Tibetan Masters of Refugee–Patron Exchange Relations

Trine Brox

Since the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet and settled in India in 1959, about 150,000 Tibetans have chosen to live outside of the People’s Republic of China. These Tibetans are often characterized as ‘the most successful refugees in the world’ because they have not only survived, but also been able to preserve their culture on foreign territory. 

They have even established semi-autonomous Tibetan enclaves in South Asia, complete with their own education system and democracy-in-exile. In addition, under the leadership of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tibetans outside of Tibet have been successful at attracting support. That is also the topic of the monograph by Thomas Kauffmann, Agendas of the Tibetan Refugees: Survival Strategies of a Government-in-Exile in a World of Transnational Organizations.

In this monograph, based upon his PhD-dissertation, Kauffmann has set out to explain why Tibetan refugees are a ‘unique success’. He lays out the development history of Tibetans in South Asia as a progression from being homeless exiles, to becoming successful refugees, and currently constituting a diaspora, and shows how they are employing different strategies in order to nourish the flow of development gifts to their communities in South Asia. This is important to understand since, among the various financial sources for the Tibetan movement in exile, international organizations account for 80 per cent (p. 41).

Tibetan management
The main argument put forward by Kauffmann is that Tibetans have been successful among Western benefactors because they have ‘spiritualized’ development. This relates to the two interconnected agendas that Kauffmann has identified: one political and the other religious. They are ‘inter-instrumentalized by the Tibetans’ (p. 57) in the sense that Tibetans represent their government by religious justification and instrumentalize religion for political purposes. Kauffmann interprets this as the traditional Tibetan state ideology, chos srid zung ‘brel, translocated and preserved in South Asia. Furthermore, Kauffmann argues, they have reorganized religion by obliterating sectarian divisions and by essentializing and universalizing Tibetan Buddhism – which in effect has involved a commodification of their own religion. This has facilitated the establishment of new patronage relations.

In fact, Tibetan refugees have worked so efficacious, Kauffmann asserts, that they have become the ones dictating the conditions for their well-wishers’ gift giving. They have successfully taken control over the whole development project cycle, from defining the needs; naming and planning the projects; attracting funding; as well as implementing and assessing the projects. Apparently, they are so good at it that they have had to refuse development gifts because they do not have the capacity to manage more development projects offered to the refugee communities (pp. 145 and 155). Tibetan professionalism – centralized in Dharamsala and mainly operated by Social and Resource Development Fund – is welcome in a world where development agencies are facing a lot of criticism. Kauffmann convincingly relates how Tibetans have become a favored recipient of development gifts for these benefactors: They are a blessing.

The blueprint for the relationship that has developed between Tibetan refugees and their Western patrons, which has successfully aided the Tibetan survival in exile, is a construction known in Tibetan as mchod yon. This dual religio-political system originated in the 13th century and became the prototypical bond between patron Mongol emperors and Tibetan religious hierarchs, and later between patron Manchu emperors and the Dalai Lamas. Thus, this relationship is not one between a superior benefactor and a disempowered recipient, but is a highly personal exchange of material gifts for spirituality. In an updated version, this ‘new model of partnership’ (p. 131), Kauffmann argues, has been ‘re-enchanted’. Tibetans have convinced their Western patrons that Tibetans are carriers of a spiritual heritage that ‘the West’ needs, and that Tibetans can be the benefactors’ ‘religious tutors’ in exchange for money. It is indeed relevant to compare historical models to contemporary patronage relations, and in that connection, Kauffmann is able to fulfill his promise of highlighting Tibetan agency.

Kauffmann reproduces in his book the idea of the Tibetans’ uniqueness, which Tibetans themselves use in order to attract support. Their success has depended upon their religion, and no other refugee community can claim to possess such a powerful brand. Their enchanted appeal is beyond comparison and therefore, Kauffmann concludes, their successful model cannot be copied and developed into survival strategies for other displaced people (p. 183).

One voice for ‘the Tibetans’
The Tibetans who came to South Asia as refugees are, in the present narrative, not so powerless after all, and this is a very welcome observation. Treating them as skillful agents and players in a competition for operational and diplomatic assistance among European and American governments, organizations and individuals is an issue worthy of a monograph. Nonetheless, there are also problems with how they are portrayed in Agendas of the Tibetan Refugees, and how this is constructed in the monograph as a ‘Tibetan perspective’ and a ‘Tibetan voice’.

Kauffmann has promised the reader to unfold this story ‘from the point of view of the Tibetans’ (p. 181), but he displays little evidence of doing just that. For instance, there are no references to Tibetan-language sources and we get to know very little about who provided him with their ‘Tibetan views’. We also do not know how one view is contested by other views that are also ‘Tibetan’. It does not suffice to explain a phenomenon referring to ‘the Tibetans’ or to indigenous Tibetan models like mchod yon or chos srid zung ‘brel as if those constitute a ‘Tibetan perspective’.

A recurrent way that Kauffmann represents the Tibetans are as agents driven by the motive to continuously attract money.  In order to lure their benefactors to finance their ‘spoilt lives’ (as related by some of his non-Tibetan informants), they have manufactured narratives like ‘the victim narrative’, faked economic poverty, branded themselves as carriers of spiritual heritage, and commodified their religion. There is only little mention of the many Tibetans who do not fit into this characteristic of calculating Tibetans impersonating impoverished refugees. I have no doubt that there are Tibetans in the government-in-exile, in the local NGOs, and elsewhere in the Tibetan communities who have employed these strategies. Such stories has circulated among Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike for a long time. Nevertheless, it is a major simplification of a complex reality to elevate these particular Tibetan agents to the position of representing the Tibetans.

We learn very little about his interlocutors who enabled him to talk about a singular coherent group ‘the Tibetans’. Some unnamed, non-Tibetan interlocutors are exposed over several paragraphs (and even quoted when they are speaking off the record (p. 115)). Most of the other sources, however, who provided the insights that have been interpreted in this monograph (apart from English-language secondary literature and official documents), are hidden behind the all-compassing labels ‘the Tibetans’ and ‘informants’. Judging from the title of the book, the Tibetans is short for the government-in-exile, also known as the Central Tibetan Administration. This unrecognised and extraterritorial government is perceiving itself, and is recognized by a majority of the Tibetans living outside of Tibet, as the legitimate representative of all Tibetans. Nonetheless, it is misleading to equate ‘the Tibetans’ with the Central Tibetan Administration.

Kaufmann opens his book by declaring that ‘I attempt to give the Tibetans a voice…’ (p. 2), but one has to question whose voice we actually get to hear in this monograph. From reading Agendas of the Tibetan Refugees, I suspect that Tibetan viewpoints – in the plural – too often remains inaudible.