Interview: Lobsang Sangay

The Diplomat speaks with the prime minister of Tibetans in exile.

By Anuradha Sharma, The Diplomat | April 7, 2014

Lobsang Sangay, Prime Minister of Tibetans in exile. Photo credit: Tenzin Phende
Lobsang Sangay, Prime Minister of Tibetans in exile. Photo credit: Tenzin Phende

On April 26 it will be three years since you won the historic elections that made you the first political leader of the Tibetans, a post relinquished by the Dalai Lama. What has the experience been like?

The first year was anxious but I told myself this is my karma and I had to do the best I could to fulfill the aspirations of Tibetans in exile and Tibet. The 400-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama was changing course. All of a sudden His Holiness had decided to pass on the baton of political head and that came to someone like me: young, new to politics and without much administrative experience. I was anxious about the transfer of political authority and so were the Tibetan people. In the second year, the anxiety subsided but it continued to be very hectic, and so it has been since then. Except Sikkim, I have been to all the Tibetan settlements in India, all Tibetan schools, 90 percent of the monasteries and around 80 percent of old-age homes. In North America and Europe, I’ve visited all major Tibetan communities except three or four places. I am still working hard and intend to continue doing so; the rest I leave to the collective karma of the Tibetan people.

What is it like managing a ‘nation’ without physical boundaries? What are the challenges and opportunities?

The major challenge is the travelling that is required to reach out to the Tibetan population across the globe in five continents. It’s a grueling schedule every time—seven countries in 13 or 14 days in Europe and seven states in eight days in the U.S. The normal schedule is 8 am to 8 pm, followed by dinner and informal interactions with the local Tibetan communities. By the time you go to sleep, it is past midnight and the next morning you wake up early to travel to another city or country. The good part of it is the opportunity to meet different kinds of people, the exposure to different cultures and political systems.

Engaging with China without antagonizing India, is that a tightrope? A recent opinion piece in an Indian newspaper accused you of being “alarmingly pro-Beijing,” threatening India’s security. How do you react to that criticisms?

I was born in India and I’ve spent more years here than anywhere else. India has done the most for Tibetans, in fact more than any other country. Tibetans are forever grateful to India. The Middle Way approach has explicitly been our official policy since the early 70s and Tibetans seek genuine autonomy for Tibetan people.  The “Memorandum On Genuine Autonomy For The Tibetan People” was presented to the Chinese government by the previous Khashag (cabinet) in 2008. “Genuine autonomy” essentially means the genuine implementation of autonomy rights enshrined in the Constitution and Autonomy Law of the People’s Republic of China for the minority nationals in both letter and spirit. I have continued working in accordance with the policy that has long been in place. Neither the Indian government nor any official in the Indian government has raised any objection to it. Some critics who advocate the independence of Tibet do not seem to like the stand and make accusations of compromising the sovereignty of Tibet. I’ve met several leaders and people in authority in India and the reception I’ve got from them and the relationship I’ve had with them have been very positive. So, officially I don’t see any problem there. As for critics, what can I say? People write all kinds of things. I choose to ignore the allegations because they are baseless. As a political leader you expect some criticism from time to time.

But do you feel India could do a lot more?

We are guests in India and in no position to make any demands. Given a chance, we would like to urge upon India to make Tibet a core issue in its dealings with China. It is in India’s interest for the Tibet issue to be resolved. It is our appeal to India, as we do to any other country sympathetic to our cause, to press China to engage in dialogue to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully.

But China has been consistent in refusing to recognize you as the political head, stalemating the talks.

Yes, there has been a stalemate since January 2010, not because of a lack of willingness from the Tibetan side, but because China is maintaining hardline policies at the ground level and hardline rhetoric at the leadership level. They are on record that they don’t want to talk to me because talking to me amounts to recognizing the Tibetan administration. However, for us process is secondary and substance is primary. We have consistently urged a continuation of the dialogue between the envoys of HH the Dalai Lama and Chinese counterpart.

Three more self-immolations took place in Tibet in March this year, taking the total number of cases to 129 since 2009. What steps have you taken to address this issue?

We have consistently and categorically urged the Tibetan community not to resort to any kind of drastic action, including self-immolations. Despite our appeals, self-immolations have sadly continued, the blame for which goes to Chinese repression inside Tibet.

How to reconcile this form of violent agitation with the basic Buddhist principles of non-violence?

As human beings, self-immolation is extremely painful but, at the same time, we must keep in mind that none of the self-immolators so far has tried to hurt even a single Chinese person or cause any damage to Chinese property. So, even though it is a painful kind of death, the self-immolators are deliberately staying away from harming others. It a violent act upon oneself, yes; but in the larger sense, it cannot be summarily categorized as “violence” in that it is not aimed at causing harm to anyone else.

Are refugees still arriving from Tibet?

Yes. Many come for religious and secular education in India and some are forced out by oppressive Chinese policies. However, the number of arrivals has decreased because of the immense pressure the Chinese government places on the Nepalese authorities (Nepal has been the entry point for refugees fleeing Tibet) and the very strong sealing of the border areas.

You’ve never been to Tibet. How does Tibet seem to you from the memories your parents passed on to you?

I was born in a Tibetan settlement to my refugee parents in Darjeeling. My father, who was a monk in Lithang, and mother, who lived in Chamdo, were always arguing over whose village was more beautiful. I was told stories of a beautiful land, with clear streams, trees and flowers and farmland. But I guess the beautiful bit must have been true for the summers. (Laughs)

Recently, I went to Arunachal Pradesh (a northeastern state in India bordering Tibet) and visited the Tawang and Tuting and Gelling areas. The McMahon Line was close by and I could visualize Tibet across it, similar to India on this side of the border. During my visit to Ladakh in July 2012 I could see Tibet on the other side—arid, dry mountains, without much vegetation. I am planning to go to Sikkim and set my eyes on Tibet on the other side. These are my attempts to get as close as possible to Tibet in the current circumstances.

Are you hopeful that in your lifetime it will be possible to regain Tibet?

Yes, that’s why I left America and came here to work for that. During my Arunachal Pradesh trip, it was like retracing the steps of His Holiness and my parents. I remembered my late father in Bomdilla village where he first stayed after crossing over. I called up my mother from Tuting where she lived for a while before shifting to Darjeeling, where my parents met and lived. Both of them had followed His Holiness, who had crossed over through Tawang, 55 years ago. They didn’t have much with them when they crossed over to India because they intended to go back. Their wait to go back home has now crossed 55 years and my father passed away in 2004 without realizing that dream. This story is similar to thousands of Tibetans in exile and inside Tibet. All this makes me more determined in my cause. Fulfilling their dream is the sole purpose of my life. It is the quest for my own identity and dignity. Someday soon we shall have it.   

In the past, you were a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress and also the Students for a Free Tibet, both of which are strong advocates of Rangzen, or complete independence of Tibet. Now, as the head of the Central Tibetan Administration, you are a staunch advocate of the Middle Path.

I still have the same passion for Tibet that I had earlier. However, with time I’ve realized that it was wise and realistic on the part of our elders to opt for the Middle Path. It is a win-win situation for all: China can have its sovereignty and territorial integrity and Tibet can have its genuine autonomy.   

The Dalai Lama’s objective was to separate politics from religion. Has that happened?

To a large extent. It’s still going through a transition, but institutionally and constitutionally and on a day-to-day basis, a clear separation has taken place. His Holiness still remains the most popular and most revered person among the Tibetans. But because he magnanimously devolved his political authority, he has been deliberate in his approach to ensure that the separation remains.

Is it possible to be a minister in the Tibetan government of exile without being religious?


Do you consult His Holiness for any executive decision?

Officially it is not mandated. But he has vast experience and it would be great to have his views, although he deliberately does not give formal instructions. He also joked once that now that I am an elected head of the people, I can be criticized by the people, including His Holiness himself. (Laughs) The last thing I’d want is criticism from him.


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