Tibetan exiles elect Harvard lawyer to take over Dalai Lama's political role

A Harvard fellow was elected head of Tibet's government-in-exile on Wednesday, and is slated to take over the Dalai Lama's political role this summer.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Lobsang Sangay, the new Kalon Tripa, or Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, poses in front of a scroll painting at the International Campaign for Tibet building in Washington April 27.

A young Harvard scholar was today elected prime minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile and is expected to take over the Dalai Lama's political duties this summer, signaling a new generation of leadership and the community's desire for a more hardline approach to China.

Lobsang Sangay beat out his two rival candidates with 55 percent of the vote in the March 20 election, officials announced Wednesday in Dharamsala, the de facto capital of Tibetan exiles. About 59 percent of some eligible 89,000 voters spread over 30 countries cast a ballot.

“I urge every Tibetan and friends of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] to his rightful place in the Potala Palace," Dr. Sangay said in a statement on the exile government's website.

The Dalai Lama announced earlier this year that he would give up his political role, saying it was time for elected leadership in the Tibetan community. While China dismissed the announcement as a “trick," the election of a new prime minister shows the seriousness of the Dalai Lama's intent to hand over his political responsibilities to a new generation. The spiritual leader of Tibet has handled all political matters since 1959, when he fled to India and established a government-in-exile in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala.

“A new generation born in exile has been elected for the Kalon Tripa [prime minister],” says Samphel Thupten, a spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile. "It indicates that democracy has taken firm roots in us. These democratic structures will hold our community together for years to come."

Face of a younger generation

Though the Dalai Lama is seen as a near-deity by many followers who would have liked to see him maintain political power, observers say it was time for a transition. “This was not necessarily a welcome change but an inevitable change,” said Penpa Tsering, speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in exile.

Dr. Sangay, 43, represents the face of the younger generation of Tibetans who are eager to see him make some leeway on Tibet’s independence from China. Exiles expect him to push more vigorously for greater autonomy of Tibet, in contrast to the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” policy that has frustrated a younger generation of exiles and in many eyes failed to produce results.

Observers say Sangay, who has lived in the United States for the past 15 years, likely won’t shy away from raising the issues of human rights, identity, religion, and the usage of natural resources inside Tibet.

He is reportedly the first Tibetan to have gained a doctorate from Harvard University, where he is currently a Fulbright Scholar and is known for planning numerous international conferences involving Chinese expatriates on issues relating to Tibet’s struggle for freedom from China.

He was a prominent member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a radical exile group which advocates full independence for Tibet, and was its youngest ever executive member. His work with the group has raised criticism from China in the past.

In a statement today, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The so-called Tibet government in exile is an illegal political organization established by the Dalai Lama to engage in ‘Tibet independence’ separatist activities. The world does not recognize this state whatsoever."

Tibetans celebrate Sangay's win

On the streets of Dharamsala today, Tibetans cheered upon hearing of the victory of someone they say will stand up to China and fight for Tibetan autonomy.

“Democracy… is what I came here for,” says Yonten, a young Tibetan who fled to India in 2001. “The people’s power stands, and now we have a man like His Holiness, whom China should be scared of.”

“Sangay has education," says Tenzin Choegpal, an older Tibetan who runs a shop in Dharamsala. "As a lawyer his words will be of much value and prove a good weapon to tackle the Chinese.”

Sangay faces significant hurdles. Neither China, nor any other nation, officially recognizes the Tibetan government-in-exile. And the Dalai Lama has played such an important political role for so long, with a name that alone commands Pope-like reverence, that some Tibetans may hesitate to recognize a new leader.

“The problem for any prime minister is that, compared to the Dalai Lama, he enjoys little name recognition outside specialized Tibetan circles, and that will be a difficult dynamic to shift,” Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told the AFP.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.