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Tenzin Dorjee Headshot

China's Theft of Tibetan Ballots Threatens Democracy Everywhere

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Last Sunday on October 3rd, thousands of Tibetans went to the polls to vote for the Prime Minister and MPs of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. This relatively low-key event proceeded smoothly in dozens of countries -- except in Nepal, the Himalayan country sandwiched between Chinese-occupied Tibet and India, where armed police stormed the voting stations and confiscated the ballot boxes. Tibetan voters looked on in shock and fury, helpless as their ballots, and their democratic rights, were seized in front of their eyes.

It goes without saying that the Nepali government was merely acting as Beijing's long and twisted arm in this incident. The ballot theft, executed by the Nepali police and masterminded by Beijing, is further evidence that China is all but running the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal by remote control.

So the real question is not who stole the Tibetan election; everyone knows it is Beijing. The question at hand is: Why now?

Well, for one, in the post-2008 world Beijing takes the Tibet movement more seriously than it ever did.

The October 3rd election was not the first democratic election in Tibetan history; we have participated in 14 parliamentary elections and two prime ministerial elections so far. Ever since the Dalai Lama democratized the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in 1960, the year after his escape to India following China's invasion of his homeland, Tibetans have been voting every few years to elect our parliamentary representatives.

But China never bothered to thwart those elections -- because until recently the Chinese government was comforted by the mistaken notion that the Tibet issue would die away along with the passing of the Dalai Lama. So the powers in Beijing did not need to worry about several thousand Tibetans performing a democratic song and dance in a ballot box every few years. After all, no democratically elected Tibetan leader could ever match the charisma and influence of the Dalai Lama.

However, the Tibetan uprising that ripped across the plateau in March 2008 changed the stakes forever. The protests -- which started without the Dalai Lama's involvement and continued without his blessings -- drove home to Beijing the point that the Tibetan resistance would indeed live on for at least a few more generations. While Beijing hoped that Tibetans in exile would fall into disarray in the absence of the Dalai Lama, it now rightly fears that democracy may well provide the leadership, structure and cohesion necessary to sustain and empower the Tibet movement.

This election, which has set many Tibetan precedents, has certainly stoked these fears. For the first time, a Prime Ministerial candidate voluntarily and publicly declared her candidacy (yes, it happens to be a woman). Tibetans have long shunned the culture of self-promotion that accompanies political campaigning for public office in other democracies, but in this election we have more than eight Prime Ministerial candidates in the running! Almost all the candidates have advertised their websites and campaign slogans as they competed in debates organized by grassroots groups such as "Youth for a Better Democracy", which launched a Tibetan equivalent of the "Rock the Vote" initiative. These debates, conducted before standing-room-only audiences in the exile capital Dharamsala, were webcast live and watched by Tibetans all over the world. As Tibetan democracy finally comes of age, Beijing feels compelled to undermine this exercise of freedom and civil liberties that clashes with its own portrayal of Tibet as a feudal theocracy.

Moreover, the Tibetan election is a milestone in the global movement for democracy. What began as an unlikely democratic experiment in 1960 has evolved into a full-blown democratic government in exile, with the Parliament and Prime Minister elected by the Tibetan people through universal franchise. As the Chinese government continues to drag its authoritarian system well into the second millennium - leaving a fifth of the world's population with no say over their own political future - a handful of Tibetans living in exile have overcome dispersion and statelessness to adopt an enlightened system of governance. This makes China look regressive and primitive in spite of its economic progress. It is, therefore, only natural that Beijing wants to undermine our democracy.

Ultimately, by seizing the Tibetan ballot boxes in Nepal, the Chinese government is not only sabotaging Tibetan elections but also attempting to arrest the global movement for democracy. This incident is an affront and a challenge to the worldwide community of democracies, whose silence and willful ignorance will only embolden China's export of oppression.

Democratic governments, election monitoring groups, and the United Nations must investigate this incident and ensure that the Tibetan democratic experiment is protected. The survival and flourishing of Tibetan exile democracy should be ensured not just for the sake of Tibetans but for the sake of democracy everywhere, including that of Nepal, if it can still be called a democratic country. With diplomatic pressures as well as grassroots campaigning, the world must urge the Nepali government to do the right thing and give the Tibetans back their right to vote.