Lobsang Sangay is sworn in as new prime minister of Tibetan exiles

Harvard-trained academic Lobsang Sangay vows to fight Chinese 'colonialism' at his swearing-in as the new political head of Tibetan exiles. But will he have clout?

Ashwini Bhatia/AP
Lobsang Sangay (l.) the new prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, stands next to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as he greets the crowd at his swearing-in ceremony at the Tsuglakhang Temple in Dharmsala, India, Monday, Aug. 8. The Harvard-trained academic has been sworn in as head of the Tibetan government in exile and is replacing the Dalai Lama as political leader of the exile movement.

Today, Tibetan exiles swore in their new head of government, Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, who will take over official political leadership duties for the half-century-long Free Tibet movement.

The Harvard University-trained law fellow is the first secular man to hold a higher political authority than the Dalai Lama, and his inauguration highlights what the Dalai Lama has indicated he hopes will represent the new democratic face of the Tibetan exiles.

For years the Dalai Lama has indicated he wanted Tibetans to elect a political leader and to reduce his role to merely that of a religious head, but it wasn't until March that elections were held.

“The vision of passing on my political power onto the democratically elected prime minister has been fulfilled. I feel that the devolution of power onto Lobsang Sangay is appropriate, and I have full confidence he will carry out the responsibilities and continue to uphold strong democratic ideas,” the Dalai Lama said of the new appointment.

Though much of the exile community also appears confident Dr. Sangay can fill the big political boots of the Dalai Lama, he still faces a host of challenges.

“This new man could make a significant difference if he is able to improve the education system in exile and rejuvenate the administration there,” says Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. He adds that though Sangay’s skills for this position are a bit up in the air, they may emerge.

Sangay, who beat out two rival candidates with about 59 percent of the vote, won the March election among 89,000 eligible Tibetan exiles.

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.

“There is no ‘socialism’ in Tibet. There is colonialism. Chinese rule in Tibet is clearly unjust and untenable,” Sangay said, pledging to fulfill the Dalai Lama’s vision to create a secular democratic society in his inauguration speech.

Sangay calls himself an activist scholar. While on a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard, he met thousands of Chinese students and organized round table meetings for the Dalai Lama with the Chinese scholars. In 2007 he was named one of the Asia Society’s 24 Young Leaders of Asia.

In a brief interview with The Christian Science Monitor ahead of his swearing in, Sangay said he would negotiate with China even though Beijing does not recognize his exile government.

Pointing to his 16 years of experience reaching out to Chinese people, scholars, and students, Sangay says he believes in dialogue. “I have a track record,” he says, “and if Beijing is interested and wishing to negotiate and resolve the issue of Tibet, I am willing to extend my hands, which I have always done.”

Beijing on the other hand, has made a series of allegations against Sangay and even ruled out any talks with him as a new representative of the Tibetan exiles.

A top priority, says Sangay, is to form a team of capable and dedicated professionals to serve as ministers to his new cabinet. Together they will focus on professional changes in the system, improving the education system, and hopefully implementation of new policies.

Still, experts worry that Sangay’s name, which is obviously less familiar than the Dalai Lama’s, could affect how much he can actually influence international policy.

“It's unlikely that Lobsang Sangay can take up the political role of the Dalai Lama, as much of the world views the latter as both a religious and political figure and many Tibetans view him as akin to a god, even if he doesn't see himself that way,” said Barry Sautman, an expert on Tibet and an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, in an e-mail.

He said that, at least at first, the Dalai Lama’s role won’t actually be reduced as much as he claims. “In fact, the Dalai Lama continues to travel to meet important national leaders, where he inevitably discusses political matters and it would be very surprising if he doesn't continue to do so within the Tibetan exile community and administration," says Dr. Sautman.

With a special nod to Chinese tradition, Sangay was sworn in on a significant day at a significant time: Aug. 8, at 9:09 (and 9 seconds). In Chinese numerology, the number nine symbolizes longevity. China held the Beijing Olympics on Aug. 8, 2008, at 8:08 p.m., (and 8 seconds), because the number eight symbolizes prosperity. With such attention to detail, “how could the Chinese be bad to me?” asked Sangay.

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