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The Trouble With Tibet

The Dalai Lama’s democratization project poses a challenge to the United States

Dharamsala, India—Flying from Delhi to Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northern India, takes about 90 minutes. The plane lands in the valley below the Dhauladar range of the Himalayas, a massive barrier between India and Tibet. From the airport, the road leads up to the former British hill station that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made available in 1960 to the Dalai Lama, who had escaped from Chinese-occupied Tibet the year before. The Dalai Lama lives on one ridge, in the settlement of McLeod Ganj, while on a nearby ridge sit the buildings of the Central Tibet Administration (CTA), which oversees many affairs of the approximately 150,000 Tibetans in exile.

Nehru’s gift of Dharamsala to the Tibetans was both generous and shrewd. Indian sympathy for the Tibetans and hostile posture toward Beijing necessitated hospitality, but isolating the Tibetans in a remote area avoided complicating India’s non-aligned stance by making it harder for the Dalai Lama to pursue an international agenda. As it has turned out, however, Dharamsala’s location has not been a problem for the Dalai Lama.

Despite an initial hesitation about the remote location, the Dalai Lama and his officials embraced Dharamsala, which has been nicknamed Little Lhasa, after the capital of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has become a global figure with nearly universal appeal and one of the world’s most well-traveled men. What’s more, from his perch, he has been able to pursue his twin missions—preserving Tibet’s religion and culture and, more ambitiously, building a Tibetan democracy in exile. These missions pose a challenge not only to China’s communist government, which has long opposed the Dalai Lama. But, increasingly, they also pose a challenge to the United States.

The Dalai Lama’s democracy-building effort is not nearly as well-known as his moral and religious teachings. However, by the time he arrived in India, he had already begun trying to overhaul the existing Tibetan government, which was dominated by aristocratic and monastic elites. He had launched a commission to address land reform, as well as other social and political issues. In India, the Dalai Lama only accelerated his democracy work. Under his direction, a new Tibetan constitution was drafted in 1963. At his insistence, it included a provision authorizing his impeachment. For Tibetans, the idea of removing the Dalai Lama, who is regarded as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, was unthinkable. To the Dalai Lama, however, it was a natural step in his plan to delineate separate political and spiritual roles for himself and eventually turn over responsibility for day-to-day governance to an elected leader, or Kalon Tripa—which he did officially in 2001.

The democratization of Tibetan authority has thus proceeded—and relatively smoothly—over the past several decades. In 1991, there was the creation of an expanded Tibetan parliament, which took responsibility for drafting a new charter to replace the constitution. The charter gave the parliament, or Chiteue, more powers, including approving members of the cabinet, or Kashag, and greater responsibility to legislate in matters over which it has jurisdiction. The Chitue has actively legislated in areas such as finance and administration; the CTA, subject to Indian law, has maintained authority over exile affairs. The constituency of this growing democracy is scattered around the world; Tibetans in exile are eligible to vote for the CTA in the various countries in which they live.

The current Kalon Tripa is Samdhong Rinpoche, a monk whom the Dalai Lama has addressed as his political “boss.” In November, the CTA announced the results of the first phase of elections both for his successor—Samdhong’s second term ends this August—and for the parliament. In a darkened upstairs room at the CTA complex, election officials and observers tallied votes with the aid of an overhead projector. Nearly 48,000 Tibetans, or 60 percent of those registered, voted in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Europe, the United States, and Canada. The leading candidate to replace Samdhong Rinpoche is a Tibetan-American affiliated with Harvard University.

Of course, Tibetan democracy is anathema to China’s communist government, which reacts quickly to squelch democratic activism, as it did with the China Democracy Party in the 1990s and, more recently, with Charter 08, a democracy manifesto inspired by Charter 77, the Czechoslovakian civic movement to end communism in Eastern and Central Europe. Although conducted in communities outside Chinese territory, the recent Tibetan elections weren’t safe from Chinese interference. Under pressure from Beijing, Nepalese authorities seized about 1,000 ballots in Kathmandu. Neighboring Bhutan also prevented approximately 600 ballots from being forwarded to Dharamsala for counting.

The United States protested the Nepalese action, but, in fact, Tibetan democracy is an uncomfortable development for Washington, just as it is for China. The Unites States supports programs for Tibetan refugees, the CTA’s health and education budget, democracy and human rights organizations, and scholarships for Tibetans, many of whom have returned to Dharamsala to serve in the government. And yet, despite this support for democracy in general and the government-in-exile in particular, the United States does not endorse Tibetan self-determination. Its policy focuses instead on preserving Tibet’s “unique cultural, religious and linguistic heritage” and promoting “dialogue” between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. In the 1960s, Washington took a markedly different position, even supporting and training Tibetans fighting the Chinese occupation. But, once Washington restored ties with China in order to use it as a cold war counterweight to Moscow, this approach changed.

For its part, Beijing is pressing its advantage, building infrastructure to enable the rapid growth of the migrant Han Chinese population in Tibet, in an effort to degrade the region’s culture, religion, and environment. Beijing is also waging a campaign to weaken international support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama. It has designated Tibet a “core interest” and insists that other countries, including the United States, adopt a “correct understanding” of the issue. And Washington, it seems, has retreated. Whereas Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made unusually public shows of support for the Dalai Lama (Clinton even created a senior position in the State Department to deal with Tibet), out of deference to Beijing, President Obama delayed meeting the Dalai Lama at the White House until after he had visited China. Last August, a State Department report to Congress subtly diminished the importance of Tibet in U.S.-China relations and implied that the Dalai Lama might lack support within Tibetan society. Moreover, U.S. officials publicly mention Tibet less and less in the context of China policy.

Compare America’s approach to Tibet to its history with Taiwan. Thirty years ago, Beijing was optimistic Taiwan could be coerced into uniting with mainland China, and that the United States would back that action. Instead, Congress shored up Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense and created a system of quasi-diplomatic relations with its authorities. As Taiwan has transitioned into a democracy, American policy has adapted to the idea that the Taiwanese people must have a role in determining their future. Just last year, the United States sold $6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan. Why, then, has it taken such a different tack with Tibet? Why has appeasing China mattered more than supporting democracy?

Chinese leaders undoubtedly hope they can exploit America’s weak position at the moment of Tibet’s greatest vulnerability: when the Dalai Lama dies. Beijing will attempt to control the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor, a process in which senior Tibetan monks identify the incarnation in a young boy. The Chinese government has issued “guidelines for reincarnation” that stress “patriotism” and loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing might even resort to force, as it has before: In 1995, Chinese authorities seized the Panchen Lama, the second-most prominent religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism, then just six years old, and substituted an imposter in his place. The authentic Panchen Lama has not been seen in public since.

The Dalai Lama has said that future generations will regard the creation of Tibetan democracy as one of the greatest achievements of his exile. Whether that project succeeds, however, depends in part on whether the United States, so often a key partner in international democratic transitions, brings its Tibet policy into line with its democratic ideals. When the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet, no one could have predicted that the United States would be challenged to face up to its foreign-policy contradictions by refuges on a remote hilltop in northern India. But it certainly has.

Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative, writes frequently about U.S. policy toward Tibet and China.

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