The appointment of Jampa Phuntsok (Ch: Qiangba Puncog) as a Vice Chair of the National People’s Congress on March 14, 2013, completes an interesting development in the regional representation in the top Tibetan leadership in Lhasa. This new development could be said to have begun when Pema Thinley (Ch: Padma Choling) assumed the Governorship of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2010; it is now the Chamdowas, the people from Chamdo (Ch: Qamdo) in Eastern Tibet, who hold all the highest Tibetan leadership positions in Lhasa and Beijing.
Earlier this year, we had Pema Thinley becoming the Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress; Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal (Ch: Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai) was reappointed as head of the TAR PPCC; and Lobsang Gyaltsen (Ch: Losang Jamcan) has become the new Governor of the TAR. Except for the top position of the Party Secretary, which continues to be in the hands of a non-Tibetan, these three positions are the highest in the region. All three individuals holding the positions are from present-day Chamdo Prefecture (Technically, Phakpalha was born in Lithang, but he is the recognized lama of Jampaling Monastery in Chamdo and is popularly known as Chamdo Phakpalha. Similarly Lobsang Gyaltsen was born in Dagyab, which is also in present-day Chamdo Prefecture). At the national level, Jampa Phuntsok has become the highest rank Tibetan official now and he is also from Chamdo.
The fact that they are all from Chamdo region could be coincidental, but if we look at popular perception of Tibetan history in modern times we see that there have been periods when elites from a particular area dominated the leadership positions in Lhasa.
In the early years it was the Bapas, the people from Bathang in Eastern Tibet (now in Sichuan Province) who were dominant. The names of Tibetan officials from the region, who had influential positions in Lhasa, include Phuntsok Wangyal, Lobsang Tsultrim, Gyaltsen Norbu, Kelsang Namgyal, etc. Thereafter, came a period when Horpas, people from the northern region of Nakchu, assumed powerful positions. Among them was Ragdi and Tenzin, who were both deputies of the TAR Party Committee and had senior government positions.
As an aside, during the visit of the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Lhasa in 2002 at one time, Ragdi talked about the two golden Yak statues in Lhasa and jokingly said that the people say that he is one of them. The Yaks are facing opposite directions and the street talk is that they represent Ragdi and Tenzin, and Ragdi is asking Tenzin whether there are any more people from Nakchu that they could put in position in the government and Tenzin is looking back to see if there are any, or something like that. In any case, at that time people believed that those from Nakchu were the influential ones.
There were periods when people from Amdo and Tsang have held senior positions in Lhasa, but these did not seem to have created any popular impression of domination by a region, like the way the officials from Nakchu or Bathang have done.
While the regional representation issue may not mean anything, there is one thing that can be said about the authority of the Tibetan leaders. Although it is clear that they cannot, do not, and will not dare to touch any political issue that is deemed sensitive, they do have considerable say in such fields as allocation of resources, whether in the education or health sector, and other social welfare activities. In the past, some of the Tibetan leaders have had an impact in these fields while others have steered clear of even such authority, most probably for fear of negatively impacting their career.
Even though Tibetans in Tibet today do not have the space to speak out their minds about the leaders, they do maintain a mental history of who has been good and who has been bad, particularly among Tibetan leaders. Tibetans understand the limitation of the situation and within that they know who have been generally good. That historical judgment is being partly passed by word of mouth and is part of the legacy of these individuals.
It only remains for us to see how the Chamdowas at the helm of affairs in Lhasa will administer the Tibetan people. Could they be different?