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Can exiled Tibetans secure India’s backing in the struggle against China?

Observers Say As Long As The Dalai Lama Is Around, His ‘Middle Way’ Approach Of Peaceful Autonomy Within China Will Continue

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A Tibetan living in exile in India casts his vote for the Tibetan parliamentary election at a polling station in Dharamsala on January 3. Photo: EPA

In the first week of January, Tibetan refugees across the globe, from New York to the freezing heights of Ladakh along the India-China border, cast their votes to elect a new political leader and members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile – with the Dalai Lama’s advancing age and the global rise of an increasingly assertive Beijing chief among their concerns.

At least three candidates have emerged as clear front-runners to head the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), which has its seat in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala. Among them is a common strand of resolve – to take a hardened stance against China, to win more friends sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, and to prod New Delhi to speak up against Beijing.

Thousands of Tibetans live in India, but New Delhi, afraid of upsetting Beijing, has been reluctant to openly engage with the Tibetan diaspora. In 2018, when the CTA planned public events across India to mark six decades of exile, New Delhi was quick to tell officials to skip the celebrations, forcing the CTA to cancel the events.

Yet the latest strategy to push New Delhi comes as its ties with Beijing have reached a low – the two militaries have been locked in a tense, often violent border stand-off for the past eight months that has brought tens of thousands of soldiers into a face-to-face confrontation. In the process, economic ties between the two have frayed.

The three candidates leading the CTA polls – Penpa Tsering, Kelsang Dorjee Aukatsang and Gyari Dolma – have promised stronger approaches to deal with the current stalemate between exiled Tibetan leaders and the Chinese government. Talks between both sides were last held in January 2010, but stalled before an outcome was reached.

The current head of the CTA, Lobsang Sangay – who in November became the first administration leader to visit the White House in 60 years – is serving his second and final term.

Of the three finalists, only two will be shortlisted for the final round of polling on April 11. First-round results will officially be declared on February 8, but early results have already trickled out through Tibetan news sites as they are announced in Tibetan communities across the globe.

Leading the race is 54-year-old Tsering, the former speaker of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, with over 23,000 votes as of press time. Tsering has said that achieving a resolution on the Tibetan issue is his top priority, and that he will “disseminate realities within Tibet to the world” and “solicit support for the freedom movement”.

The 53-year-old Aukatsang, a resident of Dharamsala, the seat of the CTA, currently sits in second place with about 13,000 votes. He has promised to “strengthen the Tibetan struggle” by stepping up Tibetan advocacy efforts in India, and have a strategy specific to that country.

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The 85-year-old Dalai Lama’s health is of great concern to many in the Tibetan community. Photo: Reuters

Dolma, 57, who is also based in Dharamsala and is in third place with some 12,000 votes, has said she will push India “to recognise Tibet’s historical independent status”, despite New Delhi‘s stance that it recognises the “one China” policy and considers Tibet to be an integral part of China.

B.R. Deepak, a professor of Chinese and China studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said three main factors were influencing the candidates’ and the CTA’s policy considerations – the India-China border stand-off; the Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, which was approved by the US Congress in late December and backs the Dalai Lama on the issue of his succession; and the stalled talks between the CTA and China.

“All these factors embolden the CTA to harden its stance with China on Tibet,” he said, adding that the CTA was especially focused on getting India to change or upgrade its policy of keeping its distance from the Tibetan leadership. This is something many Tibetans believe needs to change, while the community is also looking for India to take a firmer approach to China against the backdrop of rising anti-Beijing sentiment around the world.

“Many Tibetans want India to counter China by being more assertive in different aspects, from trade to defence. One big step would be to organise a large-scale boycott of Chinese goods being imported into India,” said Gonpo Dhondup, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, one of the largest NGOs in the Tibetan refugee community.

Although the effectiveness of such efforts from the CTA remains to be seen, domestic political pressure for the Indian government to use Tibet as a diplomatic tool against China has been on the rise since the border stand-off began in May last year. Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for example, have been demanding that the Dalai Lama be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award, in a move that would likely draw severe flak from Beijing.

Wangden Kyab, a senior researcher for the human rights group Tibet Watch in Dharamsala, said candidates in this election were “taking up more hard-line positions against China” – a departure from the 2016 polls, when CTA head Lobsang Sangay ran on a relatively moderate “Five-Fifty” strategy of trying to achieve Tibetan regional autonomy in five years while preparing for 50 years of struggle for the cause.

An academic who focuses on Tibetan issues and spoke on condition of anonymity said the candidates’ bolder positions on China were significant because the next leader of the CTA “could very effectively advocate with different nations across the world through diplomacy and ensure that the Tibetan independence cause has more supporters”.

The elected leader’s responsibilities, the academic added, included ensuring the welfare and development of exiled Tibetans across the world, but especially in India, where the CTA is based. Of the 130,000 Tibetans in exile around the world, more than half live in India.

Kyab from Tibet Watch said even younger Tibetans were asking more probing questions when it came to the CTA’s stance towards China and how to get the Indian government to advance the Tibetan cause.

“They are pushing the conversation towards whether we need to change the course of the Tibetan freedom struggle towards more concrete, stronger ways,” he said, pointing to debates over the merits of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach, which advocates autonomy for Tibet, against demands for independence.

Some of these conversations are also driven by Tibetans’ concerns over the health and well-being of the Dalai Lama, as the community’s revered spiritual head is now 85. Chinese authorities have repeatedly criticised him, labelling him a “separatist” and even calling him a “wolf in monk’s robes” for his tireless advocacy around the world for Tibetan autonomy.

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Lobsang Sangay (third from right), the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, poses for a photograph with some of his cabinet members after casting his vote in Dharamsala, India, on January 3. Photo: AP

There are also worries over the Dalai Lama’s succession. In a move bitterly opposed by Tibetan refugees, China has insisted that his successor will be appointed by Beijing, in keeping with the country’s policies on the reincarnation of living Buddhas.

The Dalai Lama’s health is a factor for many young Tibetans, including 38-year-old Lobsang Sither. The digital security programme director at the Tibet Action Institute – an organisation that works on issues of information and communication technologies with Tibetans around the world – has never been involved in politics, but this time he is running for a seat in the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.

“It is a very important election for us. With His Holiness’ advancing age, younger Tibetans need to step up and take up more responsibilities,” the Dharamsala resident said. 

Last month, Sither was named by Wired magazine as one of the 32 innovators around the world who were building a better future through his work in improving digital security among Tibetans and fending off “targeted espionage attacks from mainland China”.

Sither said his work had pushed him to the realisation that drove his candidature. “This could be one of the most important decades of our lives,” he said.

All the same, community insiders said the CTA was unlikely to take a drastically different turn. “As long as the Dalai Lama is around, the Tibetan political leadership is unlikely to waver from the Middle Way approach,” said the academic who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Deepak from Jawaharlal Nehru University said there was unlikely to be a “drastic change” in New Delhi’s approach. “If there is, then India will have to prepare for China responding to its vulnerabilities in various Indian states,” he said.