The Canberra Times, 19 March 2016
It is in every sense a world away from the aggressive, showy campaigns of US democracy on display this year, but Tibetans outside their homeland will also go to the ballot box on Sunday to choose their leader.
And for the first time, Australia’s Tibetan community can directly vote not only for a sikyong, the equivalent of a prime minister, but also for a local to represent them as the Australasia member of the exiled government which sits in northern India.
ACT Tibetan Community president Sonam Choedon, 32, said the election was a proud day which was taken very seriously, with a high turnout expected.
“I think it’s a mixed emotion. You’re very happy, because even if we’re in exile, refugees living across the world, on that same day we come together for the same cause, and this shows that we are behind one goal, one leadership,” she said.
“But you are also sad because you think about the Tibetans living inside Tibet, with no freedom and no basic human rights and who can’t vote.”
The Dalai Lama fled from Tibet and established the Tibetan exile administration in India in 1959, with a parliament beginning a year later, but Ms Choedon said the vote on Sunday would be only the second vote since the Dalai Lama devolved his political power to an elected leader in 2011.
Voting is open to registered adults who have a valid “green book”, the identity document which is as close to a passport as the exiled Central Tibetan Administration provides.
There is a US connection, with the sitting and inaugural elected sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, a former Harvard Law School student. He is competing against the speaker of the parliament, Penpa Tsering.
Shenphen Ringpapontsang, who will be voting in his first Tibetan election on Sunday, said both men, in their late 40s, had visited Australia in the last four years.
“The incumbent was the first to bring in a more Western-style campaign to our democracy, more charming and charismatic, and whoever we elect is now the face of our struggle, and I think that’s why a lot of people have supported him because we want him to represent us internationally,” he said.
“Both have been campaigning very hard and they have had a series of debates. The social media among the Tibetan diaspora is very active.”
Beijing claims a centuries-old sovereignty over the Himalayan region, and sent thousands of troops to enforce its claim in 1950. No country openly disputes China’s claim to sovereignty of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but the allegiances of many Tibetans lie with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, seen by his followers as a living god, but by China as a separatist threat, the BBC has reported.
There are about 2000 Tibetans living in Australia, most of them Australian citizens, Ms Choedon said.