Lobsang Sangay has held the post of Kalon Tripa for a year, and it has been a painful one. Not that he expected it to be easy: when he took the job as the first elected prime minister of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, he was taking over for the Dalai Lama in leading the Tibetan political struggle, and those are big sandals to fill.
But Mr. Sangay’s election coincided with a sharp deterioration in conditions inside Tibet, and handed him challenges he had not anticipated – among them a rash of self-immolations by protesting Tibetans. Nor did he expect to face those challenges solo. Arriving in Dharamasala, the exiled Tibetan administration’s capital in northern India, he was startled to have the Dalai Lama cheerfully pat his shoulder and say, “Well, now you’re on your own!” It seems the revered leader meant it when he said he was leaving the political realm to the elected leaders, and withdrawing to focus on the spiritual.
Mr. Sangay is the new face, and a somewhat improbable one, of the Tibetan movement. In contrast to the Dalai Lama’s signature maroon robes and avuncular beam, he is direct and poised in English debate, sombre in demeanour and favours navy blue suits (with a string of wooden prayer beads that sometimes peeks out under his well-pressed cuff.)
He heads a government with the job of trying to advocate globally for the needs of Tibetans inside Tibet, with whom they cannot meet, and administering services for the 100,000 Tibetans who live as refugees in India, and especially for the 1,000 or so new exiles who flee over the snowy border each year. Mr. Sangay was elected on a platform advocating “middle way” – autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution, a compromise on the demands for total independence made by many young Tibetans.
On Monday, he met with a small group of foreign correspondents, part of his continuous efforts to keep the Tibet issue in the public eye. The Tibetan leader, who is 44, was born in Darjeeling in north India to Tibetan refugee parents. He worked his way from a peasant farming community to Harvard University, where he was a noted legal scholar before he won the job of Kalon Tripa in unusual elections that saw exiled Tibetans all over the world, from the Indian Himalayas to Toronto to Australia, vote on the same day last spring.
In the course of his year in office, Mr. Sangay said, the Chinese government has banned foreign tourists from visiting Tibet, barred Tibetans from outside Lhasa who try to visit the Tibetan capital on pilgrimages, and instituted identification checks for Tibetans every 30 to 40 metres in Lhasa. And with all forms of protest or dissenting speech denied them, Tibetans have turned to the most drastic of forms of expression, self-immolation: 49 Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest of the Chinese occupation in the past year, and 40 have died. “This is really tragic and it speaks to how repressive the policies of the Chinese government are,” Mr. Sangay said.
The Dalai Lama and Mr. Sangay’s administration have faced international criticism for not doing more to stop the suicides, but he insisted they have spoken out strongly. “We have explicitly discouraged this action,” he said, adding that the Dalai Lama is trying to leave political matters to elected leaders.
“As the Tibetan administration we have made several appeals to the Tibetan people not to resort to drastic actions including self-immolation but [it] continues even today,” he said.
Nearly all of all those who have committed suicide in protest have been under the age of 50, he noted, meaning they were born and brought up under Chinese rule. “The fact that these Tibetans are going to such lengths of protest means the [promised Chinese] ‘socialist paradise’ never touched the land of Tibet – the welfare and education policies they always write on paper were never realized.”
But he noted that it was the self-immolation of one young unemployed Tunisian man that is said to have ignited the Arab spring. That suicide, however, sparked a chain of events that drew strong intervention from the international community, which Tibet has yet to do. He called for a United Nations-led team to visit Tibet to investigate the causes of the self-immolations, and for unrestricted access of the international media to Tibet.
The Tibetan leadership will watch closely as a new group of leaders takes power in October in Beijing. “We need to study their background and personalities … Then only we can guess how they will deal with Tibet – but the past 50 years doesn’t give us much reason to be optimistic,” Mr. Sangay said, then squared his shoulders and added, “But as a human being one should remain always hopeful – and with so many changes in Arab countries and [Myanmar democracy advocate] Aung San Suu Kyi freed, there are reasons to be hopeful.”
Retaining tight control over Tibet has a huge financial cost for Beijing as well as a political one, he said, describing a recent visit to the border from the Indian side where he could see the Chinese military installations. “No matter how many billions they spend on soft power, things like the Olympics, improving the situation in Tibet and returning His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet would bring so much soft power to Tibet that they cannot buy. It is for them to realize, and someone to persuade them.”
Given how challenging his first year in office has been, can Mr. Sangay imagine serving more than one term? “This is my karma, this is my destiny,” he said, then added, “I’m proud to say that from the reaction of the Tibetan people, that I’ve done pretty okay – but whether I am one term or not is in the hands of the Tibetan people.”