On a rainy afternoon on Sunday, April 11, Rinzin Lhundup was a quiet presence, listening to his friends intently as they chatted about the day’s proceedings over cups of steaming hot butter tea. The reticent 50-year-old, who works as a housekeeper in Manhattan, had arrived at the Phuntsok Deshe, the Tibetan Community Center in Queens, to cast his ballot for the Tibetan government in exile, then stuck around to help sell fundraising wares for the community.
Lhundup and nearly 5,000 other Tibetans had turned up at the Queens center from around New York and neighboring states to take part in democracy in a country that doesn’t officially exist. Lhundup was forced to leave his home in Lhasa to escape Chinese persecution in 1991. He trekked into Nepal, eventually settling for a time in India before moving to the United States. His father, also an activist, died at the hands of the Chinese and his younger sister Ngawang Sangdrol was the longest-serving Tibetan prisoner in China. She was arrested at age 13 with what was a nine-year imprisonment being sentenced to a 23-year jail term for repeated protests in lockup, which included singing and taping freedom songs that traveled internationally. After much global pressure, Sangdrol was released in 2002. “We all want to go back to Tibet and achieve independence,” said Lhundup, “that’s why we need to stay united and vote for a new president.”
China’s occupation of Tibet, since 1950, created what remains the longest-standing unresolved refugee crisis in the world. While “Free Tibet” was once a global cause célèbre, today it gets far less attention than the ongoing crises in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. But it is slowly beginning to regain visibility in the United States and abroad. The scattered Tibetan refugee community is evolving and recalibrating its struggle to counteract the global force that China has become. Perhaps the most significant way in which they’re doing this is by revving up a unique and eccentric democratic electoral system.
After results are announced on May 14, the incoming leader of this unique, nascent democracy will face a watershed moment. The 14th and current Dalai Lama—who relinquished his political role in 2011—is getting older, and a dispute has broken out between the U.S. and China over what happens after him. As Xi Jinping’s autocratic rule over Tibet intensifies restrictions over the flow of people and news from the region, and as tensions grow on a variety of fronts between the West and China, the geopolitical importance of the scattered and small Tibetan exile community is rising.
The Tibetan government in exile–officially known as the Central Tibetan Administration—is headquartered in the picturesque Himalayan town of Dharmshala in India where most Tibetan refugees originally set up camp after fleeing along with the Dalai Lama in 1959, when China cracked down following an uprising by the local population.
After serving for half a century as both spiritual and political leader of the global Tibetan community, the world’s most revered monk relinquished his “temporal” powers to the CTA exactly a decade ago. The Dalai Lama set up this system, knowing well that he will not live forever and that the community should continue to have a semblance of “self-rule” after the inevitable occurs.
The CTA isn’t formally recognized officially by any major country, despite the community’s best efforts. India-based poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue recently marched 300 miles between Dharmshala and New Delhi on foot, calling on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to defy China and recognize the CTA as a legitimate government. “We have this experiment of democracy, which is truly an alternative and a parallel government challenging Chinese authority over Tibet,” Tsundue told me.
The CTA manages a $45 million annual budget and employs roughly 3,500 Tibetans. It runs multiple schools, settlements, and business in South Asia. It includes all three typical branches of a democratic government—executive, legislative, judicial—even though the judiciary lacks punitive power.
A complex structure has evolved within the past decade that is physically located in India but with tentacles spread across the global refugee community. The current Tibetan president is American; several ministers belong to various other nationalities. The autonomous election commission is centered in Dharmshala and tasked, quite overwhelmingly, with conducting free and fair elections across at least 25 countries where exiled Tibetans live. The three traditional provinces of Tibet all have assigned members, as do the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist Bon faith. Five members are elected by Tibetans in the West: two from Europe, two from North and South America, and one from Australasia.
In this year’s election, about 45 members of parliament will be chosen along with the president. The current sikyong, or presidential, contest is between Penpa Tsering, former speaker of the exile assembly, and Kelsang Dorjee Aukatsang, special adviser to the current president, Lobsang Sangay. Outgoing president Sangay, a Harvard educated lawyer, distinguished himself during his term by successfully lobbying for the passing of a major pro-Tibet law in the United States while also increasing the cash flow to the CTA.
The CTA has adopted what the Dalai Lama refers to as the “middle way” approach to the independence question, seeking meaningful autonomy within the “framework of the People’s Republic of China.” The Dalai Lama shifted to this approach in 1979 after two decades of advocating full independence. He argues that partial autonomy would best serve the demands of the Tibetans in an “increasingly interdependent” world. This hasn’t stopped China from maintaining that the Dalai Lama is a “separatist” working to split Tibet, which it considers its inalienable territory, from China.
Not everyone in the community favors the compromise approach, and the recent experience of other contested autonomous territories, including Indian-administered Kashmir and Chinese-controlled Hong Kong do not exactly bode well for hopes of Tibet maintaining its freedom and autonomy under a Chinese government framework.
A few, mostly younger activists, including those from the Tibetan Youth Congress, advocate rangzen or total independence from China and oppose the Dalai Lama’s softer approach, which calls for “compassion and love for the enemy.” In the 2016 sikyong elections, Lukar Jam, a firebrand candidate who stood for rangzen came in third.
“For the Tibetan people, his holiness is the Buddha of love and compassion,” explained Tashi Lamsa, who leads the regional New York chapter of the TYC. “Such a Buddha cares for every human being, even the Chinese soldier. As for us, we are not anti–Dalai Lama; we love and respect him, but we cannot forgive the Chinese Communist Party.”
Despite the political disagreements, the Dalai Lama remains the spiritual head of all the people—including dissenters like Lamsa. His spiritual suzerainty is unquestioned. And the central question that looms over this election has to do with his mortality: What happens after?
When I posed this question to the attendees of a February Losar (Tibetan New Year) event in Queens, one member of the community responded, “utter chaos”—his eyes widening with intensity. “The entire fabric of the Tibetan community will come loose.”
According to Tibetan traditions, a team of high scholars and monks set out after the Dalai Lama’s death to find his reincarnation based on certain signs that may include visions and dreams. This process could take a few years—it took four to find the 14th Dalai Lama. When the successor has been found, he or she will be put through a series of tests to ensure the genuineness of the reincarnation. The process this time will be very different from the last 14 if only because it will take place under an international media spotlight with the Tibetan community spread throughout the world.
The Dalai Lama has suggested he might not reincarnate at all and will decide when he turns 90 in five years. Many Tibetans will have nothing of it. “Definitely, the Dalai lama will come back,” Tenzin Dewa, a Queens voter told me. “His Holiness will have to reincarnate.” Voters like Dewa believe that the institution of the president in exile has been created and blessed by the Dalai Lama to carry them forward in the interregnum and in the inevitability of China appointing its own dalai lama.
The current Dalai Lama has said that if he does come back, it will not be in China or Chinese-controlled Tibet. This is likely to set up a conflict with China, which plans to appoint its own dalai lama, one more amenable to the Communist Party line. There’s already precedent. It’s been 25 years since a freshly reincarnated Panchen Lama—second in command after the Dalai Lama—disappeared in Chinese-controlled Tibet. The authorities quickly identified another boy as the real panchen lama. He now works as a CCP official, and his authenticity is questioned by most Tibetans.
Many Tibetans feel their options are running out as Chinese pressure grows. “Many people worry, if His Holiness is not there, what will be my position in the world?” said Tenzin Lekshay, a policy analyst at the Tibet Policy Institute. India has hosted the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 other Tibetan refugees for six decades but has no provision to grant them citizenship. “Rather than stay in India as a refugee, people are interested in applying for citizenship of another country through asylum to have stability.”
Further raising the stakes, there has been a dramatic and bloody rise in China-India tensions since last year. Despite the tensions, Modi has been reluctant to stake out a firm position on Tibet, much to the disappointment of some Tibetans as well as many of his Hindu nationalist supporters who have recently been promoting the hashtag #FreedomForTibet, perhaps more out of antipathy to China than sympathy with a religious minority group in India.
On the other hand, India also appears to have thrown its hat in the guessing game of what happens to the Dalai Lama’s soul. A recent report suggested that until March this year, India “convened five separate assemblies of senior monks from various sects and schools in the region. … The government hopes that this group will grant international legitimacy to the current Dalai Lama’s successor and help fill a power vacuum.”
Chinese influence is growing in South Asia, and with it, the space for Tibetan exiles is shrinking. Nepal, under the recent influence of increased Chinese economic investment, recently arrested six Tibetans fleeing from the Tibetan Autonomous Region and promptly returned them to Chinese authorities.
The Tibet issue has also been subsumed into the escalating tension between the U.S. and China. Right before leaving office, President Donald Trump signed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which promises increased American support for the Tibetan cause as a response to China’s dominance. The TPSA was a historic development, insofar as U.S. support for Tibetan refugees is concerned. It was first proposed 20 years ago, but for years failed to make it out of the House of Representatives.
“The pandemic opened the eyes of the West toward China,” said Ngodup Tsering, who serves as the Dalai Lama’s representative in the U.S. and was a major force in lobbying for the TPSA. “Particularly under the Trump administration, it became quite clear that the American engagement policy of the U.S. with China simply didn’t work. All this helped in realization of the TPSA.”
Under the provisions of the TPSA, the U.S. will not allow China to open any new consulates in America until it can open one in Lhasa, and more importantly, it has promised severe sanctions if the Chinese try to interfere with the process of the appointment of the next dalai lama.
The State Department under Trump formally invited the CTA President Sangay to visit their facilities after 60 years of the CTA requesting to do so. They even allowed for pictures to be taken, a bold maneuver compared with the recent past when they would disallow photographs to be taken of U.S. officials posing with Tibetan representatives. Sangay also visited the White House and met officials there. China was quick to retort that the meeting “sent a seriously wrong signal to Tibetan independence forces,” as Chinese officials said immediately after Sangay’s U.S. visit, identifying him as a “separatist.” “The U.S. should immediately stop using the Tibet issue to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
President Joe Biden has already promised to further step up the fight for Tibet with China and has pledged to meet with the Dalai Lama. Tsering views these developments as a “positive endorsement” of the CTA by the United States. He promises there is more to come.
Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime supporter of the Tibetan cause, released a stern statement backing the TPSA, calling it a “clarion call for action to freedom-loving people worldwide.” The statement concluded with uncharacteristic self-introspection: “Because if we do not stand up for human rights in China due to commercial interests, then we lose all moral authority to talk about human rights in any other place in the world.” Early this month, the State Department’s report on human rights in Tibet no longer identified it as an inalienable part of China.
“I would like to emphasize that the United States’ support is very welcome for us Tibetans,” said Tsundue, “but this is more against China than for Tibet. The West, as usual, is serving its own interests.”
Between U.S.-China tensions and the uncertainty surrounding the Dalai Lama’s death, it is only a matter of time before the Tibet issue comes alive again. Tibet-related protests may also break out around the 2022 Beijing Olympics, just as they did the last time China hosted the games in 2008.
For their part, Tibetans tend to take the long view of their struggle.
“We’ve been under China occupation for 56 years. As for India, it stayed under the British for 200 years, so we never give up,” said Lamsa.
In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer