From Exile, Showing the Way Forward

By Rio Helmi

The democratic election of Lobsang Sangay by the Tibetan people-in-exile as their prime minister and political leader, whose temporal authority now replaces that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is a major step forward not just for the Tibetan people but for democracy worldwide.

Throughout the 30-odd years of my association with the Tibetan people and His Holiness, I have always been made aware that the institution of true democracy has been an urgent ongoing project, much frustrated and delayed more by the reluctance of the Tibetan people and differences of perceptions within their own community rather than anything else. The Dalai Lama had the vision to see that democracy is the only way forward for the Tibetans, yet had to work a very sensitive balance in nurturing this political development.

This is indeed refreshing and inspirational at this point in global political history. We see scenes of despots desperately trying to stave off the Arab spring, while a superpower flounders as it panders to the latest occupant of the oil fields of northern Africa and the shorelines of the Gulf. We see one Arab leader prancing about in a myriad outlandish costumes pronouncing the love of his people for his own glorious self (in between shelling the living daylights out of them); or another, backed by his giant neighbour, sending killer squads into hospitals to take out doctors and patients – whilst the above-mentioned superpower frets more about naval access to the region than the murders of entire families downtown. Yes, it is refreshing to see someone – who truly is worshipped by his people – so intent on divesting his power to them.

The previous Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, tried valiantly to bring his people forward into the 20th Century, realising early on that Tibet would be a pawn to be sacrificed in the great game that soon was to involve the clash of global political ideologies – rampant feudalism, capitalism, communism all posed threats to the survival of a people and their culture. Clearly old Tibet was not idyllic; it had its fair share of issues. It had to reform. Yet the Thirteenth was to be disappointed by the apathy of the ruling class, the reluctance of Tibetans to open their eyes and see the new world. His successor, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, politically tempered at an early age by dire circumstance, was better positioned to shift these perceptions, albeit at the bitter cost of losing sovereignty in his own land.

It is undoubtedly this loss, and the fragile balance of life for the Tibetan nation-in-exile, that has contributed greatly to this shift. But it has taken patience and perseverance to introduce direct elections into the community. Powerful leadership can be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it can provide decisive action when needed; on the other, it can easily lead to dependence and the inability of the populace to develop a clear sense of responsibility, civic and otherwise. With today’s record population numbers and cultural clashes, the development of strong, transcultural civic societies is more urgent than ever. Without transparent democracy’s checks and balances this is impossible to achieve.

This year the People’s Republic of China celebrates 60 years of the “liberation of Tibet.” But we all know that the PRC is haunted by fears of a homegrown “Jasmine Revolution” even back in the pre-dominantly Han-populated provinces, let alone Tibet proper. Its insecurity is reflected in an unwritten disposition that no overseas Tibetans, especially Lamas, are allowed to visit Tibet for the next several months. That kind of fear is a clear indication of political dysfunction.

Ironically there is much more liberation going on in exile than within the borders of one of the world’s superpowers. Whilst Chinese Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo languishes in jail, and the Arab spring continues to be bloody, Lobsang Sangay’s peaceful election indicates a blossoming of new hope for the younger generation.

Rio Helmi is a photographer based in Ubud.

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