The Tibetans around the world will elect by early next year a new political leader to head the community’s exiled government based in India, even as Beijing has been asking New Delhi to shut it down

The Election Commission of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile recently announced the commencement of the polling process to elect the new Sikyong (President) as well as the members of the new Parliament-in-Exile in 2021. The announcement came even as India’s relations with China hit a new low over the continuing military stand-off along the disputed boundary between the two nations in eastern Ladakh.

The Sikyong leads the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGiE), which is formally known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and based at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh in India. The post is currently held by Lobsang Sangay, who was first elected to it in 2011 and then again in 2016 – for two back-to-back five-year-terms.

The TGiE Election Commission is learnt to have announced the polls after holding consultation with New Delhi, which believes that such a democratic exercise by the Tibetans in India and around the world will send out a “strong message” to the Communist Party of China in Beijing.

The Dalai Lama set up the CTA on April 29, 1959, just a few weeks after he escaped from Tibet and arrived in India – in order to avert a move by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to detain him. The CTA calls itself the “continuation” of the Government that existed in Lhasa before Tibet was occupied by the Chinese PLA in early 1950s.

Beijing does not recognize the elections to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGiE) and the Parliament-in-Exile and repeatedly asked New Delhi to shut it down.

The Government of India officially never acknowledged the existence of the TGiE. But it did tacitly encourage Dalai Lama to lead the exiled community to embrace democracy gradually – staring with electing the Parliament-in-Exile and then moving on to directly elect the leader of the TGiE. It was during the 2011 elections that Dalai Lama officially announced that he would be delegating his political powers to whoever would be elected democratically to the top office of the TGiE. The move was apparently aimed at avoiding a leadership vacuum and keeping the struggle against China’s rule in Tibet running even beyond the lifetime of the octogenarian monk. It was also intended to pre-empt any attempt by the government of the communist country to trigger chaos within the community after the death of Dalai Lama – by projecting a rival claimant to challenge the credibility of his next incarnation and take advantage of the situation to fizzle out the movement for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet.

The 2021 general elections will elect the fifth directly elected Sikyong (a post earlier called Kalon Tripa) of the TGiE and the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

“This next election is going to be more significant than the previous ones as the Dalai Lama - the face of the global struggle against China’s occupation of Tibet – has already turned 85,” said a source, who is aware of New Delhi’s contacts with the TGiE.

“Though we all want His Holiness (Dalai Lama) to live long and keep guiding us for many more years to come, he, himself, wants us to prepare ourselves for the inevitability,” said a member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. “Each of the new Sikyongs – not only the one who will be elected in 2021 but also the ones who will succeed him – will have to keep himself ready for any eventuality and always keep preparing himself for greater leadership responsibilities,” he told DH, requesting anonymity.

Though New Delhi does not get involved with the internal affairs of the Tibetans, the TGiE is understood to have consulted the Government of India before its Election Commission announced the commencement of the polling process on August 4. The preliminary polling to elect the Sikyong of the TGiE may be held by the end of this year and the final round of polling is likely to take place early next year.

Wangdu Tsering, the chief of the TGiE’s Election Commission, said that though the Covid-19 pandemic had made the task of conducting the polls difficult, the panel remained committed to do its job within the stipulated period. He called upon all the eligible Tibetans in India and around the world to register themselves as voters and to take part in the election “in the spirit of unity” and “in the interest of the cause of Tibet”. 

There are over 150,000 Tibetan refugees in India and around the world and the whoever among them are aged 18 years and above are eligible to cast votes in the elections. The Tibetans in Tibet, however, will not be part of the process.

The TGiE has of late come under renewed international attention in the wake of China’s recent belligerence, not only along its disputed boundary with India but also in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait as well as elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US Agency for International Development or the USAID recently committed to providing nearly $ 1 million to the Social and Resources Development Fund (SARD Fund) – a non-profit organization set up by the TGiE. This was the first time any US Government agency directly provided funds to the TGiE, signalling a subtle move by President Donald Trump’s administration towards acknowledging an entity headed by a democratically elected leader, whom the Dalai Lama already passed on the baton of political leadership to.

The new law prohibits all regional and religious associations and NGOs from nominating candidates for Sikyong and Members of the Parliament.

The Chinese Government’s intelligence agencies often try to infiltrate into the TGiE and to trigger disharmony within the exiled community in order to sabotage the global movement against the communist country’s rule over Tibet. They made such attempts during previous elections too. The TGiE, however, introduced certain reforms in the electoral system in September 2018 to foil such bids by Beijing, including prohibiting all regional and religious associations within the community as well as the non-profit organizations from nominating candidates for elections to the office of the Sikyong and the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

The TGiE Chief Election Commissioner, Wangdu Tsering, called upon the Tibetans to remain “vigilant against the disruptive activities of elements in the society and agents from outside seeking to incite communal disharmony”.