Exile Tibetan booth officials look at a green book, a necessary document for Tibetans to vote, during the second and final round of voting to elect their parliamentarians and the leader of the Central Tibetan Administration

Tibetans in exile elect a new president

Penpa Tsering, the new president-elect of the Central Tibetan Administration, said his first priority is to build trust. The election comes at a critical time for the Tibetan diaspora, as China tightens its grip on the region.

The World

Tibetans in exile have a new leader. 

On Friday, Penpa Tsering was announced the winner of the presidential race in the Central Tibetan Administration general elections that took place in April

Thousands in the diaspora, which includes some 130,000 people around the world, came out to vote for their exile president — or sikyong — and 45 members of parliament. Voter turnout was more than 77%, according to the CTA. 

Now President-elect Tsering, the former speaker of Tibet's parliament-in-exile, who was favored to win since the initial vote last month, takes the helm at a crucial time for the diaspora, experts say, as China tightens its grip on the region while also refusing to engage with the diaspora’s leaders. 

Related: China sharply expands mass labor program in Tibet

Just hours after learning of his triumph, Tsering said that one of his first priorities is to shore up trust with the general public.

“[W]e’ll be making our overtures to the Chinese government about carrying forward, or resuming dialogue.”

Penpa Tsering, president-elect, Central Tibetan Administration

“Because right now, because of the pandemic, it’s hard to move around,” he said. “But at the same time, we’ll be making our overtures to the Chinese government about carrying forward, or resuming dialogue.”

This year’s general election was unique for several reasons. Experts say it was particularly divisive and polarizing, all while taking place during the pandemic. 

Dechem Pemba, 41, in London, said her polling place was outdoors this time around.

“It was sort of in a public park and it was all socially distanced and there was hand sanitizer and hand wipes everywhere. And people were wearing masks,” she said. 

Pemba is the daughter of parents who fled Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s after Chinese annexation. She’s also responsible for another reason why this general election was different from past elections: the launch of SmartVote Tibet, a multilingual online tool that put election and candidate information all in one place. The site also helped match voters with candidates that shared the same views and stances on policy. 

She said the Tibetan diaspora has never used anything like that before. 

“To carry out an election in exile or in diaspora for an exile government, logistically, is very difficult. ...So, it’s quite an amazing feat for it all to happen.”

Dechem Pemba, 41, London

“To carry out an election in exile or in diaspora for an exile government, logistically, is very difficult,” Pemba said. “So, it’s quite an amazing feat for it all to happen.”

Related: On the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, activists say the 'resistance spirit' is still alive

The Central Tibetan Administration — headquartered in Dharamsala, India, and operates an annual budget of some $45 million — is responsible for supporting both the exile diaspora as well as the voices of 3.5 million Tibetans still inside Tibet. 

Experts say the CTA also plays a critical role in keeping the diaspora connected to the homeland. People like Pemba, who was born in the United Kingdom but keeps her heritage close through her work as the operator of a translation website. 

“Even though I’m physically far away from Tibet, I feel quite close to Tibet culturally,” Pemba said. “I feel like I have this connection because in my sort of everyday life I’m always doing something related to Tibet.”

But maintaining this close cultural connection is becoming more difficult, said Kate Saunders — an independent researcher and writer specializing in Tibet. 

In addition to the out-migration of Tibetan exiles slowing to a trickle, she said, Beijing has also moved into a new phase of Tibetan assimilation.

“And what that means is that the Chinese Community Party has developed new measures to break the connections between generations and to obliterate memories and knowledge of Tibet in the past,” Saunders said.

Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, say China has severely restricted free speech, religious freedom, movement and assembly in Tibet — while increasing surveillance and tightening border controls.

The stakes could not be higher for the incoming CTA, said Saunders, “in terms of protecting and preserving the cultural, religious and national identity of Tibetans and their civilization.”

The biggest challenge for incoming President Tsering will be how to deal with China, said Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan scholar at the University of British Columbia. The CTA and the Dalai Lama, have adopted the “middle way” approach when it comes to China, which allows for Tibet to remain part of China — but with meaningful autonomy. 

“Actually there is very [sic] limited things [Tsering] can do,” Shakya said. “But another aspect is that there is a global tension.”

Shakya said Tibet’s exiled leaders should seize on China’s rising tensions with other countries over issues such as the pandemic, border disputes and the mistreatment of Uyghurs, a minority ethnic group in China’s western Xinjiang province, and use it to their advantage to help advance the diaspora’s priorities.

"[L]ong-term, there is very little chance of China initiating any kind of dialogue with the diaspora movement or the Central Tibetan Administration."

Shakya Tsering, Tibetan scholar, University of British Columbia

Because “long-term, there is very little chance of China initiating any kind of dialogue with the diaspora movement or the Central Tibetan Administration,” he said. 

For President-elect Tsering’s part, he said creating and deepening relationships with governments and people who cherish freedom and democracy around the world is a top priority for his administration. 

“So, we’ll reach out to as many as possible and win their support for the cause of Tibet,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the aging Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, will also decide during Tsering’s term on whether or not he will reincarnate. Now 85, he has said that when he turns 90, he may decide to end a long-standing Buddhist tradition to reincarnate through a successor. But the event is beset with controversy as China has already announced plans to appoint their own Dalai Lama. 

Related: The US draws a red line, saying China can't name Tibetan Buddhism's next leader 

Still, the general election that just took place is meaningful, experts say — particularly since the Tibetan diaspora has come to claim democracy as an important value. 

“You know, having sort of this active, vibrant democracy is something everybody wants and we can be proud of,” Pemba said.

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