LOBSANG SANGAY, TIBET’S PRIME MINISTER, AND THE TIBETAN YOUTH CONGRESS

ELECTION FOR TIBETAN PRIME MINISTER IN 2011

In March 2011, after the Dalai Lama made his plea to retire, thousands of Tibetans worldwide voted for a new political leader: a prime minister, known as the Kalon Tripa, and a new exile parliament. Tibetans in 13 countries from Australia to the United States cast ballots. Final results were not known until the end of April.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “For the first time, campaign posters were plastered around Dharamsala, in advance of an election. But Buddhist voters were still becoming acclimated to the sight of so much self-promotion.” ‘some feel it is rather “un- Tibetan,” “

There were three contenders for the post of prime minister. Lobsang Sangay, currently a visiting research fellow at Harvard Law School, was seen as the front runner. The other candidates were Tenzin Tethong, a former representative of the Dalai Lama in New York and Washington, and Tashi Wangdi, who has run half a dozen departments of the government-in-exile over the years. Both Tenzin Tethong and Tashi Wangdi have a long track record in government in the Tibetan administration in exile in Dharamshala.

The victor's legitimacy might also be in question among Tibetans in Tibet who will not take part in the election. Their loyalty remains with the Dalai Lama, who must convince them to accept his transfer of power. The election did not go ahead in Nepal where 20,000 of the estimated 150,000 exiled Tibetans live. Under Chinese pressure, authorities in Kathmandu prevented what they see as an unlawful vote. "The mood of optimism across the diaspora was marred by the news," said a statement from the International Campaign for Tibet.

"His Holiness is devolving powers and we should be more cautious in electing the representatives and the Kalon Tripa," said Tsering Choedup, a political activist in Dharamshala, where the movement is based. "This time, people feel more responsibility to vote," he said as he waited in line with others to vote at a Buddhist temple.

Lobsang Sangay

Tim Sullivan wrote in Associated Press: Lobsang Sangay is the prime minister of a country that doesn't exist. His government fills a moldy cluster of yellow brick buildings clinging to an Indian hillside. His budget depends on donor countries and wealthy supporters. But with his well-tailored suits and carefully practiced soundbites, Sangay is something new in this tattered hill town, home to Tibet's government-in-exile. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, March 15, 2012]

He is an openly ambitious politician in a culture that traditionally frowns on self-promotion. He is comfortable in front of TV cameras, charismatic and, his critics say, willing to sow divisiveness to win votes. In a town where power has long rested with elderly Buddhist monks and exile bureaucrats who fled Chinese-ruled Tibet, he spent 16 years polishing his resume at Harvard.

Sangay came to power in what might be the most critical moment for Tibet in a generation: A wave of Tibetans have burned themselves alive to protest Chinese rule, Beijing is undergoing a leadership transition and the 76-year-old Dalai Lama is speaking openly of his eventual death. "Tibet is in crisis," said Youdong Aukatsang, a New Delhi-based member of the exile parliament. "But this is also a historic moment for us, with His Holiness deciding to give up his political position. Lobsang Sangay symbolizes this turning point."

Lobsang Sangay’s Campaign to Become Prime Minister

Tim Sullivan wrote in Associated Press: Exile politics, long a genteel arena that plodded along in the Dalai Lama's shadow, has never seen anything like Sangay. "Tibetans normally want their leaders to be dignified and distant. Lobsang Sangay went to the people," said Tsering Shakya, a scholar of modern Tibet at the University of British Columbia. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, March 15, 2012]

Sangay's two rivals were older men who had spent decades in the exile government. Their campaigns were what people expected: a few speeches, occasional interviews, reaching out to friends of friends. Sangay, though, launched a campaign blitz.

He embarked on a whirlwind tour of Tibetan exile communities, shaking hands and giving speeches from India to Minnesota. His supporters created websites to back his campaign. Mild criticisms were met with volleys of online denials. He relentlessly touted his hardscrabble childhood, the son of a struggling farmer and trader in the Indian hills.

Despite spending nearly his entire adult life at Harvard, first as a law student and then as a research fellow, he became a master of Clintonian I-feel-your-pain rhetoric, selling himself as a man of the people. "I understand and can empathize with the average Tibetans," he told the online Tibetan Political Review, speaking of his childhood in a refugee settlement. "I know what it feels like to go through another season of poor harvest."

At times, it was an uncanny echo of American politics: A handsome man with well-combed hair, a small-town stump speech and outsized ambitions. It was also a shock to the Tibetan establishment. "For some people this was distasteful," said Shakya. "But this is something you learn in America: If you want something, you go and get it."

Sangay got it, winning more votes than his two rivals combined. While only about one-third of the global exile community's 150,000 people voted (6 million more Tibetans live in China, though it was extremely difficult for them to cast ballots), his election was seen as a turn against an older generation of Tibetan officials. His critics, though, say his victory was partially rooted in the seamier side of American political culture. Sangay's focus on his working-class roots was seen by some in the community as a populist attack message, designed to divide Tibetans along ancient class lines.

Certainly, it set Sangay apart from his main rival, Tenzin Tethong, a member of an old aristocratic family. While the exiled nobility lost much of its power long ago, many poorer exiles believe they still wield immense influence in Dharmsala. Sangay insists he wasn't trying to be divisive, and points out that his wife comes from an aristocratic family. His supporters say his campaign simply reflected modern politics. "Whether you call it divisive, or whatever, doesn't matter. I think he wanted to win the election and wanted to connect with the masses," said Aukatsang, the parliament member.

Lobsang Sangay Becomes New Tibetan Prime Minister in 2011

In late April 2011, it was announced that Lobsang Sangay easily beat the two other candidates for the prime minister's post, securing 55 percent of the vote in the first round and leaving him the daunting task of assuming the political duties of a global icon, the Dalai Lama. The announcment was made Election Commissioner Jamphel Choesang in the exiled government's base in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamshala. Of the nearly 83,400 exiled Tibetans in India and overseas who were eligible to vote in the election, more than 49,000 actually cast their ballots, Choesang said. [Source: AFP, April 22, 2011]

Lobsang Sangay is a Harvard scholar and international law expert. Born in a tea-growing area of northeast India in 1968, Sangay has never lived in or visited Tibet. His father, a former monk, fought in the guerilla war against China’s occupation of Tibet. He represents a break with the past, which has seen older, religious figures dominate the politics of the exiled Tibetan movement. "People see in me someone who is rooted in tradition but is also modern," he told AFP. [Ibid]

‘sangay’s election marks a watershed following the Dalai Lama's announcement that he would retire as the Tibetan movement's political leader, transferring his powers to the newly-elected prime minister,” AFP reported. “Although the Dalai Lama, 75, will retain the more significant role of Tibet's spiritual leader, the transition will make Sangay a far more prominent figure than his predecessors.” "His Holiness is 400-plus years of institution," Sangay told AFP. "No one can replace or substitute him. The major challenge for anyone is to build up a reputation and credibility.”

Sangay has made it clear that he fully supports the Dalai Lama's "middle way" formula that seeks "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet under Chinese rule, rather than outright independence, and said he would reach out to China . After being declared the new prime minister Sangar said the Dalai Lama remains healthy and “He will live very long . I believe he will return to Tibet in his lifetime.” [Ibid]

Sangay insists however that there is hunger in the community to "see the younger generation taking over the leadership". Dressed in a smart business suit he said, “Tibet is under occupation, There is political repression, economic marginilization and environmental destruction” and said that of China wanst to be a true superpower it will not succeed through economic and military might alone but has to exercise moral authority in how it treats its people.” As for China’s opinion on the matter, an official in Beijing said the election that elected Sangay was illegitimate.

"Any important decisions would still have to be discussed with the Dalai Lama,"Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told AFP. "The problem for any prime minister is that, compared to the Dalai Lama, he enjoys little name recognition outside specia lized Tibetan circles, and that will be a difficult dynamic to shift."

Lobsang Sangay Demands “Genuine Autonomy”

In March 2012, on the eve of the annual National Party Congress in Beijing, AP reported: “The head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, issued a statement calling on new Chinese leaders due to take power this year to give the region "genuine autonomy" within the framework of the nation's constitution. "When Tibetans gather peacefully and demand basic rights as outlined in the Chinese constitution, they are arrested, fired upon and killed," the statement said. "We hope that China's upcoming leaders will initiate genuine change, and that they find the wisdom to admit the government's longstanding hardline policy in Tibet has failed." [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, March 9, 2012]

Around the same time, Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing with Tibetan delegates to the legislature and urged them to maintain stability, spread the message of ethnic unity and safeguard the unity of the motherland, the official Xinhua News Agency said. He did not mention the self-immolation protests.

Lobsang Sangay as Prime Minister

Six months after his swearing-in, Sangay has become skilled in political banality, avoiding sensitive topics during an hourlong interview by piling platitudes one upon the other. If pressed, he would sidestep by quoting the Dalai Lama. He is eloquent, though, when the topic turns to China, battering Beijing's rule with passion and knowledge. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, March 15, 2012]

"What we fear is unfolding," he said of Beijing's efforts to seal off Tibetan regions amid the continuing wave of self-immolations: "Tragedy." Years of crackdowns, he argues, have given Tibetans no other way to vent their frustration. "You can't have hunger strikes, you can't have demonstrations, you can't write petitions ... Given such repressive policies and actions, Tibetans are pushed to the brink of desperation."

This is the real power of the exile government. Along with overseeing refugee schools and finding jobs for young people, the Dharmsala government is a pulpit to voice the Tibetan quest for autonomy. Earlier exile leaders were practically invisible, eclipsed by the Dalai Lama's fame. Giving up his political role was supposed to make it easier for Beijing to negotiate with the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, not the head of a government China reviles as illegitimate. He also fears a leadership vacuum after he dies, when the Chinese government and senior Tibetan lamas will almost certainly name rival reincarnated successors.

But Sangay's political instincts, and the new prominence of the prime minister role, have helped make him a global darling. The international media cover his speeches, and foreign governments bestow honors on him. He even gets attacked by Beijing: "That government-in-exile of his, no matter who leads (it), it's all just a separatist political clique that betrays the motherland," a senior Chinese official for Tibet said after Sangay offered to negotiate with China.

Sangay says much of his job now is finding a middle ground between a deeply conservative culture and the modern world. "In many ways I'm trying to balance between continuity and change," Sangay said, when asked if he ever fears he has become too Westernized. "I have to be very much Tibetan but very much modern as well."

He is also simply getting accustomed to the new job. "I am an ordinary guy who was given this extraordinary responsibility," he said. And as with an experienced American politician, it was impossible to know if the modesty was heartfelt---or utterly insincere.

Plan for New Government with Dalai Lama

The move by the Dalai Lama to relinquish power is seen by observers as a risky but necessary step to prepare for a future without his charismatic leadership, which has kept the cause alive for the last 50 years. It is unclear, however, whether the new leader will have the power or influence to advance the cause. The Dalai Lama's "popularity, charisma, leadership---it cannot be replicated," Sangay said. [Source: AFP]

The exact details of the transfer of power are yet to be worked out---the parliament in exile still hopes to block the change---but the Dalai Lama is adamant that the movement must be fully democratic to prepare for the future. "Rule by spiritual leaders or by kings, these are now out of date," the Dalai Lama told AFP.

Under his plans, he will remain spiritual head of Tibet and the figurehead of the struggle for autonomy for Tibetans in China, but he will no longer be head of the exile government led an elected prime minister and a parliament made up of elected representatives.

Lobsang Sangay Calls for More Autonomy for Tibet

In June 2014, Lobsang Sangay accused China of blanket repression in Tibet, warned that resentment over Chinese rule was growing and called for more Tibetan autonomy Supported by the Dalai Lama, he renewed their push for a “Middle Way” of peaceful autonomy within China and pleaded for more international help for the Tibetan cause. “There is total repression and total discrimination” in Tibet, Sangay said. “All this repression is making Tibetans more resentful of the Chinese government’s policies and towards the Chinese government and various forms of protests are taking place.” [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 5, 2014]

AFP reported: “Rattled by a wave of self-immolations that have highlighted the sense of desperation among Tibetans, the exiled government has become increasingly exasperated by the impasse which it sees as radicalising their cause. Although the Dalai Lama has officially relinquished his political role, he was on hand for the launch when he was presented with documents and a video from Sangay. “The campaign is in need of time,” he said. “(But) they will carry on the campaign with fully fledged commitment.”In comments published on the eve of the launch, the Dalai Lama again infuriated China by urging it to embrace democracy as he marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.

His comments produced a spiky response, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei countering that “his statement has ulterior motives...We advise these people to give up their attempts to separate Tibet from China.” Sangay said he hoped China would “learn a lesson” from India’s embrace of ethnic diversity.”The Chinese government should learn a lesson and hopefully look at Tibetans and treat Tibetans the way the Indian government does (treat) different ethnic and linguistic groups.”

Lobsang Sangay: Youths Lead Tibet Freedom Fight

In March 2014, Lobsang Sangay said young Tibetans are leading the fight to free Tibet from Chinese rule on the 55th anniversary of an March 1959 Tibetan uprising that drove the Dalai Lama to flee into India. "It is the younger generation of Tibetans in Tibet who clearly and loudly demand their identity, freedom and unity," Sangay told exile Tibetans and their supporters in Dharmsala, India. "Tibetans inside Tibet will have no memories of traditional Tibet, while Tibetans outside of Tibet will know only a life lived in exile." [Source: Ashwini Bhatia, Associated Press, March 10, 2014]

Associated Press reported: “The crowd of more than a thousand people cheered during Sangay's speech and waved colorful flags emblazoned with the words, "Tibet for Tibetans." During a slow, 6-mile (10-kilometer) march through town, they shouted "Long live the Dalai Lama" and "Free Tibet." On the same day a small Tibetan protest outside the Chinese Embassy's visa office in Nepal ended with several protesters detained by police. Nepalese authorities had deployed hundreds of extra riot police for the anniversary, hoping to thwart any anti-China protests in Katmandu.” [Ibid]

Tibetan Youth Congress and Angry Tibetan Youth

Some young Tibetans are frustrated by the Dalai Lama’s pacifist strategy. The India-based Tibetan Youth Congress is a radical group that has staged hunger strikes and has advocated violent protest. The Congress was founded by Jamyang Norbu, a member of the Tibetan guerilla movement that carried out raids on the Chinese from Nepal in the 1970s.

One 22-year-old Tibetan student in Delhi, who supports the Tibetan Youth Congress, told the Times of London, “What have we achieved in the last 50 years? If we don’t act soon, there?ll be nothing to fight for.” Another Tibetan youth in India told the New York Times, “We, the young people, feel independence is our birthright. We understand the limitations of the Dalai Lama’s approach..If we wait for nonviolence to work, maybe I will spend my whole life here. We need a stronger way."

Young Tibetans in Tibet are angry over the influx of Chinese. Those outside of Tibet are often disillusioned and rootless. They are inspired more by the independence movements in Kosovo and East Timor---where force was used---than by the pacifists message of the Dalai Lama. They sometimes use slogans that the Dalai Lama would not endorse like “Death to Hu Jintao.”

Tsewang Rigzin, the head of the Tibetan Youth Congress said, “There is a growing frustration among the younger generation. I certainly hope the middle way approach would be reviewed.” One young Tibetan exile in India told the New York Times, The Chinese “are not going to give total independence. But I think there’s hope they’re going to accept genuine autonomy if say we want total autonomy.”

Current State of the Tibetan Youth Congress

The Tibetan Youth Congress operates out of a threadbare one-story headquarters in Dharamsala. It is currently headed by Tsewang Rigzin, who lived in Oregon and worked for a bank before he was elected president of the group. He lives in Dharamsala, but his wife and children remain in the United States. Osnos said he has a buzz cut and serious, heavylidded eyes.

The Chinese press has labeled the Tibetan Youth Congress as a terrorist organization. In April, 2008, the Xinhua news agency quoted a government spokesman who alleged that Tibetan advocacy groups, including Rigzin’s, planned to “organize suicide squads to launch violent attacks.” Rigzin told The New Yorker the accusation was absurd. “I get Chinese people here all the time, and they laugh when we talk about the Chinese calling the T.Y.C. a terrorist group,” he said. “I tell them, “If we are a terrorist organization, you wouldn’t be here.” You would probably need to pass through a bunch of security guards with AK-47s and what have you. We are a democratic and a transparent organization. Everybody is welcome here.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

Rigzin told The New Yorker the group has never condoned violence, and yet he is content to be ambiguous about the future. “As long as His Holiness is around, the struggle will be nonviolent,” he said. “But we have to be realistic that there will be a day when he will no longer be with us. And then we don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.” That sense of anticipation, I discovered, is brewing in China as well.

Describing a talk by Rigzin held around the time the Dalai Lama was drawing thousands to his lectures, Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker. “I followed signs to a classroom nearby, where fewer than twenty people were seated. Brochures were fanned out on a table. When it was clear that nobody else was coming, Tsewang Rigzin, the group's president, stepped up to the lectern and said, "We were expecting a few more people." He gave a short, forceful speech about Tibetans?"They're being tortured, they're being imprisoned, they're being executed, but they've never given up"---and, when it was over, I asked him what he made of the turnout. "If you look at all the teachings that His Holiness does, you have thousands of people," he said. "But in terms of the support for us politically---It's, well, less." He added, "What we need is concrete support, not just sympathy." [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

Rigzin told The New Yorker, “The way that young people here see it, the Dalai Lama is received by foreign leaders. To do so, he has given up Tibet’s independence, but what have the Tibetan people gotten in return? He had the right to protect independence, but who gave him the right to abandon it? There is a group of us who feel this way.” He was growing excited. “People all over the world are the same,” he said. “If they’ve lost everything, they don’t fear death.” Of the Chinese, he added, “They think they have succeeded. They are mistaken.”

Image Sources: Prison photo, Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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