The lion and the tiger—the two fighting for the Sikyong post

By Tenzin Phuntsok / February 06, 2016 /
Lobsang Sangay, left, and Penpa Tsering, right.
In Tibetan community, a religious man can take the role of political leadership while the otherwise wouldn’t be possible for a layman unless he/she is an incarnated being. Ever since the Dalai Lama renounced his political leadership, the election for Sikyong (Tibetan political leader equivalent to prime minister) assumed significant attention from every nook and corner of the Tibetan community. There is no denying of the fact that the Tibetan leadership has democratically well grounded as the two most popular and powerful leaders of the decade are fighting for the prime ministerial post.

Though His Holiness the Great 14th Dalai Lama doesn’t play any role and throw any view of his in the election and on who-should-be head of the Kashag (cabinet) as he normally used to do before 2001 elections, he still remains the symbol of Tibetan cause. His Holiness is the supreme leader above the law and constitution in exile though the Tibetan Nobel Peace Prize laureate refuses to be entitled so. Every Sikyong candidate has one slogan to quote “I will ensure to fulfill His Holiness’ advice”. This has shown despite His Holiness’ positive attempt to completely democratize the Tibetan polity and leave the struggle for the Tibetan people to decide, and His Holiness still remains the most forceful leader for the Tibetan cause to continue.

Are Lobsang Sangay and Penpa Tsering really the big two in this 2016 Tibetan Sikyong Election? What can we expect from them given the past contributions they made to both Tibetan exile polity and society? Whoever wins, he would rule for the next five years and will there be anything new for the Tibetan people in exile and inside Tibet? Will the next five years at least result in the resumption of dialogue with the Chinese government, the most important thing to be achieved and which can be achieved only with the leadership role? We don’t know how they will move with the next five years once they get elected to the most popular exile post in the world?

As the primaries were over and the main election is just a month away, the Tibetan Election Commission has already declared final candidates for the Sikyong post who were more or less a foregone conclusion. Dr. Lobsang Sangay often says during a speech or audience with students “I am Lobsang Sangay” meaning he is the “Lion” leaving aside the “Warm Hearted”. If the sitting Sikyong is ‘Lion’, then there is no doubt that the sitting Speaker of Tibetan Parliament and the rival of Sikyong, Mr. Penpa Tseing is the ‘Tiger’. If Dr. Lobsang Sangay could boast of having had doctorate from the world’s most famous university, Penpa Tsering at least could boast of having graduated from India’s top ten colleges. This is just from the academic side of the two most popular candidates.

Dr. Lobsang Sangay short to fame after having made news as the first Tibetan ever to have earned doctorate from Harvard University in 2006. Mr. Penpa Tsering became a well known face when he was nominated by then Tibetan Prime Minister Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche as his Finister (Finance Minister) at the young age of 36 though he failed to get the Parliamentary nod to be a Minister. We have witnessed in the earlier (2011) election that both the big twos of 2016 were wonderful speakers. At this time, their talks are the most listened and pondered amongst the exile Tibetans. Both bring cheers to their supporters and public to a large extend when they speak. Both are witty and humorous. Both were born in exile in India and had faced the hardships of their families. Dr. Lobsang Sangay often speaks of having worked in field while Penpa Tsering once worked in restaurant while pursuing college in Chennai. If Dr. Lobsang Sangay was once an executive of Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest and perhaps most influential group in exile, Penpa Tsering was secretary of Tibetan-Nigerian-Association in Chennai. If Dr. Lobsang Sangay could boast of having organized a talks between His Holiness the Great 14th Dalai Lama and Oversea Chinese intellectuals in United States, Penpa Tsering was instrumental in reviving the Indian Parliamentary Tibet Support Group in India during his tenure as director of Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre. If Dr. Lobsang Sangay often appears in news in the last five years as Sikyong, so did Penpa Tsering as Speaker of Tibetan Parliament in Exile. These two candidates, both of whom are staunch Middle Pathist had the advantage of being incumbent heads of the two most important exile post viz; Tibetan executive (Kashag) and legislature (Parliament), to be politically correct. The remaining three candidates had to ensure their campaign reaches the mass on their own.

I hardly have heard of these two leaders until 2005. Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche’s popularity in exile as the first ever directly elected Tibetan Prime Minister at the time had put every other leaders in the back burner. I first met Penpa Tsering in Lower TCV and Dr. Lobsang Sangay in Chennai in 2005 and 2011 respectively.

My first encounter with Mr. Penpa Tsering happened when he was director of TPPRC. They had organized a workshop for the senior students of the Tibetan schools at Lower TCV and sent notices to different schools. I couldn’t become part of it officially as my school principal refused to include my name in the list of participants for the workshop on positive ground. I insisted due to my natural and keen interest in knowing about Tibetan Administration and Polity, but it couldn’t happen. I therefore, sought the help of my then favorite and political science teacher, Ms. Tenzin Chokey to help include in the participatory list as voluntary if they have seats available. I was finally approved to be part of the workshop with her help and drove to Lower TCV for the workshop. Mr. Penpa Tsering was then being assisted by managing director Acharya Yeshi Phuntsok. I was taken aback little by the smoking habit of Penpa Tsering. A teacher participant who accompanied his school children said during a tea break “smoking in the midst of students is bad, they should show example to students” referring to Penpa Tsering. I returned him seeing what he was doing, “I too feel the same. One should look at mirror before pointing finger at others. Consuming Khani (golden) is worse than smoking. As a teacher you should give it up first and tell Penpa Tsering he should quit smoking. It would be more ethical”.

One day was over and the next day Penpa Tsering enquired us on the condition of meals provided for the participants. Few outspoken participants like us expressed, “Kongoe (respectful way of calling Mr.) meal is bit poor. Even Tingmo doesn’t look good”. “Really?” he asked in composed manner, “Yes, Kongoe” we confirmed. The next day we experienced a wonderful meal which continued till the end of the seminar. Later, I learned that the organizer brought a new chef purposely for the workshop. I was surprised at the Parliamentarian’s immediate attention given upon our request for the meal improvement.

During the question hour session of the workshop to which he was speaker for the period, I raised the pertinent question of why he couldn’t be appointed Minister despite then Prime Minister’s nomination. He replied without any hesitation as to why he couldn’t become a Minister. While touring the departments of CTA, he provided a wonderful company to the student participants and hardly let us down. His simple, down-to-earth and amiable nature of mingling with common people made us feel most comfortable in raising questions of important nature. His colleagues were fond of his leadership and would often praise him for his ability. Sooner than few years, he was elected in tie with Karma Chophel as the speaker of Tibetan Parliament in Exile. I felt how this man could be elected as speaker when he failed to muster a support in the parliament to be Minister despite the most popular leader in exile after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche nominating him. Most probably his actions spoke louder than his critics. It is called blessing in disguise. Failing to be Minister, he became Speaker, a job and post more prestigious and perhaps powerful than a Minister. He was again elected as Speaker in 2011 further silencing his critics.

In his 19 year career as politician and Parliamentarian, there were no critics beyond being murder of Kartag Tulku. Not a single bureaucrat, nor leader or common people dare to criticize him on the failures of any public duty. This was and is his biggest credentials to run for next Sikyong. What bolsters him to campaign so hard outside India was his sheer trust in the people and the past work he had done. Many people had even told me “Penpa Tsering is a wonderful leader, outspoken, straight-forward and down-to-earth”. He is the main leader who had been pillar behind His Holiness. A protégé of Prof. Samdhong Rinpochey, he is a force to reckon with.

My first encounter with Dr. Lobsang Sangay was when I was in Chennai. He came as a chief guest for the 4th Tibetan College Students’ Conference. It was just few months before 2011 Tibetan Elections were to be declared. I listened to him as he said “I did studied in United States, but my final venue of service is Dharamsala”. He clearly hinted his willingness to contest 2011 Katri election even before the dates were declared and the election which he won against veteran leader Tethong Tenzin Namgyal.

My second encounter with him was in New Delhi at India International Centre. I attended a conference on Democracy in Asia held at the centre representing NDPT. Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay was amongst the top speakers of the inauguration to which His Holiness the Great 14th Dalai Lama was the Chief Guest. He gave a wonderful speech in English particularly on the importance of Tibetan rivers to Asia to a gathering of more than 200 delegates from 20 different countries. He even stayed the whole day even during the informal sessions and introduced us as the political party in exile. His way of reaching out to foreign leaders and dealing with them earned our admiration. One final occasion during which I was able to meet Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay was when NDPT (I was then General Secretary) organized workshop to college going Tibetan students and sought his permission for an audience with the students. He readily agreed despite lack of time and sought off-duty time of more than an hour and interacted with students. Speaker Penpa Tsering came as chief guest for the workshop and spoke during inauguration and Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s audience was sought at the near end for his informal speech.

In nutshell, the race for 2016 Sikyong post has been hugely ruled by the two—‘the lion and the tiger’, and probably there is no one who can snatch the opportunity for the exile’s top post. There are the Kings in their own and let us wait to see who roars louder in the electoral result in March—the sitting lion or the sitting tiger.

NOTE:  Pam Tenzin alias Doring Tenzin Phuntsok (Tenzin Phuntsok) is an independent Tibetan political observer, and he holds a M. Phil degree in Political Science from the University of Madras, India.

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