Even prior to my departure from Tibet in March 1959, I had come to the conclusion that in the changing circumstances of the modern world, the system of governance in Tibet must be modified and amended so as to allow the elected representatives of the people to play a more effective role in guiding and shaping the social and economic policies of the State. I also firmly believed that this could only be done through democratic institutions based on social and economic justice.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Foreword to the Constitution for Tibet, drafted in 1963
The Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile is the highest legislative body of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). It is one of the three pillars of Tibetan democratic governance – the Judiciary, Legislature, and the Kashag (Executive).
The democratisation of the Tibetan polity has long been an aspiration of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He had, in fact, initiated the reforms in Tibet itself but this was interrupted due to China’s invasion in 1949/50. Prior to the Chinese invasion, Tibetans experienced little or no democratic governance since important decisions were taken by the Tsogdu (National Assembly), a composition of Kalons (Cabinet members), abbots of the three great monasteries, and societal representatives. No direct elections were held. Following His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s escape into India in 1959, he formally outlined an introduction of a democratic polity in Bodhgaya, India in February 1960. He advised the exile Tibetans to set up an elected body comprising three exile representatives from the three traditional Tibetan provinces and one each from the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Elections were duly held and 13 representatives termed ‘Deputies’ were elected and designated as the ‘Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies (CTPD). They took their oath on 2 September 1960. This historic date was later celebrated as ‘Tibetan Democracy Day.
The Evolution of Tibetan Democratic Polity:
- 1st CTPD (1960-64): The Deputies were initially assigned to various departments of the CTA and met twice a month. On 10 March 1963, His Holiness – after years of thorough consultations – promulgated the Constitution consisting of 10 chapters and 77 articles.
- 2nd CTPD (1964-66): The number of deputies was increased from 13 to 17 with an additional seat reserved for a female deputy from each of the three traditional provinces. According to the new Constitution, His Holiness started nominating an eminent member. In 1965, as envisaged by His Holiness, the traditional practice of appointing monks and lay officials to each office was abolished, as were the various hereditary titles and prerogatives. On 3 May 1966, a separate Secretariat was set up at Dharamshala.
- 3rd CTPD (1966-69) started to oversee the work of the CTA by scrutinizing the administration and holding the Kashag responsible for any lapses in redressing public grievances. Thus it acted as a bridge between the people and the administration. This was the turning point in the functioning of the legislative body.
- 4th CTPD (1969-72): His Holiness ceased to nominate any member to the Commission, reducing the membership to 16.
- 5th CTPD (1972-76) began to approve and sanction the budget of the entire CTA.
- 6th CTPD (1976-79): A new deputy was added to the membership representing the traditional Bon religion, hence the total became 17. The term ‘Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies’ was changed to ‘Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies (ATPD).
- 7th ATPD (1979-82): Due to a persistent campaign by the Tibetan Youth Congress since 1974, urging the deputies to be elected by the combined electorate of the people of the traditional provinces, in 1981, the High-Level Standing Committee agreed to the petition, but the Dhotoe public disagreed. Thus, the Committee revised its decision that a primary election would be held, from which His Holiness would select the members for the new ATPD.
- 8th ATPD (1982-87): As entrusted, His Holiness appointed all the deputies from the primary voting. This was an interim measure till a common solution is found for the issue that occurred during the 7th ATPD. His Holiness reduced the number of deputies to two each from the three provinces, five deputies from the religious traditions, plus one eminent Tibetan appointed by His Holiness making the total strength 12. The term was extended from three to five years.
- 9th ATPD (1987-88): His Holiness, like the previous term, appointed all the members of the 9th ATPD. The members of the 10th ATPD were, however, elected.
- 10th ATPD (1988-90): Following His Holiness’ constant recommendations for more democratic reforms, the Kashag initiated a two-day conference from 29-30 August 1989 with 230 participants from members of the ATPD, CTA, NGOs, Institutes and recently-arrived Tibetans from Tibet. A five-point discussion paper was circulated for feedback from Tibetans both in exile and in Tibet.
The questions were:
1. Whether to have a Prime Minister in the existing governmental setup?
2. Whether the ministers should be elected or appointed as before by His Holiness?
3. Whether a political party system should be introduced for government formation?
4. Whether any changes should be made in the number of ATPD members and their responsibilities?
5. What other democratic changes can be made?
On 11 May 1990, a Special People’s Congress was convened with 369 participants from members of the ATPD, CTA officials, former Kalons, representatives of NGOs, Institutes, Religious sects, and recently-arrived Tibetans from Tibet to discuss the overwhelming suggestions and feedback received from the Tibetan people. It was decided that the members of the ATPD would no longer be appointed by His Holiness but the power to appoint the ministers would be retained.
On the same day, the existing Kashag and ATPD were declared dissolved. His Holiness directed the Congress to elect an interim Kashag to hold office until the proclamation of a new Charter. The ATPD remained dissolved till the new Charter was adopted.
The Interregnum Period: (12 May 1990 – 28 May 1991)
His Holiness appointed a Constitution Review Committee to draft a democratic Charter for the Tibetans in exile as well as review the existing draft constitution for future Tibet.
The Charter Drafting Committee consulted a number of Tibetan and non-Tibetan experts and scholars and came out with a draft Charter that was based on the Constitution of 1963, the Five-Point Peace Plan of 1987, His Holiness’ address to the European Parliament in 1988, 10th ATPD in 1988, the 16th General Assembly in 1989, and the Special Congress in 1990.
Meanwhile, His Holiness also suggested the expansion of membership in ATPD, electing the Kalons, more representation for women, and the advisability of setting up two houses of representatives.
- 11th ATPD (1991-96) adopted the Charter of the Tibetans-in-Exile on 14 June 1991. The Assembly was empowered to impeach the Kashag, the Supreme Justice Commissioners, and the heads of the three independent bodies – Audit, the Public Service Commission, and the Election Commission by a two-thirds majority and even to impeach His Holiness under special circumstances by a three-fourths majority.
- 12th ATPD (1996-2001): The Assembly, on the advice of His Holiness, amended the Charter in order to provide for the direct election of the Kalon Tripa (the highest executive authority) by the exile Tibetans and for the Kalon Tripa to nominate candidates for the election of his ministerial colleagues. This became another significant milestone in the democratic reform of the Tibetan polity.
- 13th ATPD (2001-06): Tibetans had their first directly-elected Kalon Tripa.
- 14th TPiE (2006-11): His Holiness stopped the practice of nominating members. Therefore, the strength of the TPiE was reduced to 43. The Assembly formally changed its name from the ‘Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies’ (ATPD) to the ‘Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile’ (TPiE), and the Chairman’s title to Speaker and Vice-Chairman to Deputy Speaker. The Parliament further approved the change of ‘Tibetan Government-in-Exile’ to ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ and the motto of the official emblem ‘Gaden Phodrang Chogle Namgyal’ to ‘Denpa Nyi Nampar Gyalgyur Chig’ (Truth Alone Triumphs). His Holiness devolved his entire political and administrative authority to the elected Tibetan leadership and the Charter was amended accordingly.
- 15th TPiE (2011-16): The strength of the TPiE was raised to 44 with an additional seat for Tibetans residing in North America. The Parliament amended the Charter to change the official title of Kalon Tripa to Sikyong (Political Leader) on 20 September 2012. One seat was newly allocated to Tibetans from Australasia and Asia (excluding India, Nepal, and Bhutan)
- 16th TPiE (2016-21): Amidst the rising urgency situation of the pandemic caused by the Wuhan originated COVID-19, the 10th session of the 16th TPiE scheduled for September 2020 was postponed until March 2021. The TPiE further made an amendment to the Charter allowing Parliament to have flexibility in case of any unavoidable incident of epidemic or war or any natural calamity on parliament postponement.
- 17th TPiE (2021-26): With the guidance from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, members of the Seventeenth Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile were sworn in on 8th October 2021 from the interim Speaker ending the stalemate on oath-taking which lasted almost 4 months.