Self-Immolations. Threats From Beijing. Playing Politics With the Dalai Lama

Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy | February 4, 2015

All in a day’s work for Lobsang Sangay, the Harvard-educated prime minister of the quixotic Tibetan movement in exile.

DHARAMSALA, India — These days, the Dalai Lama seems to make news mostly when world leaders decide whether or not to meet with him. On Feb. 5, the Dalai Lama will attend the annual U.S. National Prayer Breakfast — a rare victory for the globetrotting spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, as President Barack Obama will also be in attendance. More typical is what happened to the Dalai Lama in mid-December, on the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize, when he visited Rome for a summit of Nobel Peace laureates. He requested a meeting with Pope Francis, but the pontiff declined for what a Vatican spokesman called “obvious reasons” — i.e., the Church’s relationship with Beijing. Much of the Western world views the Dalai Lama as a superstar: He regularly addresses tens of thousands in stadiums across Europe and the United States. But Beijing sees him as a dangerous separatist (a “splittist,” as the Chinese like to say), and has punished governments and agencies that engage with him.

Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, the remote Indian town that serves as their headquarters, also wanted to mark the anniversary of their leader’s Nobel. In the Dalai Lama’s absence, the job of master of ceremonies fell to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama stepped down from his role as political head of the Tibetans in March 2011, and since then he’s been trying to unload power and responsibility — much of it to Sangay, a Harvard-trained legal scholar elected in April 2011.

On a makeshift stage in a Buddhist temple outside the Dalai Lama’s residence, the 46-year-old Sangay spoke about the bravery and courage of the Dalai Lama to an audience of a few thousand. Smiling and regal in his flowing black robe, he watched Tibetan dances and listened to long Indian speeches. If he was bored, he didn’t show it.

Time, however, is not on Tibet’s side. If interacting internationally is getting more difficult for the Dalai Lama, it’s easy to forget how much that problem is compounded for the small, quixotic, and increasingly irrelevant Tibetan movement in exile, and for Sangay himself. There are an estimated 6.5 million Tibetans worldwide, of whom all but a few hundred thousand live inside China. Sangay won the election for prime minister with roughly 27,000 votes, including exiles — a number that seems more at home with a mayoral election in a small American city. His annual operating budget is reportedly around $30 million — roughly the revenue Apple makes every two hours.

The Tibetan refugee population in Dharamsala, the town in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama made his home after fleeing China in 1959, is just 14,000, out of a total of roughly 20,000 people. The town is growing. When I visited in December, new apartments and hotels were springing up along the mountain, and the widening of one of the town’s only roads led to traffic snarls that were bad even for India. But the numbers of Tibetans are increasing slowly, if at all. “Before 2008, there was an average of a few thousand refugees” from China arriving to Dharamsala every year, says Thubten Samphel, who runs the Dharamsala-based Tibet Policy Institute, a government think tank. “For 2014, I’ve heard we only had eight.”

A man for all seasons

Prime Minister Sangay’s challenges are many. He has to keep the door open to negotiations with China, while not seeming too pro-mainland. He has to keep his constituents happy — in Dharamsala, in Tibet, and in scattered communities across India, the European Union, and North America. When I interviewed him during my December visit, Sangay made a point of telling me that he’s been to all of the major Tibetan communities in the United States. “Maybe there’s a few Tibetans in Montana,” he added. “But I’m not counting those.”

But his main task is keeping the Tibet independence cause relevant in a world where voicing support for it can lead to stern reprisals from Beijing. The closest Sangay said he came to meeting a head of state was an encounter around 2007 at Harvard with Ma Ying-jeou, who later became the president of Taiwan — an island claimed by China, that only 21 nations still recognize as an independent country. Sangay said he has not met any heads of state: “We don’t even try; it’s too sensitive for them.”

The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, has met with dozens of heads of state and global figures, and — despite the heavy hand of Beijing — maintains strong links with governments around the world. “The United States, because it considers Tibet a part of China, doesn’t have any official relations” with the Tibetan government-in-exile, the U.S. State Department’s Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Sarah Sewall told me. “And yet we have met repeatedly, and routinely, with the Dalai Lama, as a cultural and religious leader.”

It’s always useful to meet with His Holiness, said Sangay. (Like everyone I spoke to in Dharamsala, Sangay referred to him by that phrase.) “We talk quite regularly,” he said, comparing his relationship with the spiritual leader to that of the British prime minister: “They have this weekly luncheon with the queen.”

That’s probably overstating it. Shortly after the Nobel Prize anniversary ceremony concluded in Dharamsala, I struck up a conversation on the stage with Penpa Tsering, the Tibetan speaker of Parliament, a charismatic man with a friendly frown. When I asked about the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Sangay, Tsering said that “His Holiness is always…” — he lifted his hand high — “and we are all down here.”

The next morning, I met Sangay at his massive office overlooking Dharamsala’s green hills. A visit to the Dalai Lama’s compound earlier that morning required a thorough security check, and I was expecting a similar exercise here as well, but Sangay’s office was unguarded. An aide apologized about a scheduling miscommunication because the phones weren’t working. The elevator didn’t seem to be working either, so I took the stairs.

Behind Sangay’s desk hung a life-sized picture of the Dalai Lama, in his trademark red robe. During the anniversary ceremony, Sangay had worn a black robe; today he wore a dark suit from Joseph A. Bank, a mid-range American menswear brand. “You buy one, you get another one for free,” he told me.

A Harvard man

Sangay was born in 1968 in Darjeeling, a former British Hill Station of roughly 200,000 in the mountains in north India. Besides its eponymous tea, Darjeeling is famous for being the home of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa climber who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, was the first to summit Mount Everest. Sangay, who grew up poor, was the first Tibetan to attend Harvard Law School. He received an S.J.D., a research doctorate in law, and wrote a thesis entitled: “Democracy in Distress: Is Exile Polity a Remedy? A Case Study of Tibet’s Government-in-Exile.”

Sangay spent 16 years at Harvard, most recently as a senior fellow at the law school, before campaigning for the prime minister’s position in 2011. His fancy degree, coupled with what his critics deemed “American-style campaigning,” helped propel him to victory, defeating ex-Prime Minister Tenzin Tethong, who received 37.42 percent of the vote. (A third candidate won the remaining 6.44 percent of the vote.) “He gives good sound bites, knows how to talk, and how to dress up for the media,” said a young Tibetan in Dharamsala, who asked to remain anonymous.

Tethong, who now serves as the head of the Tibetan language section for Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C., told me that Sangay “is very capable, and he’s able to communicate well, and that’s a large part of his appeal.” He praised Sangay’s ability to translate complicated ideas into easy-to-understand slogans about the need for progress and modernization. “Of course, I thought I was the better candidate, and still think I am,” Tethong told me. The 65-year-old Tethong has decades of experience working on Tibet issues; he helped set up the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the United States in 1979, while Sangay has spent most of his professional life at Harvard.

Tsering, the Tibetan Parliament speaker, said that some of the old guard “sometimes feel a little uneasy” about Sangay’s more populist governing style. “But we talk it out.” Besides, he added, “people seem to like him –” in part because of his emphasis on education for Tibetans. “His main focus has always been on education,” Tsering said. “Securing funds for education, sponsorship, scholarship — on those areas, he has done well.” And Sangay appears to have a good relationship with some members of Congress and the State Department. “Always great seeing Lobsang Sangay, the free leader of #Tibet,” Sen. John McCain tweeted in November 2013. Sangay has met with Sewall, who’s also an under-secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, several times. “He’s an extremely earnest and energetic person,” she said.

It’s hard to know how much support Sangay receives from Tibetans inside Tibet, however. Since riots in Lhasa broke out in March 2008, it’s been extremely difficult to get foreign journalists into or information out of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a massive, windswept plateau that’s home to about half of the Tibetans in China (the rest live mostly in neighboring provinces). In a May 2013 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, Sangay said that “many artists inside Tibet have composed songs in honor of the election and my victory.” Several people told me that Tibetans inside of China have great respect and high expectations for Sangay — in no small part because the Dalai Lama publically praises him. Hanging in Sangay’s office is a Tibetan ceremonial painting known as a Thangka — with his own face on it — which he says he received from a supporter inside Tibet.

But some Tibetans in exile I spoke with feel he hasn’t done enough to engage in dialogue with the Chinese. “He’s reactive, not proactive,” the young Tibetan man told me, over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Dharamsala. “He keeps saying [to Beijing] we’re always ready to talk — but you can’t just be waiting!” he said.

His wife, a young Tibetan who also asked to speak anonymously, concurred. She criticized Sangay’s lack of response to the wave of an estimated more than 130 self-immolations that have swept Tibetan areas since 2009. Outside the Dalai Lama’s compound stands a memorial to the self-immolators, featuring protesting Tibetans subsumed inside a rock. It’s called “Burning Tibet.” The government “wasn’t able to do anything except pray for the deceased,” she said.

Sangay has spoken up about the issue, though. In his CFR speech, Sangay said that self-immolation reflects “the desperation and determined act on the part of Tibetan people that occupation is unacceptable, repression is unbearable,” but also that his administration discourages “drastic action by Tibetans, including self-immolation.”

Sangay says that his policy on dealing with Beijing is the same as that of the previous Tibetan governments-in-exile. Rather than seeking independence, or making do with the status quo, the Dalai Lama in 1974 conceived of a policy known as the Middle Way Approach. It calls for “genuine autonomy” for Tibetans living in China, and allows Beijing to maintain “the security and territorial integrity of the motherland.” Samphel of the Tibet Policy Institute, who thinks Sangay is “doing a wonderful job,” admits that there’s little the prime minister can do. “Whether China thinks it’s within its interests to engage with him or not, that’s for China to decide. But at the moment, it seems that they don’t want anything to do with him.”

Between 2002 and 2010, Beijing had nine rounds of talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama. Possibility of dialogue between the two sides re-emerged in October, when the Dalai Lama indicated he was discussing with Beijing the possibility of returning to China for a visit — but that seems unlikely.

The Dalai Lama is a household name in China, owing in large part to the constant attacks on him in Chinese media. Beijing appears to think Sangay isn’t worth slandering. One rare exception was a July 2012 article in the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, which referred to him as “the so-called administrative head of the ‘Tibetan government in exile.’” The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment — nor does it attempt to communicate with Sangay. But a Chinese foreign-policy expert, who asked to speak anonymously, told me that dialogue with Sangay is possible. “The Dalai Lama has to first apologize that he committed the crime [of trying to split China] and ask for forgiveness. He has to do this first,” he said. “We already give some autonomy to Tibet. But no one who asked for independence of Tibet should be entitled to autonomy.”

It’s hard to see how Tibet can win. “In the name of development, many things are happening,” said Tsering. “Mainly the migration of Han Chinese into Tibet.” The Han population inside Tibet is a very sensitive issue — there are no reliable statistics. But the percentage of Han Chinese in Tibetan areas, especially Tibet’s spiritual center and capital Lhasa, is almost certainly increasing. “In another 20 to 30 years, autonomy might not even make sense,” said Tsering. “I hope we will not be reduced to the status of Red Indians in America, where tourists come and take pictures of Tibetans in their natural dress.”

I asked Sangay about the uphill battle of returning Tibet to the international consciousness, and the likelihood of getting major countries to press China for genuine autonomy. He told me the story of a meeting he had with Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Prize-winning activist who became East Timor’s first foreign minister after the country achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002. “Ramos-Horta had an invitation to speak somewhere in the southern part of the United States. Texas or something. What Ramos-Horta walked into was ‘six people interested in East Timor in a cafeteria,” said Sangay, recounting the story. “So Ramos-Horta sat down, and he had a good coffee and a good conversation.” Like Gandhi, who started in South Africa, Sangay says, you have to start somewhere.

The fifteenth coming

The biggest unanswered question about the future of Tibet is what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies. At 79, he’s still in excellent health; he has said that he will deal with the issue of reincarnation when he nears 90. At the Italian restaurant in Dharamsala, I asked the young Tibetan woman what would happened if the Dalai Lama passed away before 90. “He won’t,” she said. “He says he’ll live to the age of 113.” This is presumably a reference to a prophecy by Nechung, the state oracle of Tibet, who has said the Dalai Lama will live to 113 if the Tibetans successfully “maintain morality, unity and enhance their collective merit.” Sangay also seems to believe the Dalai Lama will live for a long time. “If he says he’ll live until 90 — we’ll take his word for it,” he said. “He’s very healthy.”

In September 2011, the Dalai Lama released a statement laying out three possibilities for his successor: reincarnation, succession, and emanation. (More recently, he has also hinted that the line of Dalai Lamas, of which he is the fourteenth, may stop with him.) Sangay told me he favors emanation, wherein the Dalai Lama himself picks a successor while he’s still alive. Beijing, however, feels that the decision is its own to make. Only Beijing “can decide on keeping, or getting rid of, the Dalai Lama’s lineage, and the 14th Dalai Lama does not have the final say,” Zhu Weiqun, executive vice director of the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party body believed to play a major role in Tibet policy, told the nationalist Chinese newspaper Global Times.

The Chinese foreign policy expert I spoke with concurred. “After he dies, we will find another Dalai Lama,” he said. That is, someone other than Sangay, who appears quite happy about where his karma has taken him. Sangay told me that Harvard Law School mentions his name on its list of famous alumni, one that includes Barack Obama as well as Taiwanese President Ma — a fact that he said he found embarrassing. “Whoever did it, did it for the wrong reason,” he told me. “I don’t run a country.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *