who have taken personal advantage [of the status quo], claiming to have His Holiness imprimatur -- knowing it would not be questioned..."
However, expecting a spontaneous rebooting of democratic values to rectify such things is about as effective as a Marxist revolution 'led by the people'. Leadership, and how it is acquired, will always remain key to democracy. In the 21st century political leadership is not about ruling but about inspiring.
Lobsang Sangay's peaceful, democratic election indicates a new role for the younger generation of Tibetans in exile. Amongst them are many who, whilst admiring the Dalai Lama as a person and religious leader, are not satisfied with his pacific approach to the situation. They joined in the election, and now must learn the practicalities of democracy to blaze their own path into the uncertain future. They too will have to learn to make mature decisions and live with the results; to learn that responsibility is integral to self determination.
Though this year the People's Republic of China celebrates 60 years of the "Liberation of Tibet," the PRC's insecurity is reflected in an unwritten disposition that no influential overseas Tibetan lamas are allowed to visit Tibet during this period -- a clear indication of political dysfunction.
The PRC recently attempted to push its own handpicked Panchen Lama into the arena by having him visit the Tibetan area of Labrang in Gansu. The move met with such significant local resistance that the plan was abandoned. One might speculate as to why China's politburo couldn't have predicted the fiasco. Whatever the case may be, it reflects the desperation of the leaders of this 'people's republic' to legitimize their grip.
Eventually an iron grip is politically costly to sustain, and undermines its very purpose. As His Holiness quipped during an interview last year:
"Power comes from trust"
. He leaned forward, smiled, and rephrasing Mao, added:
"Power does not come from the end of a rifle barrel"