Tibet Democracy in Exile

Transfer of power Tibetan style: the 14th Dalai Lama and his political successor.
Transfer of power Tibetan style: the 14th Dalai Lama and his political successor. | Photo: © Courtesy Tibet Museum, Dharamsala

“It isn’t easy to apply the success of the Tibetan refugee community in India to other migrants. Yet crucial features of it are apparent. In 1959, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally made a deal with the Dalai Lama on the conditions for political asylum." 

“Since I was young, I’ve known the urgency to modernize the Tibetan political system… I don’t shy away from responsibility and am certainly not tired of my duty.” With these words, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and worldly leader of Tibet, declared his resignation from political responsibility in order to focus on his religious leadership from exile in India in 2011. Because a stable democracy must be established during his lifetime, at first for Tibetans in exile, in Tibet proper in the long term, a country that has been occupied by the People’s Republic of China since 1949. The Dalai Lama is one of the very few leaders in world history to voluntarily relinquish his political power in order to allow for an antiquated, theocratic system of government to become a parliamentary democracy.
His decision sent exiled Tibetans into a state of intense shock, yet they could have anticipated it. Because shortly after fleeing to India in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama began introducing political co-determination. He founded the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, had a constitution drafted, initially for exiled Tibetans but seen in the long term for all Tibetans, and incrementally dismantled his own powers, such as appointing a cabinet.  Since 2001, the prime minister has been elected directly by the people.

The secular government

On May 27th, 2016, the prime minister for Tibetans in exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, was sworn into office in Dharamsala in northern India. He began his second legislative period after exiled Tibetans worldwide emphatically elected him with 54% of the vote on March 20th, 2016. The 48-year-old Sikyong (leader), his official title, was born in India to Tibetan refugees. He grew up in a Tibetan settlement close to Darjeeling, studied law at the University of Delhi and got his PhD from Harvard University in America after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship. They retained him there as a Senior Fellow at the East Asia Center of Harvard Law School. The first time he was elected prime minister of exiled Tibetans, in 2011, he was even surprised himself.

Political asylum for Tibetans in India

It isn’t easy to apply the success of the Tibetan refugee community to other migrants, yet crucial features of it are apparent. In 1959, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally made a deal with the Dalai Lama on the conditions for political asylum. In doing so, Nehru demonstrated great understanding for the challenges of preserving Tibetan culture, despite the politics of destruction employed by the Chinese communists.
Centuries old religious-cultural relations, delete yes, including the emergence of Buddhism in India, contribute to Indians in general not viewing Tibetans as ‘foreigners.’ Nehru and the Dalai Lama first agreed that the Tibetan refugees wouldn’t disperse, but would rather delete would live in settlements, making their livelihood in agriculture. The prime minister wrote to the chief ministers of Indian states asking them to set land aside. The first state to show willingness was Mysore, current day Karnataka, in southern India. About a third of the exiled Tibetans still live there today. Settling down was difficult. First, land needed to be cleared; people fell victim to the hot Indian climate. Every five Tibetans received 2.5 hectars of land and a hut, but the agriculture was totally different than in Tibet – different products, different seasons! Second, Tibetans were allowed to set up their own schools, which would focus on Tibetan culture and history. Today, children are taught in Tibetan up to the 8th grade. However, the exams still meet Indian requirements and their degrees are recognized. The schools are financed by the Indian government. Third, they created their own administration, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), at Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas. The CTA coordinates the settlements, schools, hospitals and the reconstructed monasteries. It also maintains the link to the Indian authorities.
Tibet’s government in exile isn’t recognized by any other country worldwide, but aid funds still generously flow to it. Because, yes, the Tibetans are the favorites of donor countries and institutions, since the funds actually reach those they’re extended for and Tibetans are hardworking.
Without a doubt, the fact that Tibetan refugees had an uncontroversial leading personality in the 14th Dalai Lama, who himself is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism and also receptive to modernity, was decisive. The refugees’ suffering, separated from their homeland and their families, cannot be underestimated. However, compared to other refugees, the Tibetans have very successfully coped with their existence in exile.
What about statistics? About a half of the exiled Tibetans in South Asia live in settlements in India, Nepal and Bhutan; others are distributed throughout the Subcontinent and around the world. The CTA’s planning commission estimates that there are about 150,000 Tibetans in exile. An estimated 120,000 of them live in South Asia; 20,000 in North America, meaning America and Canada. There’s a tendency to immigrate there because of better working conditions. About 10,000 Tibetans live in Europe, Japan and Australia, with about 500 in Germany. Around 3,000 live in Switzerland alone, some of them are already third generation. Switzerland was the first country to take in refugees from the Roof of the World, under the motto: Mountain people help mountain people!

Preserving Tibetan culture

Tibetans have made notable achievements in the areas of literacy and education. 95% of Tibetans under 40 can read and write, which is more than the average in the Indian population. A circle of institutions serve to maintain Tibetan culture. Starting from TIPA (Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts), where Tibetan music, dance and theater are taught, to the Central University of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath/Benares, all aspects of Tibetan culture are facilitated in various libraries and centers for artisan craftwork. The reconstructed monasteries, whose political influence has been drastically cut back, have recently started imparting the foundations of modern science to monks and nuns on top of their the religious curriculum.
In doing so, the Tibetans have successfully defied the Chinese occupiers of their homeland and their attempts to violently assimilate Tibetan culture into Chinese culture.