Elections to chose to new President and representatives for the Tibet-in-Exile government was held in January 2021. Associated Press reported from Dharmsala, India: “Hundreds of Tibetans in exile braved the rain and cold Sunday in India’s northern city of Dharmsala, where the exiled government is based, and voted for their new political leader as the current officeholder’s five-year term nears its end. [Source: Ashwini Bhatia, Associated Press, January 3, 2021]

“The voters wore masks, maintained social distance and used hand sanitizer as they cast their ballots during the first round of the election. Many assisted elderly voters to fill the correct forms. In this first phase of voting, two candidates for the top government post of president will be shortlisted, including 90 parliamentarians. The second and final round of voting will take place in April. “By this we are sending a clear message to Beijing that Tibet is under occupation but Tibetans in exile are free. And given a chance, an opportunity, we prefer democracy,” said Lobsang Sangay, who will soon be finishing his second and final term as the Tibetan political leader. “No matter what you do, the pride of Tibetans, the sense of Tibetans, is to be democratic and practice democracy.”

Nearly 64,000 Tibetans living in exile in India, Nepal, North America, Europe, Australia and elsewhere voted in the election, which was held in two rounds in January and April. Formed in 1959, Tibet’s government-in-exile — now called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) — has executive, judiciary and legislative branches, with candidates for the office of sikyong, or president, elected since 2011 by popular vote. “China doesn’t recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile,

Many young Tibetans are contesting the parliamentary election this year. As the Dalai Lama grows older, there is a growing realization among the Tibetan youth that they should participate more in the government. “As somebody who has studied technology, I believe I can try and make the parliamentary communications more secure and fill the gaps in information database,” said Lobsang Sither, 48, who is contesting the current election. Sither said that the previous governments have largely focused on the Tibetan diaspora and not enough on Tibetans inside Tibet. “That has to change. Unless we have reliable information on the situation inside Tibet, we cannot formulate policies to assist Tibetans there,” said Sither.

Penpa Tsering Elected President of Tibetan Exile Government

Penpa Tsering, the former speaker of Tibet's parliament-in-exile, was the new president of the exile government. It was the third direct election of the Tibetan exile leadership since the Dalai Lama withdrew from any political role in the running of the exile government in 2011. Penpa Tsering, 53 in 2021, was elected to its parliament in 1996 and became its speaker in 2008. Associated Press reported: “The 45 people elected to the exile parliament include 10 each from the three traditional provinces of Tibet, two each from the five religious constituencies, two each from Tibetan communities in North America and Europe, and one from the Tibetan community in Australasia. [Source: Ashwini Bhatia, May 14, 2021]

Penpa Tsering told Reuters that they are committed to a peaceful resolution with China, but Beijing's current policies threaten the future of Tibetan culture. "Time is running out," said Tsering, speaking from Dharamshala in India. "Once it is eliminated, it doesn't make sense to fight for anything," he said. “"I have always said we are not against multiculturalism ... but one single majority population completely overwhelming a minority population, that amounts to cultural genocide, especially when it's enforced by the state," Tsering said. [Source: Cate Cadell and Sanjeev Miglani, Reuters, May 21, 2021]

Around the time Penpa Tsering was named leader Beijing issued a white paper that said prior to China's intervention, Tibet was a "wretched and backward feudal serfdom" that was "doomed to die out". In response Tsering said: "Money alone does not bring happiness. If we had been independent we could have been economically as developed as Tibet is today. We'll use all ways and means to reach out to the Chinese government.If the Chinese don't respond to us the only way we can keep the issue alive is to reach out to the international community," he said.

“Tsering reiterated that when the 14th Dalai Lama passes he will only be reincarnated in a "free country", according to his wishes. China says it has a right to select the Dalai Lama's successor according to Chinese law. "Why are they so concerned with the 15th Dalai Lama?" said Tsering. "The 14th Dalai Lama is still living and he wishes to go to China ... the Chinese government leaders need to learn about Buddhism first."

Election for Tibetan President 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 President, 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 President. 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

In late April 2011, it was announced that Lobsang Sangay easily beat the two other candidates for the President's post, securing 55 percent of the vote in the first round. He served two terms, completing his second five-year term at the end of May 2021. 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. [Source: AFP, April 22, 2011]

After he was elected, Tim Sullivan wrote in Associated Press: Lobsang Sangay is the President 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."

In November 2020, Lobsang Sangay visited the White House, the first such visit by a Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) president in six decades. He met with White House but didn’t meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. The meeting took place during an anti-China campaign by the Trump administration. A month later, the U.S. Congress passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act, which calls for the right of Tibetans to choose the successor to the Dalai Lama, and the establishment of a U.S. consulate in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Lobsang Sangay’s Campaign to Become President

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."

Lobsang Sangay as President

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."

Sangay 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 . 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.

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]

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]

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.”

Tibetan Youth Congress in 2010

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

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.

Last updated September 2022

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