He has never seen his ancestral homeland, never set foot in the ancient Buddhist monasteries nor breathed the thin air of the Tibetan plateau. Yet Dr Lobsang Sangay is now charged with representing not only the thousands of Tibetans living in exile, but the 5.4 million Tibetans under Chinese rule struggling for greater autonomy, for the freedom to pray and worship unmolested and for the right to revere the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader.
Last August Dr Sangay was sworn in as the Kalon Tripa – equivalent to Prime Minister – of the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala, India. It was an extraordinary and unique appointment: at the age of 43, he takes over from the 14th Dalai Lama the day-to-day political leadership of the Tibetans in exile. It was the first step in the proposal by the revered 76-year-old Dalai Lama to pass the mantle of leadership to a younger generation, breaking a 400-year-old stipulation that change comes only with the death of the spiritual leader and his subsequent reincarnation.
It was also a huge break in style, background and politics for the scattered Tibetan community, many of whom were once refugees, remain poor and are committed to a lifelong struggle to liberate Tibet from Chinese rule. Dr Sangay, by contrast, is a distinguished lawyer, English literature graduate and Fulbright scholar, who has spent the last 16 years studying and lecturing at Harvard – a long way from Lhasa or Dharamsala. Without a passport or nationality, he has nevertheless devoted himself to Tibet. His Harvard thesis was on Buddhism and human rights. He has spent time in Switzerland on a fellowship from the International Commission of Jurists researching a report on Tibet and human rights. And for his doctoral dissertation at Harvard – the first PhD awarded to a Tibetan – he researched the history of the Tibetan government in exile.
He was also a committed activist, a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress that was denounced by China as a ‘pure terrorist organisation’. Like many Tibetan exiles, he saw no accommodation with China. He had little time for on-off negotiations, and was determined to keep up the struggle within the monasteries in Tibet. But the Dalai Lama has always argued that Tibetans were ready to accept Chinese sovereignty as long as they had full autonomy to worship and conduct their own internal affairs. And now Dr Sangay espouses that line also – to the frustration of some of the younger, more militant exiles, who see little reward for the official policy of non-violence.
Things have recently become more politically sensitive, however. Talks between Chinese intermediaries and the Dalai Lama have sputtered inconclusively for years, but last year, for no apparent reason, they were broken off completely by Beijing. After the uprising within Tibet in 2008 and the subsequent Chinese crackdown, the situation has become much more tense. And in recent months, more than a dozen monks have set themselves alight in protest at Chinese restrictions within their monasteries, which oblige monks to denounce the Dalai Lama and suffer numerous humiliations.
Dr Sangay has recently been touring Western capitals to urge governments to speak out against Chinese repression, and in November he came to London. Like most Western countries, Britain walks a fine line in offering moral support to the Dalai Lama while not angering China by recognising him as a political leader. It is a balance that rarely succeeds. Beijing routinely launches vituperative protests whenever governments receive delegations from Dharamsala. And so Dr Sangay had only ‘unofficial’ talks with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.
‘We are not complaining about that,’ he said. ‘We will accept whatever support we can receive. Protocol will not be an obstacle’. Suave, assured, speaking faultless English, he paints a sad picture of monasteries where hundreds of monks have been expelled, of arrests, tortures and the persecution of pro-independence activists.
The recent self-immolations were the actions of the desperate, he said, of people who thought the outside world did not care about their plight. And though he understood their motivation, he repeated the Dalai Lama’s disapproval of such spectacular and agonising suicides. He also strongly denied reports that money was being paid in compensation to the families of those who set themselves alight – which have led to accusations of incitement to suicide.
Like the Dalai Lama, Dr Sangay is well versed in international politics. In April 2008 he testified as an expert before the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs. He has lectured on Tibet’s relations with China to universities, think-tanks and public forums in Europe, Asia and North America. And he has published articles in academic journals and in leading newspapers and news weeklies. And to a restless Tibetan community in exile, he has upheld the dream of a return to their homeland while trying to rein in the more militant plans of those who would like to fan a popular uprising, which would, inevitably, be crushed by China amid considerable bloodshed.
Why has he taken over the political leadership from a Nobel peace prize winner who, for the past 60 years, has been the globally recognised symbol of Tibetan identity? Dr Sangay outlined for Diplomat the reasoning for this change. First, he said, the Dalai Lama did not want the cause to be entirely dependent on him, encouraging, among exiles as well as those within Tibet, a dependency mindset. The freedom movement should be able to move forward on its own. Secondly, he wanted to disprove the claim by Chinese hardliners that this was just a one-man movement, and when the Dalai Lama died it would disappear. And thirdly, he would have more time to give to the spiritual leadership of the non-violent struggle. ‘He has said that he will do this until he is 90,’ Dr Sangay said. ‘He wants to see the political incarnation mature and grow first, and then there will follow the spiritual incarnation’.
Dr Sangay poured scorn on China’s own proposals for a tame Tibetan leadership. Beijing, he said, insisted that all religion was poisonous. What basis was that on which to select the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama? ‘It has no credibility or legitimacy. There is no room or space for the Chinese government to intervene in this’.
Maintaining the spiritual and political leadership of the Tibetans is no easy task, however. There are several traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and rivalries have split the community into opposing factions. There are, for example, two different claimants to the role of the Karmapa, the so-called Black Hat Lama, who is the third most senior monk in Tibetan Buddhism. Two men, both in their 20s, claim the office, and the case has come before the courts in India and elsewhere. Rival monasteries dispute the claims, even as far afield as in Britain.
Dr Sangay attempts a diplomatic distance – though insists that Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who fled Tibet as a 14-year-old and has lived in Dharamsala since 2000, is the Karmapa recognised by the Dalai Lama.
As Prime Minister of the government in exile, his task is more political and focuses not on the legitimacy of competing claims but on how to get talks going again with Beijing. ‘We have sent messages saying we are willing to restart talks’ he said. It seems, though, that Beijing is not now in a mood to listen. If the US, Britain and other countries issued a statement urging China to withdraw troops from Tibet and begin a dialogue, that would give Tibetans hope for change, he insists. But, however cordial his ‘unofficial’ talks at the Foreign Office, few in the West are likely to jeopardise the brittle but crucial relations between China and the West at this stage. Dr Sangay has a long task ahead.