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The Future of Tibet: 2016 Tibetan Elections

The Tibetan Government-in-exile held elections in late March to determine their group’s newest administration. It was the second election since the Dalai Lama stepped down as the head of government in 2011 to focus on his role as the country’s spiritual leader. Approximately 80,000 Tibetans from across the globe registered to vote, electing incumbent Lobsang Sangay back to his role of Sikyong, the organization’s equivalent to a prime minister.

Throughout the 2016 elections, the main talking point remained the same it has been since the aftermath of World War II: the country’s relationship with China.

The Long History of China’s Dominance of Tibet

While its strained relationship with China goes back centuries, Tibet’s current situation has been simmering since 1951. Existing as a feudalistic society even while World War II raged on elsewhere, Tibet attracted the attention of Mao Zedong and Communist China in 1949. Wanting to free the serfs from the yokes of their landowners, the People’s Republic of China pressured Tibetan leaders into signing the Seventeen Point Agreement on May 23, 1951. While he acquiesced to the Agreement at first, the Dalai Lama later recanted, fleeing the country in 1959 after further unrest in the area.

Tibet’s Government-in-Exile

Since 1959, the leadership of the Tibetan people has been based in Dharamsala, a city in northern India. There, the Tibetan Government-in-exile has advocated for the increased independence of the Tibetan area and its people from China, claiming to represent the voice of the people of Tibet worldwide and acting as their governmental body.

As the leading advocate for an independent Tibet, the Government-in-exile has also acted as a public relations organization, pushing for more media attention to their cause, creating a Tibetan national anthem, and providing evidence that China’s rule has amounted to a genocide. The cause managed to gain popular attention during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, through protests surrounding the process of the Olympic Torch, as well as dramatic self-immolations by Tibetan monks.

Tibet’s 2016 Elections

The key issue discussed during the 2016 Tibetan elections had been how to communicate with China regarding the future of the Tibetan area and people. With the elected leadership acting as the government’s face in any upcoming talks on the issue, their stance on the goals to pursue and the tone to adopt would play huge factors.

Among Tibetans, the issue boils down to two options: pursue complete independence from China, or accept limits to China’s rule and fight for increased Tibetan autonomy.

The preliminary votes in the 2016 election have made it clear that the Tibetan voters favor a road of compromise with China: all of the candidates running for prime minister who supported full Tibetan independence were defeated in the primaries. The eventual winner, Lobsang Sangay, who received 57% of the vote, stands for a regional autonomy that still accepts a limited Chinese rule.

Regardless of Tibet’s concessions, however, talks between the countries have been stagnant: China has adamantly refused to even discuss the issue of Tibetan independence or increased autonomy. It hasn’t talked with any of the Dalai Lama’s representatives since 2010, and does not recognize the Tibetan Government-in-exile as a governing body. Instead, China holds that the Seventeen Point Agreement still controls the Tibetan state.

What Can Be Done

Since the Tibetan independence movement obtained media exposure during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, numerous organizations have gained prominence in their fight to free Tibet from China. Among the most prominent is Free Tibet, though the Tibetan Government-in-exile provides an extensive listing of more than 250 other organizations around the globe on its website.

However, perhaps the biggest obstacle in the movement has been China’s unwillingness to even sit down and talk with Tibet about the subject. Mailing your local elected official might not seem like much, but the issue has seen action in the U.S. House of Representatives, so the time is ripe to push your congressman to consider it. Citizens of China are in an especially good position to advocate for change by reaching out to their local leadership and asking them to at least sit down and talk with Tibetan officials.

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