A Travellerspoint blog

Encounters with Tibetan Politics

Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, Vigil, March 10th, Tenzin Tsundue

Some of the events discussed here are very old, some less so. I’m trying to figure out how not to be too pedantic and also how to make these a little more personal than before, though I’m afraid my balancing act just resulted in a very long post. Comments are appreciated on the format—more posts like this are on the way.

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Being “Tibetan” in India is complicated, but one of the most important identity markers is participation in political activity. Lots of academic ink has been spilled about this and several of my classmates’ research incorporates this idea, for the simple reason that it’s everywhere. Of course, we are talking about political refugees, after all. All of this came as quite a surprise to me—I’m used to talking politics, voting, and occasionally signing a petition, but to get a day off school so all the children can join the protest march (commemorating “Tibetan Uprising Day,” a failed revolution)? Or deriving a sense of identity in wearing traditional clothes, not just because that was your ancestor’s custom, but because doing so is seen as sign of political defiance? (More on that one later) Whoa.

This is the first thing you see when you enter the gates to the complex that houses the main Temple, the Dalai Lama’s residence, Namgyal Monastery, and IBD:


Lobsang Sangay

Early in our time at Sarah, we Emory folk had the opportunity to meet Lobsang Sangay, the Kalon Tripa or “Prime Minister” of the CTA. His election was important for a number of reasons:
- After slowly guiding the Tibetan community, often against its wishes, towards a more democratic system, the Dalai Lama announced in his March 10 speech last year that he would give up all of his own political authority to the newly-elected government; LS is therefore the first person to lead the Tibetan government other than a Dalai Lama since the Fifth Dalai Lama took over in the 17th Century.
- The office of Kalon Tripa had been democratically elected for only 10 years (2 terms), both of which went to Samdhong Rinpoche—an eloquent scholar I’ve never met but about whom I hear many good things—who had been in government for a while, was a monk, and even more, a Rinpoche[i] (reincarnate lama). Lobsang Sangay, in contrast, is young, went to Harvard Law School, has never been to Tibet, and had lived in the US for the 16 years leading up to the election.
- Lobsang Sangay was the first person in Tibetan history to actually campaign for votes, travelling around the settlements in India and arranging debates with the other candidates. He won by a landslide. When I asked him about the election, my roommate and homestay parents gave pretty similar answers—the other candidates are good men, but voting for Lobsang Sangay was an no-brainer because he’s smart, can speak well, and generally looks like a real candidate.

For our meeting, we prepared with our time-honored method of brainstorming questions as a group, voting to get 5, dividing into clumps to figure it out, and appointing someone to ask them. I don’t remember them all, but the questions were all over the map—some about future plans, some about methodology of nonviolent activism, some about the HHDL-turned-CTA official “Middle Way Policy” of seeking greater Tibetan autonomy within China vs. [i]Rangzen “Freedom” which here means independent-nation status for Tibet. Mine was about future trends in secularization of the CTA—I was hoping to get him to talk for/against the 10 seats in Parliament that are given to representatives from the major religious traditions of Tibet, voted on by the monks and nuns of those traditions, which also effectively gives monastics a second vote in Parliament.

The “Three Dharma Kings” of Tibet looked on from behind where he spoke to us. Secularization, here? Not likely

As a true politician, Lobsang Sangay took our questions at the beginning and proceeded to speak at us for an hour while deftly avoiding providing any firm answers. Honestly, I don’t blame him—as he said at one point, what options does he have to resolve the Tibet Issue, other than to take care of his refugee community (he’s personally taken over running the Department of Education, an unprecedented move) and promoting the cause on the international stage? Not much, though I haven’t decided if it was brave or amateurish for him to have admitted such.

In other ways, though, I was significantly impressed, not just (as always) that this busy man would set aside such time for us. I can see why so many Tibetans voted for him, and in there shoes I would have too—he’s articulate, perceptive of the issues, and speaks perfect English. He and his people are in a huge bind and he knows it, so he’s doing what he can. He’s made lots of public appearances outside India to boot, though I’m afraid he’s not exactly a household name.


Vigil for the Immolators

Classes ended early for us a couple days later so that, if we chose, we could accompany our roommates up to McLeod Ganj for a prayer vigil for the self-immolations inside Tibet. There were twenty-something at the time, although now more than thirty people, largely monks, who have set fire to themselves in protest of Chinese policies inside Tibet. In a big shift, these immolators aren’t from Lhasa or the recognized Tibet Autonomous Region, but from the outer Tibetan regions that are part four Chinese provinces—indicating that residents of these regions increasingly see themselves as part of the same Tibetan identity as those in TAR or Exile.

After a hair-raising, overcrowded bus ride to Dharamsala (which, amazingly, now seems routine to me), my roommate and I found floorspace around the Temple. Tibetans have a remarkably long attention span and ability to sit on floors for extended periods, and while it was nice to be fed tea and pa-le (flattish Tibetan bread) by the monks from nearby Namgyal, and to join in the (few) prayers and mantras I knew in Tibetan, this was a rather trying time for my classmates and me.

Following the prayers, everyone gathered in front of the temple to hear Lobsang Sangay speak, first in Tibetan and again in English. Here’s the man himself (please pardon the poor-quality zoom):


Then came a couple songs, including the soon-to-be-familiar Tibetan National Anthem. That's Dimey in the yellow scarf.


As you can see, we all had our candles out by now. I helped this little boy light his, with his mother’s permission. This particular image is one of the reasons I’m so glad to have had my camera—on the one hand, he’s just adorable, and the simple optimism of this image of the future belies the weight of the situation we were all in. On top of that (sorry for the pun) is this hat… in English. He’s growing up into this crazy life where his personal identity is largely defined by being born into this narrow political box. We in America have the freedom to make up our own political identities and to hold ideas and ideals very different from those of some of our neighbors. While democracy and free speech are centrally important in India and the Tibetan Exile community, as a Tibetan refugee, there are some things you just can’t choose.

And this man helped him when his candle blew out. Another one of my favorite pictures:


After that came the march, for one or two loops around McLeod Ganj—as long as our candles lasted. What I didn’t know at the time is that the standard protest song is one of the handful of prayers I know in Tibetan by heart—a prayer for all beings to have bodhicitta, the special kind of perfect compassion that is the ultimate motivation for reaching complete enlightenment. That knocked me for a loop; both as an American and out of personal preference, I work hard to keep my religion and politics as separate as possible, and here was a prayer from my own daily practice being used on a protest march! Ok, technically it wasn’t a protest march, it was a prayer vigil for national martyrs… around here, the distinction is pretty fuzzy.


Then it started snowing and I got squished in the backseat of a taxi full of monks who were throwing snowballs at their friends we passed along the way. I’m not going to talk about what the roads were like.

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March 10

That wasn’t the last time we saw Lobsang Sangay speak in front of the Temple. He also delivered the annual March 10 address, their State of the Union equivalent, on the day that commemorates the ill-fated and tragic March 10, 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, then recently come to Tibet. This was the first time someone other than the Dalai Lama had given this speech, and indeed it was at last year’s 3/10 that His Holiness had announced his stepping-down from political authority.

Nothing particularly interesting was said, but again it was in both Tibetan and English and Lobsang Sangay-la did at least as well as we’d expect of our polished, professional politicians in the West. As often happens, the crowd was the most interesting part of the show. On stage were a number of representatives of the Italian Parliament who came to show their support of the Tibetan Exiles—you’d never see American congress(wo)men doing that. In the crowd were a few lost-looking foreigners, but almost all Tibetans; I felt almost more like one of the latter because I’d come with my homestay family, with whom we were staying at the time.

It’s a big deal in the house, but everyone seemed to have ample practice. Breakfast felt like the beginning of a major holiday, and Pa-la in particular was pretty excited. For the memorial to the failed revolution against an occupation that continues to the present, the atmosphere was surprisingly jubilant, an indication that March 10th has become more about being Tibetan than anything else. My little sister Dekyi was also caught up in the excitement, and kept yelling “Pö Rangzen! Pö Rangzen!” (“Freedom for Tibet!”). Then Lobsang, our neighbor-friend whom I’d been helping with his French homework, joined us, Pa-la took the big Tibetan flag off the wall and draped it around his shoulders, and the two men alternated carrying Dekyi on their backs as she waved a little flag and Ama-la tried to make sure we all got where we needed to go as we threaded through the alleyways of the shortcut to the temple.

Remember, this is what the wall looks like:

I got separated from them at our destination and joined the march to lower Dharamsala with some Emory classmates I ran into. Deciding not to stay for the longer speeches at the arrival point, we stopped for lunch before hopping in a shared taxi back up the hill.

Whoa. If I’d entertained doubts about attending the vigil march, this was even stronger, but I ultimately couldn’t refuse the opportunity to have this kind of experience. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the whole event, other than that I newly appreciate the fact that, for me, politics is a choice, not an obligation resulting from an accident of birth.

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This last part isn’t about an event so much as a person: Tenzin Tsundue, a major Tibetan activist and friend of Tara-la’s who came and spoke to our class, and whom I saw with many of my classmates at a poetry reading (where the photos below are from). Born in India and never having stepped foot inside Tibet, he organized a high-profile “March to Tibet” (dozens or hundreds of Tibetans trying to walk from Dharamsala to the border) during the protests in 2008 which both Tara-la and our TA Matt joined for parts of the program. Matt and Tara-la had both left by then, but the whole crowd was inevitably arrested by the Indian police and sent back. I mention this as one of a great number of things Tenzine Tsundue has done for the Tibetan cause, though now he’s a major leader in the cultural resistance movement (i.e. using traditional Tibetan dress, clothing, language, etc. itself as a form of resistance).
He always wears a black Tibetan-style shirt, malas (prayer beads), and a red bandana which he says he’ll keep wearing until Tibet is free (for him, this likely means complete nation-state independence for all three regions of Tibet). The Dalai Lama makes a joke about the bandana every time they see each other, along the lines of “Do you ever wash under there?”
In any case, whether or not you agree with his positions—and in many cases I don’t—Tenzin Tsundue still has a unique presence that really sets him apart. He’s clearly very bright and insightful both intellectually and emotionally. But what struck me was the very single-pointed determination he has for his cause. When one of my classmates asked whe he’d do if Tibet became free, he said, “I’d still keep going to jail”—but this time for protesting against his own Tibetan government.

Seeing this example of someone who’s neither settling nor settling down, as it were, but just working with 110% of his energy for what he sees to be an important cause—that put meeting Tenzin Tsundue-la up there with the other major highlights of the semester.

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So those were some of the politically-relevant highlights of the trip, but every day there was some reminder of the political situation. For one, this was hanging during the annual Tibetan Opera Festival:

And images of the immolators are everywhere. These were hanging near the entrance to the boy's dorm at Sarah, though they're literally everywhere. I included the second picture to tell it like it is--the Tibetans are much more willing to post the image of a corpse in public than we are in the States, particularly when that photo was taken on a cell phone and smuggled (physically or electronically) out of China.

TRIGGER WARNING: If you don't want to see a corpse, don't look at the second photo.



Posted by cageissler 20:00

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