This year, with the completion of nearly 60 years in exile and of the freedom struggle, diasporic Tibetans are eagerly waiting for the next crucial moment of Tibetan history; the election of Sikyong in 2016.

The voting, which will take place on 20 March has the potential to be a major turning point for Tibetans not only because the Kashag is in play but also the Parliament.

It will be the first election following the devolution of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's political responsibilities to the democratically elected Tibetan leadership and the result could therefore affect the future of Tibet and specifically the freedom of movement for Tibetans.

Since 1959, when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, Tibetans in exile have managed to keep their religion, culture and language alive. They have successfully reconstituted their institutions in exile, dispersing into cohesive and fluid transnational networks to form a key emerging diaspora.

With the establishment of the Tibetan Government in Exile in 1960, many democratic reforms were introduced, with the most significant one being the direct election of Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister), which is of great importance to the survival of Tibetan issues.

The birth of Tibetan democracy also led to the implementation of the initial twin objectives of rehabilitating Tibetan refugees and restoring freedom in Tibet. Dedicated departments and institutions were formed to look after the welfare of the people and 52 major and minor refugee settlements were established; 35 in India, 10 in Nepal, and seven in Bhutan. Schools have also been built, with 80 now in these regions.

Now in 2016, just days away from this vital election, it has become the talk of the streets in all the Tibetan settlements and people are showing an overwhelming and serious interest. This increased concern from the general populace serves as an indication of just how the successful and healthy the Tibetan democracy is.

There have been many group discussions and talks being held, with individual opinions, articles and notes being made in newspapers, posts and debates on blogs, Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, and other social media sites and discussions on talk shows aired on radio services, as well a several websites created solely to bring attention to the election.

Opinion over these debates have been split, many have insisted that the talks and debates have been successful and democratic, while others argue that most of them are biased, political and display hypocrisy. They argue that discussion has been undemocratic and against Tibetans' cultural way of life and belief.

However, these kind of discussions are only natural in the run up to democratic election and it is not the time for anyone to suggest who you should vote for in the election. As Tibetans, it is your decision, not ours or theirs or anyone else’s.

These elections are our opportunity to decide who we want leading the Kashag, the highest executive office of the Central Tibetan Administration under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And it is up to us to strengthen the spirit of democracy itself by voting for the candidate we each support and whom we believe will help retain our cultural identity, religious heritage and core values.

We also have another responsibility, the Chinese authorities have repeatedly stated that the so-called 'Tibet government-in-exile' is utterly illegal and it can neither represent Tibet nor the Tibetan people, it is up to us to prove their claims wrong ensuring we vote.

In 2006, 32,205 of 72,000 registered voters exercised their franchise and in 2010, exile Tibetan participation in the Kalon Tripa election was another test with an estimated 30% of those eligible to vote or above 18 years old, and 44% among registered voters. Estimates show that some 120,000 of the approximately 150,000 Tibetan exiles worldwide are above the age of 18 and are eligible to vote. The Commission said that it has registered 88,326 voters, of which 47,105 voters cast votes for the Sikyong poll, which is 53.33% voter turnout. Whereas, 46,890 votes were cast in for the Member of Parliament poll, which figures to 53% voter turnout.

Do you know what you think about the 2016 election? Most of us may have a settled view of the freedom movement for Tibet and the preservation of Tibetan religion and culture. Either we think that we should keep the freedom movement alive while so many other countries support the Tibetan cause, or that we are making poor use of our time and energy for democracy that could never be used for our freedom struggle. This might be a good time, however, for everyone to think again. It is crucial that we must know that voting is the best defence against politicians who ignore and attack out community’s interests. Therefore, we must act now!

We must also not forget that the freedom struggle equally requires our four core energy needs; physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. A good sign for our democracy is that there is increasing overall electoral participation especially among young Tibetans. Similarly, active participation and support is an important precondition for the ongoing freedom struggle- morally, politically and diplomatically, despite the internal difficulties and problems.

We need to hold onto our hope unswervingly that those countries, which advocated freedom to Tibetan people during past six decades, will continue with an increasing amount of support and respect the aspirations and sacrifices of Tibetan people.

Simultaneously, we must frequently remind them that rendering political, moral and diplomatic support is crucial to the Tibetan freedom struggle until Tibet achieves its goal. Just having a good democracy does not bring us near to the goal of the freedom fighters, who sacrificed their precious lives for the cause of freedom. We must keep our faith alive and retain our strong hopes and spirits that their sacrifices will not be wasted nor will their dreams be turned into nothing. They believed in all of us, and they emphasise, 'Not to forget us by changing directions'.

No matter whether you believe in freedom or democracy, ultimately, success is dependent on whether the people participate and exercise their rights and responsibilities. Unlike Communist regimes, the system of checks and balances is an important part of the each branch of government. It is up to each of us to successfully implement democracy in exile along with the freedom movements, while finding the proper balance between "praise and criticism."

We cannot rely on praise alone, just like we cannot rely on criticism alone. Instead, we must remember always that our priority must be the continuation of our efforts to protect and develop our unique and distinct culture, religion, language and identity, and that the freedom movement depends upon maximum strategy implementation and live-actions.

We must grow in knowledge, particularly in the history of the struggles for freedom and the uprising against the imperial regime, so that we are able to define what the difference is between a "freedom thinker" and "freedom fighter".

The purpose of our democratic election is not only to educate us about positive democratic processes, but it is to showcase to Tibetans in Tibet, to China and to the world that we have a better alternative and that we are setting a better example which can be adopted and implemented once we return to a free Tibet.

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