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The Accidental Prime Minister of Tibet

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Sangay never actually lived in Tibet, but his connection to the region's decades-long struggle for autonomy is generations deep. His father was a monk who fled Tibet in 1959, the same year as the Dalai Lama. His uncle was shot dead. His aunt, unable to tolerate the daily injustices of her life, committed suicide by jumping in a river while pregnant. Sangay was born in a refugee camp, attended the University of Delhi, and became the first Tibetan to receive a degree from Harvard Law School. He stayed on as an academic, organizing conferences between Chinese and Tibetan scholars throughout the early 2000s.

Tibet had traditionally been ruled by the Dalai Lama, but in 2011 the aging monk said he would turn his authority over to a new, elected leader. Sangay's name was submitted to an online petition site, making him an official candidate for office. He ran dutifully and frugally, sharing cabs and hotel rooms with the other candidates, whose platforms differed from his (and each others') very little. He won with 55 percent of the vote, surprising even himself in the process.

A cornerstone of Tibet's -- and Sangay's -- strategy toward China for the past few years has been the so-called "Middle Way," or the idea that through dialogue and non-violence, Tibetan people can achieve autonomy within China, similar to what Hong Kong or Macau enjoy today. The newly chosen Chinese leadership hasn't warmed to the possibility of greater Tibetan self-determination. The government has increased its control of Buddhist monasteries in the region, pushed the Tibetan language out of regional schools, and threatened to prosecute any Tibetan caught protesting or inciting protests. As a result, self-immolations have spiked sharply -- at least 115 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since March 2011.

How could the "one country, two systems" mechanism that's in place in Hong Kong and Macau work for Tibet? What types of liberties or rights do you hope would come through that type of autonomy?

Ideally, you want as much freedom as possible. But realistically we would like something in the middle of repression and separation. Ongoing repression is unbearable. At the same time we are not seeking separation from China.

There is a racial element to this. The Chinese government is giving autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau; the message seems to be that for Tibetans, we don't trust you. The Chinese constitution clearly says the Tibetan language should be encouraged, and Tibetan culture should be promoted. We want Tibetans to administer their own regime.

Has the fact that you are no longer pushing for full separation resulted in any dissatisfaction among Tibetan exiles?

There are some Tibetans who believe independence is our birthright, and historically speaking, they are right. How we deal with that is that we are a democratic society, and we are all entitled to our own views -- we try to maintain it as difference of views, but not divisions.

Do you think there will be a solution to the Tibet issue within the lifetime of the current Dalai Lama?

Yes. Otherwise why would I leave my job at Harvard and go to Dharamsala? You have to always walk with hope that tomorrow will be different and better. If that hope disappears, then I think it's a very lonely place. You have to believe that he will be able to return to Tibet during his lifetime.

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