An era ended Monday in a rainy temple courtyard in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala when the Harvard-educated lawyer Lobsang Sangay took the oath of office as prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and the Dalai Lama ended his formal role as a political leader.
The move has been parsed in various quarters as either a break from Tibet’s feudal past, a modest stepwise change, or an attempt to outsmart the Chinese occupation of their homeland.
It was mainly a reminder of the mortality of the 76-year-old Dalai Lama, who has to prepare for the chaotic days after his death when his next reincarnation will be named and pitted against a competing candidate backed by Beijing.
It has been more than half a century now since Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and head of state of Tibet, fled his country in 1959 when Chinese troops there crushed an uprising against their presence.
Despite the Dalai Lama’s world stature as a much-loved spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Tibet is still ruled with an iron fist by China while thousands of exiles live in neighbouring India with little hope of seeing their homeland.
The 43-year-old Dr. Sangay, who was born in exile and has never set foot in Tibet, is the first Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, of the government-in-exile since the Dalai Lama stepped back from his executive duties.
“He [the Dalai Lama] is trying to build a sustainable exile political movement before he becomes too old,” said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.
To buttress the continuity and legitimacy of Dr. Sangay’s mandate, the Dalai Lama recalled Monday that he had long argued for a democratic Tibetan political leadership.
“The Tibetan people are the masters of Tibet, and not the religious leaders and kings and their heirs. Therefore, I always tell that it is wrong for the religious leaders to hold the political authority,” he said.
“In the eyes of Tibetans, he remains the ultimate authority,” said Tsering Shakya, a Lhasa-born Tibet scholar at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research.
The new prime minister was born in Darjeeling, the son of poor exiles who had to sell one of their cows to send him to school. Selected as a Fulbright Scholar, he was the first Tibetan to attend Harvard Law School and completed a doctorate there in 2004.
He was elected by exiles this spring after a campaign in which he played up his academic credentials, spoke about innovation and unity and boasted of having private contacts with Chinese scholars.
“[The] Tibetan leadership is far from fizzling out … we are here to stay,” Dr. Sangay said in his inaugural speech Monday.
“After 60 years of misrule, Tibet is no socialist paradise that Chinese officials promised. There is no socialism in Tibet, but rather colonialism,” he said.
Because of its behaviour in Tibet, he said, “China's moral power is lacking behind. Moral power cannot be bought in the market or forced with military might. It has to be earned. As long as Tibetans are repressed, there will be resistance, and waning respect for China.”
The tough tone surprised some observers, who wondered whether Dr. Sangay was talking to hard-liners in the exiled community. His views can be ambiguous because he used to be a leader of the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress. But since his election, he has said he wants to stick with the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach to seeking Tibetan autonomy within China.
Nevertheless, Dr. Sangay expressed in his speech his willingness “to negotiate with the Chinese government any time, anywhere.”
However, the Chinese have always refused to deal with the government-in-exile, saying they have no legitimacy.
Beijing favours informal meetings with representatives of the Dalai Lama, especially since the spiritual leader has been willing to seek autonomy within China rather than full-fledged sovereignty, said Jiang Wenran, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.
Despite the tough Chinese rhetoric, “the door is still open,” said Prof. Jiang, who said the Dalai Lama’s withdrawal from daily political matters could leave him more freedom to pursue contacts with Chinese representatives.
Prof. Barnett, however, noted that the Dalai Lama has specifically refused to remain involved in the talks, rejecting a proposal that he keep the power to name his own envoys to the process.
“He’s trying to get the Chinese to shift course from their refusal to talk to the exile government,” Prof. Barnett said.
Things would get even trickier once the Dalai Lama dies. He says that his successor is likely to be someone in exile since the purpose of reincarnation is to continue the work of one’s current incarnation.
To undercut that, Communist Chinese officials took the odd position of supporting old religious customs and imperial traditions.
A Chinese spokesman said last year that the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has to be named by Beijing, citing precedents from the days when Tibetan leaders were approved by the court of the Qing dynasty.
“The way China handles Tibet is very much in the imperial tradition,” Prof. Barnett said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sangay’s election, which injects some youth in the exile leadership, also short-circuits the Chinese government’s dismissal of Tibetan exiles as a reactionary, feudal theocracy.
Some observers have questioned how much sway Dr. Sangay will have among his compatriots, considering that he was born abroad and elected among the 100,000 exiles, without input from the six million Tibetans living under Chinese control.
Prof. Shakya said Dr. Sangay’s election is a sign of the renewal of the Tibetan diaspora’s leadership.
“They’re all born in exile, they’ve never been to Tibet, they’re distant from their homeland. That they are able to maintain their momentum for over half a century is remarkable.”
Sangay, in his own words
On his election campaign:
Two of the candidates, me and Mr. Tenzin Tethong, we shared car, we stayed in same hotel. In fact, we shared the hotel room one day. And with other person, Tashi Wangdi, we happened to be in the same place campaigning. You know, we shared meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we exchanged schedules so that, you know, it doesn't conflict with each other. So that's how civil it was. It was more of a friendly match than Australian or American very competitive, sometimes perhaps nasty, campaigning.
On leaving Harvard to work in India for $300 a month:
At Harvard, in Cambridge, you can listen to top leaders and intellectuals from around the world. You will miss white chocolate mocha, going to Starbucks, getting a corner sofa and getting a Boston Globe or New York Times in your sneakers, jeans, T-shirt, whatever. No one bothers you and you don't bother anyone. That's the American sense of individual privacy.
On the possibility of a free Tibet:
That is hypothetical so one cannot rule out or rule in.
On demonstrations inside Tibet, which the Chinese has accused the Dalai Lama of provoking
We don't encourage Tibetans inside Tibet. We don't encourage, but we understand their frustration and their sentiment because of the systemic discrimination and repression.
Sources: Australian Broadcasting Company, Atlantic.com, BBC.com