Name: Tenzin Dhardon Sharling
Under Graduate Career: Completed India, English Honors Program
Also completed post-graduate studies in India and Scotland prior to attending UMass
Born in Ladakh, India.
Then moved around India many times while growing up. Considers herself a bit of a nomad.
Tenzin Dhardon Sharling is the youngest elected member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, based in Dharamsala, India. She has sacrificed her personal goals for the greater good of her people, and works every day to advocate for their rights.
HCUMass: Why did you want to come to UMass?
TDS:After graduating from the University of Edinborough, I worked for 7 years and gained a lot of work experience in the process; I had learned a lot in terms of breadth in my knowledge, but I felt that it was important to get some depth to balance it out. I wanted to be able to explore my work with a more scholarly and critical approach.
HCUMass: In 2011 you were elected as a Parliament member, when and why did you decide that you wanted to become a member of Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile?
TDS: Well, I have always believed that the Tibetan struggle is not necessarily about the people and their rights, and it’s not anti-china as people would like to believe. The Tibetan political struggle is something that has upheld the principals of nonviolence for a really long time now. We are almost entering the 57ht year, and still, nonviolence is something that binds and guides us. I think it has so much relevance and impact on what is happening in this day and age when there is so much violence around, even in the name of religion, and I really think that the Tibet problem offers the world a non-violent solution to any conflict whether it be interstate, or intrastate, or domestic conflict, or anything for that matter.
I feel that I am a part of the struggle; not just the part that pertains specifically to Tibetans but also to the bigger, wider world. And if I wanted to make a difference in that struggle and other conflicts in the world, I felt that I needed to be a part of that institution, and the best way for me to do that was to represent my people and become a voice for them. All of this was possible through being elected to Parliament, and I thought that being a part of the decision making process would be a huge accomplishment in life.
HCUMass: How did your parents initially react to when you told them you wanted to run for Parliament?
TDS: I think my parents had mixed feelings at first; their biggest concern was that I very was young. About 80% of the 44 member legislative body are about 45 years old, and I was only 28 when I was elected. And so my parents were concerned that the work was too mature in terms of how I would be able to deliver the promises and expectations that the people would have of me; they felt it would put too much pressure on me. I was also going through a phase where I was becoming an independent woman and where other people were finishing their studies could now enjoy life, so that was another concern of theirs. But now, three years later, I think their fears and worries are kind of gone. They are happy now.
Here is Tenzin speaking at a Women’s Leadership Conference.
HCUMass: How have your personal goals changed since you’ve been elected as a member?
TDS: I would say that my goals have completely changed. Before 2011 I was always concerned about my identity as a Tibetan because I traveled a lot and whenever you step out of your community you have to keep reiterating your identity. There would be moments when I would feel low because of the identity that is innately a part of me, but since I’ve taken on this responsibility, I’ve had to mature at a time where I should be experiencing the different phases of my life. I would believe that between 28 and 33 is one of the most exciting phases of your life but I had to give up on all of those personal fun parts. Going out, seeing movies, listening to music, and catching up with friends are all now a part of a luxury that I can’t afford for myself because of all of the responsibilities that come with being a member of parliament. What I realized is that once you become a part of an important undertaking you get disconnected with your personal voice; you are more with the bigger larger voice that you represent. This might seem boring and unattractive but at this point I don’t think I have a personal choice. There is a larger calling ahead of me, and so I don’t think I have any personal goals; that’s not a priority at this moment in time. It is more about going with the collective movement and working under the larger framework.
HCUMass: Do you ever wish that you had that voice?
TDS: I wish, everyday, oh yeah!
Because people my age have a very different life, they have their own personal space and personal life, and I don’t have that. And sometimes I feel like I miss out on that. I was a fun-loving child, and even in college when I did a lot of political and social activism work, I always found time for my personal, creative space; I hung out with friends, caught up on movies, parties, etc. so I do cherish that life and it’s not like I’ve given up on that, but I think the larger goal in life is so strong and urgent. Given the situation in Tibet and where the movement is headed, there’s so much responsibility to shoulder. But yes, if given the choice, I would really want to have a good personal life and space for myself. But I think as a person in exile, and a person born into this political struggle, I would feel very guilty if I listened more to my personal goals than my larger goal in life.
HCUMass: What would you say a typical day would be like for you when working with the Parliament?
TDS: Well since I am not a part of the standing committee, which has members of the parliament that are in the office daily, I attend parliament sessions that require me to be fully engaged in the work. The next one is in 2 weeks, called the “Budget Session”. In a typical day, we begin at 9 am in parliament house and a speaker of Parliament tables the agenda for the day. During the March budget session, we will decide the budget for the next fiscal year 2015-16. We discuss and debate every small nitty gritty aspect of the budget. We want to decide where we want to spend our money because as an exile government we are always in need of funds, and money is crucial to be able to sustain our people. So we would discuss budgets and other human rights issues in Tibet, and what international reactions have been to us. We meet in gaps of sixth months, so we have to catch up on progress, and evaluate and give comments. It is a hands-on job to be a member of parliament. We also have tea and lunch breaks where we get to network, you get to know people, talk about other issues, and learn about people who are supporting us; conducting interviews, conferences, and catching up with others. It is a very engaging kind of task; everything you are doing has a greater implication, the whole parliament session brings great responsibility.
HCUMass: What do you think is the most enjoyable part of being a part of the Parliament?
TDS: What I really kind of enjoy about this is that we have 9 women parliamentarians of the 44. So we are really worried about ourselves being women in a majorly male dominated parliament; 35 of them are men. So we are very protective of ourselves and whenever there is a debate about gender issues, and we have men who are not sensitive about these issues, we take it upon ourselves and use that time in parliament to educate the men, and in doing that we are able to achieve a larger goal of educating the audience who is watching the program. In hindsight, we realized, that as not only parliamentarians but as gender activists, we are able to accomplish a dual role. The women parliamentarians gather among ourselves and we recall the day’s events and what people said, and there is so much to laugh about. Sometimes it does get really funny and I enjoy being with my female colleagues because we share this really strong bond; there is no fighting, no jealousy, or putting each other down. We work as this one cohesive team and that is something that I cherish.
Here is Tenzin speakign at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy
HCUMass: What current ideas does the Parliament have for your people moving forward?
TDS: Beginning in 1997 there was a policy change in terms of how Tibetans were trying to resolve the Tibetan political issue. The Tibetan Parliament adopted the Middle Way Policy proposal, which doesn’t ask for independence for Tibet, which was the case until that point. As an historically independent country who was forcefully occupied in 1959, we had been clamoring for independence for about three decades after that. But after 1997 there was this shift in terms of how the Tibetan government chose to approach the Tibetan problem. That shift came along with a political solution that asked for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people in Tibet, which is asking for cultural, linguistic and religious rights along with self-governance. In doing that, the people are able to protect their identity, religion and language and have a democratically elected leadership at the home front. Since then, over the last 19 years, the focus has been to engage in a dialogue with Chinese government and getting them to talk to us. Our spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dali lama strongly believes dialogue and not force can resolve conflicts and differences. All of our efforts over past two decades have been concentrated on making the dialogue work and reaching out to the Chinese people in China who we think share the same goals as us; those who are looking for freedom. We don’t want them to be pitted against us as enemies, but rather as people wanting freedom from oppression. This has been the direction we have been following and we are constantly reviewing our work and seeing where we are headed to. We are also trying to make sure that Tibet remains in the agenda of the world governments and the international community. We have to make sure Tibet is not forgotten which sometimes can happen when there isn’t enough attention to the movement. We want to make sure that those in Tibet are being heard by the outside world. We want our constructive dialogue approach to resolve the issue and be a model for other political struggles and conflicts that are happening all over the world. As parliamentarians we are trying to look at the bigger picture, the macro level, while staying connected to the micro.
HCUMass: Where do you see yourself in the next election? Will you run again? Do you have any future plans?
TDS: I think that at this point in time my PhD study is the single most important thing. I have come to do this program, and am working really hard every day, because I am really passionate about a research project on the Tibetan issue. If you look at any database on any university and you search “Tibet”, you would see scholarship on Tibetan religion, history and culture, and not much about what this political struggle means in the 21st century. It is important to establish a fresh scholarly discourse on the political struggle, and that’s why my area of interest is political communication; how Tibetans can talk to China find a solution for a future, and why communication is at the core of this very political struggle. The reason why I’m here is very political I must say; I want to make sure that Tibet is being looked at with a critical eye so that people are not just listening and hearing one narrative about the Tibetan struggle being all about protests, and being pitted against China- there is so much more to it than that. I think that this topic has so much more to offer to academicians, and I am trying to open that door. As far as running for parliament again, these are two huge responsibilities; being a grad student and a parliamentarian, but if, two years down the road, I feel that I am confident and that I can balance the two roles, then yes I would like to run again for an election but at this point in time, my research and scholarly engagement on the Tibetan political communication tops the priority list.
HCUMass: If you could give one piece of advice to young women who are looking to make an impact, what would you say?
TDS: Well, I think in today’s world we live in era of Information Communication Technology and we truly live in a global age. We live in age where information is processed in seconds and we are not only sending messages, but we are receiving it and are getting constant feedback. I think that every individual in today’s day and age is a citizen journalist; we all have our words and a channel to air that voice. Especially if you are all blessed to have received an education in university or college, you have to start looking at the world as this one big global family and realize that every act of yours will have a rippling effect on the entire globe. We should start looking at it like we are a 7 billion human family. I strongly believe and always tell my younger friends that what we really need is knowledge: from books, experiences, daily news etc. With knowledge, you get this sense of being powerful. But knowledge and power is not enough; you have to have responsibility too. I think that all of us need to start taking care of this global family. You can’t avoid not being a part of this digital era, and how choose to give out the information you receive is really important. I think that when you think of the topic globally but act locally, you gain a broad preview of life and you feel empowered. Being empowered can empower another. Students at UMass are privileged, so now we have this added responsibility, and looking at global world as one big community, would be my advice. I give this advice based on my own personal experiences, and how I think the global community should be approached.
HCUMass: What’s your source of inspiration?
TDS: Two things have remained my source of inspiration. The first is His holiness, the Dali lama, Tibetan spiritual leader and global icon of peace. I think that his life story is really important for us to look at. There are two quotes of his that I live by. The first is “it is only when you go through the lowest phase of your life that you can rise up again”. He is this man who has been through worst in his life but didn’t allow his circumstances to dictate his vision, and every time he fell, he kept growing stronger. And the second one is “don’t let the attitude of others determine your action”. Sometimes we get offended by small things that others do and we react according to that. I’ve done that a lot of times but we should not let other’s attitudes dictate what our actions are going to be. These are the teachings that he has lived by his whole life and they have inspired me.
Secondly, I think that people inside Tibet who, despite all of the suffering and circumstances they have been put under, have been envisioning peaceful means of resistance. I think Tibetans inside Tibet really project what it means to be devoted as well as defiant; they balance it so well. I think that what people in Tibet are doing to assert their identity and to challenge the injustice being inflicted on them, is really inspiring to me on a daily basis; it makes my conviction and determination to do something grow stronger. One of the mottos that I live by is that “it’s not about how much you go through in life or the bad things that happen to you, but rather about how you overcome those things and rise above difficult situations.” Such thinking and approach in life have been the guiding principles in my life.
*I would just like to say that never in my life have I encountered such an outstanding person. Her story, passion, and courage has been more inspiring to me than I think she could ever know. She is an incredible role model for collegiettes, and I hope this story has proved to nothing short of eye-opening and motivational.