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An Interview with Lobsang Sangay

posted Apr 14, 2011, 6:34 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Apr 14, 2011, 6:46 PM ]

By Shobhan Saxena, Times of India, March 20, 2011
Lobsang Sangay, 43, has been on a campaign trail for two months, travelling to Tibetan settlements in India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Harvard law fellow is the frontrunner in the election for the post of kalon tripa , prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile . Sangay got 50% of the votes in the preliminary round and is hopeful of doing well in today's election. He talks politics, spiritual striving and the Dalai Lama to Shobhan Saxena. Excerpts:
The Dalai Lama's announcement he will retire from politics has stunned the Tibetans. What is the significance of his decision ?

In the history of the Dalai Lamas, it's the first time that there is transition from a traditional role to a modern process . Secondly, he really wants to invest in democratic institutions of the Tibetan government in exile , so that the movement can be sustained till freedom is restored in Tibet. Thirdly, he is devolving his power not only to an elected prime minister, but to the people. It's a reversal of the classic democratic process where the movement is bottom-up . In our case, it's coming down from the top. It's a karmic evolution of democracy.

Is he trying to ensure the Chinese aren't able to manipulate a post-Dalai scenario?

He is definitely challenging the Chinese government upfront. They have always criticized him as a religious leader who plays politics. Now he is saying 'I am giving political power to the people and you —the communist party —are holding all the power even though you may not enjoy the mandate of the people' .

But reports from Dharamshala suggest the community is not accepting his resignation.

Who can replace the Dalai Lama? It's a daunting task. Our government is in the name of His Holiness ; the dialogue with China is in his name; many supporters are with us because of him. It's very difficult for the parliament to find a solution to all this in one sitting. The Dalai Lama will always remain our leader.

As per the proposal, the new prime minister will be the political leader of Tibetans. Your plans if you become prime minister?

It's too presumptuous to assume that you will be elected. Anyway, whoever gets elected must take political decisions. He has to be at the front and reflect and represent the political aspirations of the Tibetan people. The next kalon tripa will also have to deal with China.

All three candidates for prime minister are based outside India, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile . Why?

If you look at the preliminary results, I got an overwhelming number of votes. If you look at the list of candidates, you'll see that the people want the next kalon tripa to be someone who is away from Dharamshala because we had top six or seven candidates having close links with Dharamshala . Now, people are aspiring for change. I got the highest number of votes not because I live in the US but because I am least connected with Dharamshala . On the other hand, the people want to see someone who is rooted in Tibetan tradition, who understands Dharamshala pretty well and, at the same time, has exposure to the West.

Barack Obama ran his presidential campaign as a Washington outsider. Are you running your campaign on similar lines?

Consciously, it's important to run my campaign as a Tibetan who wants to dedicate himself to the Tibetan cause. But, while campaigning, the question I was often asked and sometimes criticized for was not having the experience of working in Dharamshala. I have always replied, 'I am an outsider who understands Dharamshala' . This line seems to have been accepted by the people.

You have been involved in Track II diplomacy with Chinese scholars. Any positive results?

The Chinese are a complex set of people with diverse views. There are hardliners who don't recognize the tragedy of Tibet. There are some liberalminded scholars who understand, yet they are least influential back home because their chances of going to jail are higher than of influencing the Chinese government. There are some serious scholars who want to resolve the issue. At the moment, the hardliners reflect the views of the Chinese government . I have been doing Track II for the past 15 years. I have organized seven major conferences. In 2009, I arranged the Dalai Lama's meeting with 100 scholars from China. That's a breakthrough. The fact that people are talking is itself a positive result.

There is some confusion about what the movement wants. Some people talk of independence , the Dalai Lama wants autonomy...

The confusion is made out to be more than it actually is. Tibet was an independent country and it's entitled to independence and self-determination . But what the Dalai Lama says is that given the reality of China's might, we can negotiate genuine autonomy , which is pragmatic. We have sent nine delegations to Beijing; now some conclude that there is a stalemate. Hence, the younger generation is saying we should go back to our original demand of independence.

Recently the Dalai Lama called himself a son of India. How do describe yourself ?

I have never seen Tibet because China doesn't allow me to go there. Still, I am a proud Tibetan and I will die a proud Tibetan. While I live, I will work for the Tibetan people. But I was born in India. I drank Indian water. I have no hesitation in saying that the Indian government and people have been very generous . For the past 15 years, I have been at Harvard . The exposure that I have now is because of th e university and I am grateful to the US. Once you are born a refugee, it's difficult to say where your home is and our home always will be Tibet, but our second home is India.

You could have become a rich lawyer...

I was born a Tibetan. If I turn my back on Tibet and the Tibetan people, what example am I going to set for the younger generation? I have already decided to dedicate myself to the Tibetan cause.

But many Tibetans want to go abroad. Isn't that an issue within the community?

It's an issue. That's why I stood for this election so that I could set a trend whereby people in the west and even here could say that we all have to return and take ownership of the government. In the present election, the participation of the younger generation is huge. It's a very positive development.