Philip Glass, Donna Karan, Yoko Ono Lennon, Martin Scorsese, Trudie Styler and Sting, Uma Thurman – these are some who lent effort and donated to the Tibet House 12th Annual Benefit Auction last year. Sting also threw in his (signed) guitar for auction to raise funds.
It was perfect publicity – Nobel Peace Prize winner His Holiness the Dalai Lama; compassion; world peace; democracy; save Tibet! But let it be clear, I’m not mocking these generous celebrities. It’s just that on the other side of the world, 143 monks and lay Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009. Yes, they doused themselves in fuel and set themselves on fire.
It is unprecedented, it is shameful that it has and continues to happen, and it is downright shocking that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile do not blink an eye at this catastrophe that has not contributed one single iota towards Tibet’s march for self rule.
On the spiritual side, Buddhists including International Campaign for Tibet (“ICT”) Chairperson Richard Gere surely must know that taking one’s own life creates the karma to be born in the lower realms (this is not good). But instead, the ICT keeps tabs and details of all these self-immolations on its website as if it were a medal tally. This is downright disgusting and morally wrong.
In the mean time, China is not an inch closer to giving up Tibet and the Central Tibetan Administration (“CTA”) is looking paler and paler on a world scale.
At “home”, the CTA’s record has been equally dismal. According to the Tibetan Demographic Survey carried out by the CTA, unemployment rates amongst Tibetans in India are as high as 75%. Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament Penpa Tsering stands accused of being a murderer. The Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay evades question about his Chinese National Passport and then gives the Tibetan fight in Washington before a live world audience. Questions are now being asked about whether foreign aid is being appropriately used. The Dalai Lama is plagued by protesters everywhere he goes. Things are not going well for the CTA.
By any single measure, this government would have been broken. Don’t you wonder what keeps the status quo?
Not The Shangri-La You Imagined
Besides His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s impeccable and heavily guarded public profile as a kind of Saint, we also have people’s perception that Tibet was some kind of Shangri-La which was destroyed by the evil Chinese Communists.
In James Hilton’s fictional 1933 novel Lost Horizon, he describes a lost Tibetan paradise as a valley cut off from the world and calls it Shangri-La. There’s even a five-star hotel named after it and an entry in the Merriam Webster dictionary describing the meaning of the word as “a remote beautiful imaginary place where life approaches perfection”. Imaginary is the operative word but that Tibet never did exist.
Perfection It Is Not, Perfection It Never Has Been
The structure of society in Tibet is described by some as that of a theocratic despotism – a form of government in which a religious group rules with absolute power. And here is what Michael Parenti, Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University, has to say about Tibet:
Religious conflict was commonplace in old Tibet, writes one western Buddhist practitioner. “History belies the Shangri-La image of Tibetan lamas and their followers living together in mutual tolerance and nonviolent goodwill. Indeed, the situation was quite different. Old Tibet was much more like Europe during the religious wars of the Counter-reformation.” In the thirteenth century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand Lama, who was to preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor of China sent an army into Tibet to support the Grand Lama, an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave himself the title of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet.
His two previous lama “incarnations” were then retroactively recognized as his predecessors, thereby transforming the 1st Dalai Lama into the 3rd Dalai Lama. This 1st (or 3rd) Dalai Lama seized monasteries that did not belong to his sect, and is believed to have destroyed Buddhist writings that conflicted with his claim to divinity. The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life, enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting in other ways deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For these transgressions, he was murdered by his priests. Within 170 years, despite their recognized divine status, five Dalai Lamas were killed by their high priests or other courtiers.
The CTA puts on a good show about its championing of democracy and the welfare of the people
For hundreds of years, competing Tibetan Buddhist sects engaged in bitterly violent clashes and summary executions. In 1660, the 5th Dalai Lama was faced with a rebellion in Tsang province, the stronghold of the rival Kagyu sect with its high lama known as the Karmapa. The 5th Dalai Lama called for harsh retribution against the rebels, directing the Mongol army to obliterate the male and female lines, and the offspring too “like eggs smashed against rocks. In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.”
In 1792, many Kagyu monasteries were confiscated and their monks were forcibly converted to the Gelug sect (the Dalai Lama’s denomination). An eighteenth-century memoir of a Tibetan general depicts sectarian strife among Buddhists that is as brutal and bloody as any religious conflict might be. This grim history remains largely unvisited by present-day followers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.
In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people.
In 1904, Perceval Landon described the Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveler, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal.”
Fast forward to the 21st century and not much has changed. Except, perhaps a better disguise.
A Tibetan refugee camp in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. Their living conditions do not reflect half a century of foreign aid to the Tibetan people
The CTA is showing all the signs of failure; Dharamsala is again not the Shangri-La in the movies.
How successful a government is the CTA when unemployment amongst Tibetans in India runs as high as 75%? What does the CTA do? It still carries on “managing” programs created by the Indian government in the 1960’s, still mostly funded by India, with contributions from other governments, NGOs and private donors. The settlements in India are breaking down as one would imagine. “The winter sweater selling business is the economic mainstay of about 70% of the exile population in India”, according to the CTA themselves.
Who and what is the CTA? What has the CTA actually done for the Tibetan people that it professes to represent? In half a century, and with countless millions pouring into funds supposedly set up for their welfare, and with the Dalai Lama as the darling of the world, rubbing shoulders with government leaders and celebrities, what has the CTA actually achieved for the Tibetans in exile? What plans and programs has the CTA drawn up in areas such as education, science, technology and business for its populace so that the Tibetan people can be competitive in the world? What remarkable areas of achievement can the CTA boast in half a century, given all the support it has received? What are the Tibetans known for, apart from being victims of an oppressive China and even then, it is an image that the CTA themselves play to the hilt?
The answer is nothing and the CTA has done nothing for its people other than lobby the world to give them more money and to oppose China on their behalf. The CTA has had only two products: 1) the Dalai Lama, and 2) the willingness to be the thorn in China’s side. The Tibetan people themselves have never factored into the equation. The answer is self evident. So why are they still in power? Because the CTA’s principles of democracy are only for show.
The Self-Serving Politicians
One way the Dalai Lama-CTA partnership has remained in “power” is under the strategic guise of pursuing Tibetan autonomy. The Dalai Lama and CTA have taken the position that Tibetans in India should remain refugees apparently so they are ready to return to an independent or autonomous Tibet. Under Indian law, Tibetans in India are not recognized as refugees and this is not to their advantage. The Indian “RC”, the official document provided to Tibetans, is a registration card which makes these Tibetans not refugees but stateless foreigners. This significantly restricts them.
Under the status quo, the CTA hence leaves most of its 100,000 constituents in India vulnerable to the most corrupt elements of society by ignoring their statelessness. Visa brokers; a black market of corruption and all that goes along with it; desperate, stateless people; these are the very real life and death situations which Tibetans endure. This is a basic example of what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) describes as the “Protracted Refugee Syndrome.”
Indeed, to demonstrate the power the CTA has over the Tibetans in exile, Tibetans in exile can apply to the Government of India to acquire citizenship by birth only after obtaining a “no objection” certificate from the CTA. This is a huge obstacle for Tibetans as the CTA officials discourage any applications with the suggestion that it shows disloyalty to the Tibetan cause. Hence, the statelessness of the Tibetans continues unabated, all for what?
Democracy? A Joke of Poor Taste
Where the Dalai Lama resides when he is in Milan
If the sponsors of the Free Tibet movement think they are providing support to a pro-democratic system, they are in for a surprise. One would think that a culture trying to win back independence from occupation by an “oppressor” would be embracing a system that allows more democratic freedom. Instead it behaves precisely like the oppressor it accuses.
The Dalai Lama and CTA have been working hard to try and convince the world that they are not a theocratic dictatorship but a democracy. Of course “they are”. They will attract more foreign aid from democratic Western countries and Westerners in general if they appear to operate as a democracy.
But kill any thoughts of democracy. Richard de Jongh has commented that
…the Lama’s power elite misuses the word democracy because it still dominates exile Tibetan politics through ‘democratic’ manipulations to perpetuate the existing patrimonial structures. The introduced reforms touch only the surface of Tibetan society but do not change the traditional system.
There is nothing democratic about this model, there are elections but there is only one party standing under the overall leadership of a non-elected Dalai Lama. So what has the West been supporting?
Really, Where Does All The Money Go?
One question that has never been satisfactorily answered by the Dalai Lama or the CTA is where does all the money, equivalent to many millions of dollars, that pours into the exile community, go exactly? Structurally, the CTA comprises seven departments plus other special offices. There are also charitable trusts, a publishing company, hotels, and a handicrafts distribution company in the USA and in Australia, all grouped under the government-in-exile’s Department of Finance.
The CTA annual budget is also some sort of a mystery. Other than stating some aggregate numbers in public statements, a complete written breakdown is hard to obtain.
About the annual budget:
“In response, it claimed then to have annual revenue of about $US22 million, which it spent on various health, education, religious and cultural programs. The biggest item was for politically related expenditure, at $US7 million. The next biggest was administration, which ran to $US4.5 million. Almost $US2 million was allocated to running the government-in-exile’s overseas offices. For all that the government-in-exile claims to do, these sums seemed remarkably low.
It is not clear how donations enter its budgeting. These are likely to run to many millions annually, but the Dalai Lama’s Department of Finance provided no explicit acknowledgment of them or of their sources. Certainly, there are plenty of rumors among expatriate Tibetans of endemic corruption and misuse of monies collected in the name of the Dalai Lama. Many donations are channeled through the New York-based Tibet Fund, set up in 1981 by Tibetan refugees and US citizens. It has grown into a multimillion-dollar organization that disburses $US3 million each year to its various programs.”
The article above also points out how the Dalai Lama has been remarkably nepotistic, appointing members of his family to many positions of prominence. A summary from the article:
- In recent years, three of the six members of the Kashag, or cabinet, the highest executive branch of the Tibetan government-in-exile, have been close relatives of the Dalai Lama.
- An older brother served as Chairman of the Kashag and as the Minister of Security. He also headed the CIA-backed Tibetan contra movement in the 1960s.
- A sister-in-law served as head of the government-in-exile’s planning council and its Department of Health.
- A younger sister served as Health and Education Minister and her husband served as head of the government-in-exile’s Department of Information and International Relations. Their daughter was made a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile.
- A younger brother has served as a senior member of the Private Office of the Dalai Lama and his wife has served as Education Minister. The second wife of a brother-in-law serves as the Representative of the Tibetan government-in-exile for Northern Europe and Head of International Relations for the government-in-exile.
All these positions give the Dalai Lama’s family access to millions of dollars collected on behalf of the government-in-exile.
Half a century of donations and foreign aid have gone towards suppressing the Tibetans, not free them of oppression.
In her book “The Tibetan Government-In-Exile”, Stephanie Roemer tried to figure out the annual budget of the CTA and the Dalai Lama’s revenue.
She found swaths of income and expenditure that were not clearly documented, with large sums unaccounted for and spending unclear. An example is whilst the revenues for the CTA had increased dramatically with the opening of CTA bureaus around the world, nevertheless what the revenues were spent on is unclear.
The largest part of the total annual expenditures of the CTA is listed under a general, vague title – “politically related affairs”. This expenditure isn’t broken down by the finance department. It was equally difficult for Stephanie Roemer to gain clarity over the financial position of the Dalai Lama:
“The grants of the 14th Dalai Lama are drawn from the inheritance of the Tibetans but also gifts and donations. The total amount of the 14th Dalai Lama’s treasury cannot be estimated because it is neither published nor did my interviewees give any detailed information. But the finance department assumes that the granted sum to the annual budget portrays only a small amount of his wealth.”
By now, you would have understood how paltry the CTA’s annual budget is and how, together with its control over how it is dispensed, it is being used to perpetuate the CTA. It is virtually feudalism.
Donations for Intimidation and Control of the Media
In his article ‘Free Radio Free Asia’, the writer Jamyang Norbu shows us how the CTA silences those they perceive to be criticizing the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Policy in the media. He details how the largest independent Tibetan language newspaper, “Mangtso” (“Democracy”) was finally pressured to close when His Holiness publicly expressed his displeasure with its reporting. In fact it is not only those with differing political beliefs that the CTA gags.
Ngapo Jigme, one of the senior members of Radio Free Asia, was summarily dismissed because he had views which differed from the CTA’s on a number of issues. When staff of RFA asked for the reason for the dismissal of their senior colleague, they were told that it was “personal” and not any of their business. This came as a big shock to the Tibetans at RFA who liked and trusted Ngapo Jigme, and appreciated his respect for their professional integrity and independence. The goings-on within the management of the RFA and interference by the CTA prompted a senator of the USA, an ally of the Tibetan people’s supposed march towards democracy, to issue a stern warning.
Tibetan Parliament Speaker Penpa Tsering had also issued threats to the media that they should not be “a medium to spread discord within the community”. This is obviously not a very democratic view to say the least. Indeed, one of the characteristics and foundations of democracies is the right to have and voice a different opinion, one’s opinion.
Then there is the Tsokpa Chukchik (Eleven Associations – including the Shopkeepers Association and the Restaurants Association) whose publicized goal is to “strictly deal with” any person making “baseless” claims against His Holiness the Dalai Lama, including taking them to court.
Tenzin Nyinjey has described how the CTA had fired an employee in the Department of Security, a person called Lukar Jam, who is now running the Sikyong seat for 2016, who had written criticism against the CTA. Any criticism even fair ones are morphed into acts of disloyalty towards His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The World Needs to Rethink
143 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet and China since February 27, 2009.
Poverty, chronic unemployment, cronyism, corruption, continued statelessness. Aren’t these signs of a failed state, therefore a failed administration?
Wake up world, wake up donors, wake up Tibetans. Do the funds raised for the Tibetan cause actually help the Tibetans? Do the funds actually reach the Tibetans? The recipe did not work, has not worked and will never work.
Instead, it has given birth to a group of opportunists who, while likely agreeing that Tibet would never have its independence, are going around playing the part and enjoying the spoils, while month after month, Tibetans self-immolate.
China can do without a Maroon 5 or Jon Bon Jovi concert but can donors continue to ignore the travesty of the whole system?
During the same time, Bill and Melinda Gates have poured millions of dollars into global health and development with success, with results. Warren Buffet has joined them. The results of their charitable acts are visible and tangible.
What has His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his government the CTA specifically achieved? Where are the results of half a century of aid?
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