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Harvard Law fellow set to lead Tibetans

posted Mar 25, 2011, 7:06 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 25, 2011, 7:19 AM ]

By Lisa Wangsness and Maria Sacchetti

Boston Globe / March 22, 2011

Lobsang Sangay grew up in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Darjeeling, India. His parents sold one of the family’s three cows to pay for his school fees. He went on to university and then law school in Delhi, before winning a Fulbright scholarship that brought him to Harvard.

Today, Sangay is a research fellow at Harvard Law School and lives with his wife and daughter in Medford. He drives a Honda and loves the Patriots and Red Sox. And now, he is poised to become the most powerful elected leader in the history of the Tibetan government in exile.

Sangay, 43, is the strong favorite to win election as Kalon Tripa, a Tibetan title generally translated as prime minister. The voting took place in exile communities around the world Sunday; the results of the three-way contest are to be announced late next month.

The election has taken on special significance since the Dalai Lama’s announcement earlier this month that he plans to relinquish his role as the political representative of his exiled people and focus his energy on his spiritual leadership.

The political challenges facing the Tibetan people are enormous. They are seeking greater autonomy from China, but their influential longtime leader, the Dalai Lama, is now 75, and China is becoming a more powerful player on the global stage.

In a telephone interview yesterday from Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, Sangay said that if he wins, his top priorities will be “to make efforts to restore freedom in Tibet; to alleviate the suffering of the Tibetan people in Tibet; to end political repression and economic marginalization, cultural assimilation, and the environmental destruction taking place in Tibet.’’

“It’s tough,’’ he said. “But someone has to do it, and whoever gets elected will have a major role to play.’’

Sangay has never been to Tibet; his attempt to travel there was barred by the Chinese government.

He said that, if elected, he would continue to support policies articulated by the Dalai Lama, who led his people into exile in 1959 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years later. Sangay criticized what he called the Chinese government’s hard-line policies toward Tibet, which, he said, “make a breakthrough very difficult.’’

But, he said, “I believe in nonviolence. I do believe nonviolence should be the way to move forward.’’

Sangay’s opponents are older, and boast decades of government experience. Tenzin N. Tethong, a fellow at Stanford University, represented the Dalai Lama in New York and Washington, D.C., and Tashi Wangdi has represented the Dalai Lama in Europe since 2005. Both men have served in the Cabinet of the Tibetan government in exile.

But Sangay won the preliminary election last fall by a wide margin, capturing more than 22,000 votes to runner-up Tethong’s 12,000.

Observers of Tibetan politics say Sangay, a dynamic speaker, appealed to voters by getting to know them in his scholarly travels over the years and in an unusually vigorous round of campaigning in Tibetan refugee communities over the last year.

Tenzin Wangyal, a member of the editorial board of the Tibetan Political Review, said Sangay campaigned early and aggressively, visiting refugee settlements in India, as well as in the United States and Europe.

“It’s the Tibetan nature to not be very assertive and to see any efforts to gain political power . . . [as] somebody trying to do something for personal gain,’’ Wangyal said. But Sangay, he said, deserves praise for his outreach, which put pressure on the other candidates “to step up or be left behind.’’

Dhondup Phunkhang, a 37-year-old community organizer in Somerville, met Sangay at a birthday party in Roxbury in 1997. He recalls Sangay as “extremely confident and ambitious,’’ but also friendly and approachable.

“Lobsang has a huge amount of presence,’’ Phunkhang said. “In our society, generally if people work for the government or have a certain stature, naturally people become afraid to approach that individual. It’s a little more intimidating. He didn’t seem to be that way.’’

Phunkhang said Sangay’s experience outside government is part of his appeal.

“He energized a lot of people to come out and to get involved,’’ Phunkhang said.

But Sangay is also extremely well connected through Harvard, by giving lectures around the world, and through his work with Tibetan officials in India and New York, said Phunkhang, who spent a year working with Sangay and other organizers to prepare for the Dalai Lama’s 2009 visit to Massachusetts. The event helped raise more than $700,000, much of it to help build a cultural center for Tibetans in Massachusetts.

Kalsang Namgyal, a board member of the Tibetan Association of Boston, said Sangay has been able to bridge the gap between generations of Tibetans who often disagree about how best to advocate for the Tibetan cause.

In the interview, Sangay described himself as a onetime hard-core activist who preferred “banging on tables’’ to diplomacy. But, he said, his time at Harvard helped him become a more sophisticated thinker with the skills to engineer a series of conferences between Chinese and Tibetan officials.

“Coming to Harvard made me more rational,’’ he said. “Eventually you learn . . . to get to know the person from another perspective. You exchange views more freely and more forthrightly.’’

William P. Alford, director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law, said Sangay made “tremendous efforts’’ to reach out to Chinese students at Harvard.

“He listened a lot,’’ Alford said. “He spent a tremendous amount of time listening to quite a broad range of Chinese students. He was actually much more effective because he wasn’t trying to proselytize.’’

Sangay has won particular praise for organizing a series of conferences at Harvard that brought together mid-level Chinese and Tibetan officials.

Janet Gyatso, a professor of Buddhist studies at Harvard Divinity School, said the events provided an opportunity for the officials to interact without the political pressure of a high-level diplomatic encounter.

“Inch by inch, little by little, a lot can be done to make things better [in Tibet], even though they’re not going to win back independence,’’ she said.

But Sangay’s diplomatic efforts have also brought him criticism. He traveled to China on a temporary “Overseas Chinese National’’ travel document to meet with Chinese academics; his acceptance of such a document upset some who reject the notion that Tibet is part of China. Sangay said it was the only way he was able to travel to China, and not an acknowledgment of Chinese citizenship.

Gyatso said one of the main challenges Sangay will face if he wins is balancing the desires of a strongly pro-independence exile community with a Chinese government that has as yet shown no signs of yielding greater autonomy to Tibetans.

“In order to negotiate with the People’s Republic of China, one has to make a lot of concessions,’’ she said. “In order to maintain his credibility with the community in exile, he can’t be seen as too friendly or too willing to make concessions.’’