Carl Gershman Presentation of the NED’s Democracy Service Medal to the Dalai Lama

Remarks by Carl Gershman
Library of Congress
Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2010

It’s a very great honor for me to read the NED’s tribute to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, after which Judy and I will have the distinct pleasure of placing our Democracy Service Medal around his neck, much as he has presented the traditional Khata scarf to so many friends of the Tibetan people throughout the world.

We are gathered here today to honor the contribution of the Dalai Lama to the principles, values, and cause of democracy. This contribution is neither well understood nor widely recognized. The leadership of His Holiness in the struggle of the Tibetan people to preserve their culture is world renowned, and he has been honored as a religious leader and as a man of peace. But his contribution to democracy has not received the attention it deserves. Our purpose today is to shed light on this dimension of his beliefs and purposes, one that makes the Dalai Lama especially relevant to the future of the world in which we live.

Even as a very young man, years before he fled Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama sought to implement significant democratic reforms in Tibet’s system of government. Not only did he seek justice for the Tibetan people, but he also saw such reforms, in the areas of taxation and land-titling, as a way 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.

For reasons beyond his control the Dalai Lama was unable to implement these reforms in Tibet, but once in exile he proceeded almost immediately to develop a democratic system for the Tibetans living in India. The first elections among Tibetan refugees were held in the summer of 1960, just months after His Holiness arrived in Dharamsala, and 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. While the Charter is modeled on the constitutions of established democracies, it reflects the unique nature of Tibetan culture by placing special emphasis on protecting freedom of religion, upholding the principles of nonviolence, and emphasizing the moral and material welfare of the Tibetan people. In 1992, the Dalai Lama announced new Guidelines for Tibet’s Future Polity that, pending a negotiated settlement with the Chinese government, give the major responsibility for determining Tibet’s future governance to the Tibetans living inside Tibet. That responsibility, in his view, should include even the power to determine if the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue to exist.

The Dalai Lama’s commitment to developing a democratic polity for Tibet is based on his belief, enunciated in a lecture sponsored by the NED in 1998, that the old system “was outdated and ill-equipped to face the challenges of the contemporary world.” This commitment to democratic reform and modernization, important as it is, is but one dimension of the Dalai Lama’s contribution to democracy. Let me list some of the others.

The first is his commitment to education which, as he said in his NED lecture, empowers people by giving “them a sufficient understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society.” Here the Dalai Lama echoes our own John Dewey and his disciple Sidney Hook, who said that the real heroes in a democracy are the philosophers and teachers who mould the citizens’ intellectual ideals and social attitudes, without which they cannot exercise the right of self-government or realize the promise of democracy. This commitment to imparting knowledge as the foundation of democracy is at the core of the Library of Congress, where we meet today. It has also inspired the extraordinary Tibetan Children’s Village and the array of other Tibetan educational institutions established throughout India, including the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education, which was inaugurated a year ago this week in Bangalore.

Another dimension of the Dalai Lama’s contribution to democracy has been his forthright defense of democracy as a universal idea, in response to those Asian leaders who have claimed that it is a Western concept that undermines so-called “Asian values” of order, duty, and stability. Speaking as a Buddhist monk, he has argued that Buddhism, while born on the Indian subcontinent, is compatible with democracy in that both are “rooted in a common understanding of the equality and potential of every individual.” In addition, he has attached great importance to the fact that democracy is now well established in India and other non-Western countries and is the cherished goal of brave activists in Burma, China, and elsewhere around the globe. The institutions that derive from democratic values, he has said, are nothing less than the “necessary conditions of a civilized society.”

In addition to defending democracy, His Holiness has given to us all 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 the Tibetan people, 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 brute force and abusive insults, he has given hope against hope not just to his own people but to oppressed people everywhere. By showing a 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. Not least, the Dalai Lama has been a consistent voice of solidarity for Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic dissidents.

His Holiness 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 the democracy of 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 like the imprisoned 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.

His Holiness has said that his exile has also enabled him “to learn about the world in a way that we Tibetans had never been able to do before.” And it has given the world the opportunity to learn about the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet in a way that might not otherwise have been possible — and to have become enriched in the process. It has been the Dalai Lama’s monumental achievement to have transformed exile into a platform from which to defend his people and to teach moral and democratic values to the world, an achievement that inspires people of good will everywhere and helps us all look to the future with hope.

For his contribution to advancing the institutions, values and purposes of democracy, for giving us all a model of how to practice democracy as a way of life, and for defending the survival of the people and culture of Tibet in a way that has also contributed to world peace and human understanding, the National Endowment for Democracy is proud to present its Democracy Service Medal to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.