The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, a year prior to his death in 1933, composed a Last Testament in response to petitions by his Ministers for perpetual guidance.[i] It was a legacy of leadership, prescribing a course by which Tibet might avoid international pitfalls which he even then foresaw. The Dalai Lama described his time as one beset by "Five Kinds of Degeneration." Among the worst of calamities, he said, "is the manner of working among the red people" (i.e. the Communists). Referring to the ills which had befallen their co-religionists in Mongolia, he warned the Tibetans it "may happen that here, in the center of Tibet, the religion and the secular administration may be attacked both from the outside and from the inside." His Testament continues: "Tibet is happy, and in comfort now; the matter rests in your hands. All civil and military matters should be organized with knowledge; act in harmony; do not pretend to do what you cannot do. . . . High officials, low officials, and peasants must all act in harmony to bring happiness to Tibet. One person alone cannot lift a heavy carpet; several must unite to do so."

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama left a society whose happiness was not so much marred by its forbidding isolation as by social injustice and political fragmentation. Tibetans were driven by sectional and tribal loyalties into semi-autonomous political regions. Religious-secular dichotomy split Tibet into two realms of power. In feudal pattern, vast estates were held by nobility and monastery. The populace was uninformed and apathetic to civic responsibility. Formal education was scarce and where it was available was doctrinally religious, preparing for the eternity of the Buddhist cycle rather than the life of this world. As such it furnished barren ground for cultivating a public service. The political establishment serving the Dalai Lama comprised a charming but untrained gentry, powerful monks and court favorites. Some were by nature able administrators; some were inept and venal.

A chaotic political system tempts the foreign aggressor. Tibet sat uneasy amid the expansionist ambitions of her neighbors.

One element existed to bring some unity to the cleavages of Tibetan life and society: the office of the Dalai Lama. During the period from the seventeenth century, after the reign of the Great Fifth, until the assumption of full powers by the Thirteenth in 1895, the Dalai Lamas had exerted little authority over secular affairs. This was particularly true in regard to Tibet's international relations where a policy of ultramontane isolationism prevailed. The Tibetans asked only to be left alone, and they saw no reason to educate or concern themselves with politics beyond their borders.

In the twentieth century, however, this was no longer possible. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was forced into exile twice. In 1904, he fled to Mongolia to escape the British punitive expedition led by Colonel Younghusband. Six years later, he went to India to escape the Chinese occupation of his capital. During these periods of exile, the Dalai Lama learned at first hand of the world outside Tibet. In the latter part of his reign, his education in contemporary affairs continued to be sporadic. His principal tutor in politics was Sir Charles Bell, the British Political Representative in Tibet. Sir Charles, in the British colonial tradition, encouraged Tibetans to send a limited number of young men to England for education. Additional small groups, usually of the nobility, were schooled from time to time in the Jesuit College of St. Joseph's at Darjeeling.[ii] Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama himself was largely isolated from the main currents of twentieth century political thought.

The political content of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's Testament reveals that he was aware of ills in the Tibetan political system. He himself had contributed to consolidation and unification through a skillful use of secular power, though hampered in this by primitive communication, entrenched local authority and an apathetic citizenry. The Regency which ruled after his death, during the interregnum 1933-1950, made little use of these consolidated powers for social, political or economic reform.

Like his predecessor, the present Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth, has received little formal instruction in contemporary statecraft. He has, nevertheless, a lively curiosity concerning the world's workings and a deep interest in education. A student of languages, he began very early to read such secular works in English and Tibetan as were available in the Potala. In 1950, he took advantage of Heinrich Harrer's fortuitous presence in Lhasa[iii] to obtain what tutelage Harrer could furnish in order to supplement his own self-education. Since his formal assumption of power in 1950, at the age of 15, his political education has been speeded by the practical necessity of dealing with masters of politics on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

When he assumed power the Chinese Communists had already invaded the eastern frontier of Tibet. Within a year, he was ruling his country with a Chinese military overlord. Tibet, moreover, was still disunited; political evils of the old system remained. Despite the obstacles, the Dalai Lama attempted to effect reforms to the limit of his powers.[iv]

Beginning in 1952, he sought a basic reform in the redistribution of the large landholdings of the nobility and the monasteries, whose power had been used to maintain a government of privilege. True to his nature and that of his people, the Dalai Lama sought to bring about this change peacefully by using state funds to compensate the owners for their lands. His objective was to redistribute the lands according to the ability of each person to work them. Each time the Dalai Lama made this proposal, the Chinese Communists vetoed it, seeking to impose their own scheme of forced collective action.

The Dalai Lama then set up a special organization within his government to effect such reforms as the Chinese would permit. This organization suggested, and the Dalai Lama approved, a reduction in land taxes and the cancellation of debts and interest charges incurred by farmers for past state loans for cultivation and other agricultural work. The Dalai Lama authorized this new organization to receive and hear complaints against district and local authorities. He ended the traditional requirement on landowners to provide free transportation to government officials. Wherever the Tibetan Government was free to operate, these new policies prevailed.

By 1958 it had become apparent to all patriotic Tibetans that a pledge given by the Chinese in 1951 to permit self-rule in Tibet was worthless. The Dalai Lama had become a virtual prisoner in the Potala. In view of this, the disorganized resistance which the Khambas had begun some years before in east Tibet finally united in a country-wide organization concentrated in the 15,000-foot-high Lake Trigu area south of Lhasa. Volunteers from all over Tibet who made their way to trusted government leaders in Lhasa were directed to the encampments near Lake Trigu. There, members of the resistance lived by a simple code of elementary democracy, with the slogan "The soldiers are the children, the rest of the population are the parents." Social distinctions were abolished. Twenty-five-man committees, set up in towns held by the rebels, functioned as a government with equal justice and the fullest participation of the people.

Eventually, the rebel training ground produced a set of principles for the future government of a free and independent Tibet. They were identical with those which the Dalai Lama had attempted to put into practice. The resistance leaders, who had found that the chronic disunity stood in the way of any attempt to organize Tibet, wanted equal representation in a new united government for all tribes and geographic areas. This would be a major step toward the development of an all-Tibetan government, rather than one dominated by Lhasa and ignored in the provinces. They asked, too, that state-purchased lands be distributed to the landless and that government posts be filled by persons chosen by merit rather than birth.

When the Dalai Lama passed through the Trigu area in 1959 on his escape to India he met with the resistance leaders, heard their program and gave it his full blessing. At Lhuntse Dzong, still four days from the Indian border, the Dalai Lama inaugurated a new government based on this program. Within a few weeks the area was overrun by the Chinese, however, and the newly founded government was never able to operate. But the movement that centered about Lake Trigu had been a valuable training ground in practical political democracy, and it gave the Dalai Lama a foundation on which to build.


Shortly after his arrival in India, the Dalai Lama declared that, if Tibet were to have a future, it would require a government based upon a form and social system different from the old ways. Ideologically, such a government presented no problem to the Dalai Lama for, as he said in a statement at Mussoorie, India, on June 20, 1959, "We, as firm believers in Buddhism, welcome change and progress consistent with the genius of our people and the rich tradition of our country."

To achieve such aims in practice was, however, quite another matter. The resistance was badly scattered and the Chinese Army was in full occupation of Tibet. Resistance fighters and refugees who had escaped were in camps separated by hundreds of miles along the Indian and Nepalese borders.

The Dalai Lama himself was a political exile, and as such bound not to abuse the generous hospitality of his Indian hosts. He must now organize and unite the scattered remnants which were all that was left to him of his country, but he must do so without violating the injunction which the Indian Government had issued, in accordance with standard international practice, against his engaging in political activity while living in exile in India. The Dalai Lama was under no illusion that the future was bright or that the prospects were favorable for an early return to Tibet. In his public statements and in his talks with those of his people who came to him he warned that, while the Tibetans must work for the present moment, they must be prepared to think of final triumph in terms of decades and lifetimes. He stressed that the concept of the wheel of life offered the consolation of historical justice, but that all Tibetans must unite to maintain the motion of the wheel.

The Dalai Lama urged his people to organize so as to be ready to take advantage of any situation which might permit them to return as a free people with their own government in their own country. Refugees must use their exile as a period of opportunity to educate themselves for living in the twentieth century. This meant becoming contributing citizens to the life of the Indian state, learning skills, crafts and professions that later would be useful to a Tibet which could never return to its former isolation. Tibetans must learn and be ready to practice techniques of self- government. They must convince the rest of the world that they were an independent people, capable of self-government, who had done their share in vindicating the principle of self-determination and hence were ready for, and worthy of, the support of those who valued that great principle.


These were the tasks confronting the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in the first summer of their exile in 1959. Although they did not know their Locke, Mill and Jefferson, and had traditionally accepted an autocratic form of government, Tibetans by nature are a democratic people. Mountain, space and a feeling of closeness to God produce an instinctive sense of equality and regard for human dignity. Self-reliance is a necessity of life in Tibet. These facts of their nature soon became evident in India.

In the autumn of 1959 each refugee camp organized meetings to discuss the problems and hopes of Tibet. The people were encouraged to speak openly about failings of the old Tibetan government and inquire into what was being done by the Dalai Lama and his councilors to formulate policies to meet the present situation. These meetings culminated in the election of 13 persons, three to represent each of the geographical and tribal areas of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang (central and western Tibet), and one for each of the four major religious groups. These men were to act as a channel between the people and the Dalai Lama. When the Dalai Lama visited Bodh Gaya on the pilgrimage he made in December 1959-January 1960, he met with these representatives, heard their ideas and encouraged them to continue to poll the refugees on the needs and desires which they would like him to fulfill. In the summer of 1960 the Dalai Lama asked these representatives to come to Dharmsala to act as the people's councilors to him.

By the autumn of 1960 the Dalai Lama had reorganized and divided responsibilities among the Tibetans living with him at Dharmsala. Tzepon Shakabpa, a former administrative and financial official in Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama's private secretary, Phala, have the responsibility of promoting and maintaining a unified organization among the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, who had acted as the Tibetan spokesman at the United Nations, continues to represent the Tibetans in their international affairs, aided by Rinchen Sadustshang, a young Khamba educated at St. Joseph's in Darjeeling. Thubten Ninje and Kundeling Dzasa, who were made responsible for implementing the Dalai Lama's pressing interest in the education of the Tibetan youth, are setting up Tibetan schools in India,[v] obtaining foreign scholarships and supervising reforms in the Tibetan language to make it adequate for treating new subjects for which there are at present no words.

The Dalai Lama's religious advisers, Shashur and Choden Da Lama, work on the reform and codification of dogma and practice of the Lamaist religion. They also seek to promote a more general understanding among the Tibetans and the outside world of their religion. They have begun contact with world church leaders and have awakened the sympathetic interest of Pope John XXIII and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

An elementary Civil Service Commission has been established to direct the training of those who might be useful to the Dalai Lama in the future and to insure that those presently qualified are put to the best current use. The investment of funds and the disbursement of the income from the Treasury[vi] are supervised by Tibetan financial specialists, while others work on building census files and putting out public information. While these groups are not recognized as a formal government, they constitute political elements needed by the Tibetan people in their present circumstances. They also form the basis for a government for a free Tibet of the future.

The Dalai Lama has divided his time between prayer and meditation and the wordly problems confronting him and his people. He has continued his self- education largely through personal conferences with Indian and other national leaders who visit him, and by a voracious program of reading. His regard for the wisdom of Gandhi has been carried over to Nehru, whose counsel he values and whose democratic leadership he would like to emulate. J. P. Narayan, the Indian agrarian socialist, has been a friend for years, and his advice has frequently been sought. Visitors to Dharmsala have found the Dalai Lama knowledgeable on current international affairs, which he follows

By travel among the refugees and through the reports of the people's representatives and other Tibetans who come to Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama keeps himself informed about the mood of his people. Scattered and discouraged as they are in exile, the Tibetans nevertheless remain faithful to the Dalai Lama. They need a focus for their loyalty, something which gives them a sense of cohesion, offers some signs of progress, and supports their faith that there is a future for them despite the bleak present.


The process of electing and instructing the people's representatives had created by early 1960 the elements of representative self-government. The Dalai Lama accordingly concluded that it was time to draft a new Constitution for Tibet. On March 10, 1961, therefore, the second anniversary of the Tibetan revolt, the Dalai Lama announced that he was planning to draft a statement of his views for such a constitution, as the first step in the process of preparing a formal document. This statement of principles would be the basis for popular discussions among the Tibetans living outside their country, who would be encouraged to say what they wanted and expected in their constitution. Once these popular views were formulated, the Dalai Lama would meet with the people's representatives and prepare a final set of guiding principles. On the basis of these a popularly elected constituent assembly would draft the implementing document.

In July of this year, the Dalai Lama, his advisers and the people's representatives completed their draft of principles, upon which a constitution might be based. A free Tibet, as they see it, would be built on the following lines:

In the classical tradition of constitutional democracy:

(a) The powers of government should be allocated among an executive branch consisting of the Dalai Lama and his cabinet, a popularly chosen bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary.

(b) These branches of the government should be subject to a system of interacting checks and balances ensuring the continued independence of each within its proper sphere of activity.

In recognition of the unique features of Tibetan political tradition:

(a) While the Dalai Lama would continue as sovereign over Church and State, a major innovation is the suggestion that provision be made for his removal from office in either sphere through the action of representative assemblies.

(b) A Regency, chosen by the legislature, would rule during the interregnum between the Dalai Lama's death and the assumption of power by his successor. The legislature would also have the power to remove the Regency, which would be a further check on what has historically been the most autocratic institution in Tibetan life.

(c) The system of federation would be replaced by a system of regional authorities subject to the authority of central government. To protect the provinces from unwarranted encroachment, the right of judicial appeal would be granted in cases where local legislation has been vetoed by officials appointed by the central government.

(d) The Dalai Lama recommends that consideration be given to inserting in the constitution a definition of the respective spheres of secular and religious education. Implicit in this suggestion is a criticism of the old monastic supremacy in education as being inadequate to meet the new situation.

(e) The Dalai Lama recommends a provision for a professional civil service to ensure against revival of traditional nepotism and privilege.

In the economic field, the Dalai Lama urges adoption of a system of voluntary agricultural and handicraft coöperatives for production and marketing. He would keep Tibet predominantly a rural economy, based on his desire to see every man own the land he farms. His emphasis on representative democracy, the encouragement of education and the administration of a mildly socialist state by a corps of professionals would surely have been approved by John Stuart Mill as a Himalayan modification of his ideals of a democratically based political economy.

The Tibetan people in India, Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal assembled in August 1961 in their camps, schools and centers to discuss, amend, reject or add to these principles. The Dalai Lama asked them to complete their work in time to circulate the product of their deliberations to the Sixteenth Session of the United Nations General Assembly this autumn. Though in exile, the free Tibetans speak for their enslaved countrymen and as custodians of the future of their land. In a decade they have leaped over centuries of outworn political theory and practice. They ask other nations and peoples that have done the same to support their right to determine their own destiny and live out their lives in freedom.

[i] See "Portrait of the Dalai Lama," by Sir Charles Bell, p. 376-382. (Toronto: Collins, 1946)

[ii] The present Dalai Lama's younger brother, Ngari Rimpoche, is now enrolled at St. Joseph's, which his older brother, Gyalo Thondup, also attended.

[iii] Heinrich Harrer, "Seven Years in Tibet." New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954.

[iv] Cf. Tibet and the Chinese People's Republic, Report to the International Commission of Jurists by the Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet. 1960, p. 314.

[v] By early 1961 schools had been set up in Dharmsala, Dalhousie, Darjeeling and Mussoorie teaching Tibetan, Hindi and English in addition to the usual primary subjects.

[vi] Grossly inflated stories circulated in 1960 regarding the size of the Dalai Lama's personal Treasury. Beginning in 1950, the Dalai Lama had sent overland to Sikkim and India some of the more easily transportable items from the historic storehouse in the Potala, mainly gold bricks. The best estimate of the total wealth now available is not more than $1,500,000. While the Indian Government contributes to the maintenance in modest circumstances of the Dalai Lama and certain of his followers at Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama must spread his relatively small income widely for refugee needs, the establishment and maintenance of schools, etc. through the daily newspapers and radio broadcasts. He has continued his study of English and reads eagerly in Western philosophy and political economy.

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