The Power of a Name

Today is International Human Rights Day, a day to be thankful for the fundamental human rights that we enjoy – the right to speak freely, to undergo a fair and public hearing, to openly practice our faith, and to make decisions about our own lives. However, it is also a day to take action for those who are denied these unalienable rights. Thousands of men, women and children continue to be tortured to death, raped, forced from their homes, deprived of food and health care by their own governments or by armed militias, seemingly for the purposes of holding their grip on power.

Where does the campaign against these human rights abusers begin? Far too many groups and individuals face these obstacles.  Women remain hugely under-represented in government and other decision-making administrative positions. Indigenous people face discrimination denying them the opportunities to make full use of their guaranteed rights and face institutions that often fail to take account of their circumstances. Within the context of South Asia, Tibet epitomizes this human rights struggle.

Over the past half-century, there has been increasing tension between China and Tibet regarding Tibet’s political status. China’s position is that its government has exercised sovereignty over Tibet for over 700 years, and that Tibet has never been an independent state. On the other hand, the Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) position is that Tibet is a distinct nation with a history of independence. In 1959 the Dalai Lama fled Tibet to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Since then, McLeod Ganj has remained the headquarters for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) along with the Tibetan refugee community in India.

On May 14th 2011, the government’s title changed from the “Tibetan Government-in-Exile” to the “Central Tibetan Administration”. However, the Tibetan government’s title is far more than just a name. It represents a struggle and symbolizes an entire peoples commitment and diligence to regain their homeland. The Tibetan people should not be forced to acquiesce in the name of making their human rights campaign more “practical”.

In the past month, 27 Tibetans have set themselves on fire. Most of these individuals were in the prime of their youth with the youngest, a nun named Sangay Dolma, just 17 years old. Evidently, the long-drawn-out crusade against human rights abuse has forced the movement in a different direction. Regardless of how frustrating the campaign, time cannot be allowed to influence the global struggle to achieve universal human rights.

In my eyes the title “Central Tibetan Administration” does not imply that the Tibetan people are currently displaced, living as refugees in India. It does not show that the Tibetans are capable of autonomous rule, but seems to suggest that the Tibetans run a mere administration rather than a full-fledged government. The title almost has a positive connotation, as opposed to the emotions that one evokes from the phrase “in exile”. A government’s title caries a significant degree of value in the field of international affairs, and it is important for Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike to understand that Tibetans are currently engaged in a territorial dispute when their government is mentioned.

Earlier last year the Dalai Lama announced his retirement from his role as political leader of the CTA, but His Holiness will continue as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. This devolution of power is likely to result in a new constitutional structure for the Tibetan government-in-exile, which poses an overwhelming responsibility for the new leaders of the Tibetan movement. Unfortunately, I along with the Tibetan Youth Congress strongly believe that this change in nomenclature is a shift in the wrong direction for both Tibetans and the larger human rights movement.