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In America, we're pretty proud of democracy. Next to marketing and rock 'n' roll, it's the thing we do best. The thing we're known for.

So, at least a dozen times a year, in Salt Lake City alone, delegations come from governments all around the world to study how we make laws and settle disputes and run our two-party system.This past week it was a delegation from the Tibetan government-in-exile. Three members of Parliament, two men and a woman, spent six days here, meeting with legislators and government officials and academics in a privately funded exchange program organized by a Springdale group called International Legislative Exchange.

They learned about some of the big issues facing Utah right now, including debates over how to divvy up our wilderness, and debates over the legislation of values - debates that democracies should be good at resolving.

In the end, though, it may have been the Tibetans who had more to teach. Their message was this: Democracy alone isn't enough.

What you need, they said, is chiba. Chiba is the Tibetan word for "the common good."

It embodies tolerance and compassion and understanding of the other person's point of view, all components of Tibetan Buddhism. It means finding common ground, even in a dispute over wilderness or values. It is what, ultimately, would solve all disputes and create the best laws. It is, said the Tibetans, what could free their own country from Chinese oppression.

The fate of their homeland was foremost in the minds of the three members of parliament as they sat through dozens of meetings with Salt Lake and Utah officials this past week. It was the real reason they came to America, even though the legislative exchange was billed as a study of "the American democratic process."

Actually, the Tibetan government-in-exile already does democracy pretty well, even though it's only been doing it for 35 years, says former Salt Lake mayor Ted Wilson, who met with the group Friday.

It was the Chinese invasion of their country, and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama and 120,000 other Tibetans, that led them to set up a democratic government in Dharamsala, India.

Before that time, Tibet was a theocracy. "A peasant boy wouldn't have a chance" to make much of himself except in a monastery, says Karma Chophel, a member of the Tibetan parliament, who came from a "very common family" himself.

In the days before so many Tibetans were forced to flee Tibet, women, too, had relatively little power. But in India the Tibetans suddenly realized that to survive they needed all their children - the girls too - to become educated; they need both men and women to run the government.

Among Tibetans in exile, says parliament member Tenzin Choedon Gyalpo, there is no need for a woman's movement. "We work more for the common cause," she says.

In the face of Chinese domination in Tibet - a domination that includes the eradication of most monasteries, the destruction of Tibetan art, the outlawing of Tibetan as the official language, the forced sterilization of Tibetan women - the goal of Tibetans in exile is the preservation of Tibetan culture and the Tibetan community.

Even though Tibetan teenagers in exile in India wear jeans and listen to Madonna, they still are at the very core Tibetans, says Khando Chagzoentsang, a Tibetan refugee now living in Sandy. Their parents, she says, have taught them the truest of family values - respect and discipline and chiba.