Now that the White House has announced that President Obama will receive the Dalai Lama, it is important that he be welcomed not only as a moral and religious leader respected throughout the world but also as a fellow democrat who shares America’s deepest values.
This is not an aspect of the Dalai Lama that is well understood, especially by those who see him as the spiritual leader of a traditional people. Yet he is a devoted democrat who has defended the universality of the democratic idea against the “Asian values” argument of various autocrats and who has tried, even before he fled Tibet in 1959, to modernize Tibet’s system of government.
He did so partly to mobilize the Tibetan people against the Chinese attempt to uproot traditional Tibetan society through forced collectivization, a program that was already well underway in the early 1950s under the Orwellian rubric of democratic reform; and because he realized, as he later said, that the old system “was outdated and ill-equipped to face the challenges of the contemporary world.”
For reasons beyond his control, the Dalai Lama was unable to implement his reform program in Tibet, but once in exile he proceeded almost immediately to introduce a democratic system for Tibetans living in India. The first elections among Tibetan refugees were held in the summer of 1960, only months after the Dalai Lama arrived in Dharamsala. A democratic constitution was promulgated in 1963 on the fourth anniversary of the Lhasa uprising.
Today the Tibetan community in exile is governed by an elected National Assembly overseen by an independent judiciary, as permissible by Indian law. A charter adopted by the assembly in 1991 transferred from the Dalai Lama to that body the power to elect the cabinet, including a prime minister vested with day-to-day powers. In 1992, the Dalai Lama announced new guidelines for Tibet’s future that, pending a negotiated settlement with the Chinese government, give the major responsibility for determining Tibet’s governance to the Tibetans living in Tibet. That responsibility, in his view, should include even the power to determine whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue to exist.
In addition, an elaborate system of Tibetan educational institutions has been established throughout India, in keeping with the Dalai Lama’s belief that it is necessary to empower people by giving “them a sufficient understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society.”
The Dalai Lama has given the world a model of how to pursue democracy and live according to its values. By refusing to relinquish the principle of nonviolence despite the terrible violence that has been inflicted on Tibetans, he has preserved the moral integrity of the Tibetan struggle and the possibility for an eventual reconciliation with China. By demonstrating moral courage and self-assurance in the face of China’s brute force and abusive insults, he has given hope against hope not just to his own people but to oppressed people everywhere. And by showing deep concern for all human beings, in keeping with his belief in universal responsibility, he has awakened the spirit of human and international solidarity that animates all those around the world who are struggling for democracy and human rights. The Dalai Lama has been a consistent voice of solidarity for Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic dissidents.
He has called himself “the unluckiest Dalai Lama” because he has spent more time as a refugee living outside his country than he has living in Tibet. But with characteristic optimism, he has said that his exile has been rewarding in that it has given him the opportunity to live in a democratic country like India, suggesting that he now has a greater capacity to bring the gift of democracy back to Tibet. Whether he will have that chance depends in no small measure on the fate of Chinese democrats such as the imprisoned scholar Liu Xiaobo, who have supported the Dalai Lama’s call for dialogue as well as his belief that a negotiated settlement granting full autonomy to the Tibetan people will enhance China’s stability, unity and standing in the world. Thus, the circumstances that made the Dalai Lama an exile have also linked his struggle for the survival of Tibet to the future of democracy in the world’s largest country.
President Obama should use the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s visit to express America’s strong support for him and what he represents: genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people and reconciliation with China, moral courage in the pursuit of justice, and the values of democracy and human liberty. It is not just for the Dalai Lama’s sake that he should be welcomed in this manner but also for our own.
Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, which will present its Democracy Service Medal to the Dalai Lama on Friday.