Hoping Against All Hope

Tibetans are setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. So is there anything the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile can do about it?


In early January, a quarter million believers gathered at the sacred northern Indian site of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2,500 years ago, to mark one of the most important events on the Buddhist calendar. Among the crowd were more than 8,000 Tibetans who had defied threats from the Chinese authorities to attend the Kalachakra ceremony, which would be conducted by the Dalai Lama. Spread over 10 days beginning on the first day of the year, the ceremony involved elaborate purification rituals, meditation, and special prayers for peace both within oneself and in the world. Among those attending was Lobsang Sangay, the first secular, democratically elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, which is based in the Indian town of Dharamsala. It was his first appearance before such a large gathering since the Dalai Lama passed on his political authority to him in August last year.

Sangay, who is supposed to be a secular leader, is not especially religious. In some ways that is ironic, for these days he is finding that his options for action are limited mostly to prayers for peace. Over the past three years, distraught Tibetans inside China, many of them monks and nuns, have unleashed a desperate protest by setting themselves on fire to express their discontent with increasingly harsh Chinese rule. (To date 25 of them have succeeded in ending their lives in this way.) Sangay, for his part, has never set foot on Tibetan soil; he has seen his homeland only in pictures. So the Kalachakra ceremony gave him a unique opportunity to mingle with his compatriots, many of whom had risked their personal safety to get there, and who were sure to be detained by the suspicious Chinese security forces at several new checkpoints on their long way back home.

On a cold, rainy day, brushing aside warnings by his aides that Chinese spies had infiltrated the pilgrims, Sangay plunged into the crowd. He was mobbed. Hordes rushed forward to greet him, some reaching for his hand while others broke down and cried. Elderly people prayed for him and blessed him, asking him to deliver them from Chinese rule. "It was a deeply emotional experience for me," says Sangay. "I feel fortunate to have their blessings." He will need all the goodwill that he can get, and more, if he is to keep the hope of freedom alive for his people.

For now, that goal appears to be a long way off. Beijing’s unrelenting stance toward dissent in Tibet remains firmly in place. The spate of self-immolations and other protests in Tibet and its neighboring provinces has triggered a predictably harsh response, as the government has flooded many parts of the region with armored vehicles and heavily armed troops (many equipped with fire extinguishers to be deployed against would-be human torches). The whole area is under a virtual lockdown in the run-up to March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetans’ 1959 uprising against the Chinese authorities. China’s increasing economic might has forced crisis-ridden Western nations to fall in line with Beijing. Even the United States, which has traditionally advocated a negotiated settlement in Tibet and often called upon China to respect Tibetans’ rights, did its best to humor Xi Jinping, soon to be the next Chinese president, on his recent visit to America. China’s crackdown on Tibet was hardly mentioned as U.S. politicians and business leaders rolled out the red carpet for Xi in Washington.

Compare the Chinese leader’s stature with that of Sangay. He is a prime minister without a country. He commands no military. He runs his administration on a shoestring budget, most of which comes from donations. No country recognizes his government. His main opponent, the Chinese communist leadership, dismisses him as illegal and unrepresentative. And yet his confidence appears undented. Last year the 43-year-old former Harvard scholar was elected Kalon Tripa (prime minister) by Tibetan exiles scattered in some 30 countries around the world. "This position gives me a megaphone and louder volume," Sangay said recently in Dharamsala. "I use it for Tibet and the Tibetan people as much as I can."

There are hardly any other options at present. As grim tidings of new self-immolations reach his modest office in the Himalayan foothills in Dharamsala, Sangay finds himself with little means for defending his people other than his voice. But even it is failing to stir up governments around the world against the Chinese crackdown.

That reality is depressing enough. But then, Sangay, like most Tibetan exiles, has been used to deprivation and loss from a very young age. He was born in a Tibetan refugee settlement, subsidized by the Indian government, near Darjeeling in the eastern Himalayas. His parents sold a cow to send him to school, where he showed keen interest in his studies. It was during his graduate work at Delhi University in the early 1990s that Sangay developed his interest in the Tibetan freedom struggle and started thinking of a life in public affairs. "We would finish our classes and then land up at Majnu ka Tilla [the Tibetan refugee settlement in north Delhi]," recalls Kaydor Aukatsang, his longtime friend and now his roommate in Dharamsala. "He was active in community affairs and would often join the protests at the Chinese Embassy [in New Delhi]." He became an executive committee member of the independence-demanding Tibetan Youth Congress, considered a terrorist organization by Beijing.

After earning a law degree from Delhi University, Sangay won a Fulbright scholarship in 1995 and landed at Harvard Law School. It was there that he became inspired by the Dalai Lama’s attempts to democratize the government-in-exile. The 76-year-old Dalai Lama had begun laying the foundations of a democratic system for Tibetans as early as the 1960s. For nearly 350 years, the successive dalai lamas had led Tibet both spiritually and temporally. But the current, charismatic 14th Dalai Lama (named Tenzin Gyatso), who has lived in exile in India for over 50 years, wanted to separate the two roles and give up his political authority. In a move designed to outsmart the Chinese leaders who want to control his reincarnation, and with it the future of Tibet, the Dalai Lama last August handed over his political function to Sangay, who had earlier won a three-cornered, keenly contested election among some 50,000 Tibetan exiles.

That meant Sangay’s physical move from a leafy suburb of Boston to the austere settings of Dharamsala and taking up a job that would fetch him a salary of about $300 a month. It also meant leaving behind his banker wife and their 5-year-old daughter.

Acutely aware of the Dalai Lama’s immense popularity and lofty stature, Sangay realizes that to be effective he must come into his own and create a space for himself. He is careful not to be seen as trying to replace the Dalai Lama. "I am here not to fill his [the Dalai Lama’s] shoes, because it’s not possible," says Sangay. "I will try to make the movement stronger and sustain it after he is gone. We’ve to fulfill his vision of secular Tibetan democracy. We want to ensure the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet." He also does not fail to reiterate that he adheres to the Dalai Lama’s "middle way" policy of seeking meaningful autonomy within China through nonviolent means.

That is a point he always underlines in his talks. And talking is a major activity in his nearly 18-hour workday when he is at his base in Dharamsala. He starts at 6:30, when he gets up and makes coffee for himself, which he relishes on his balcony overlooking the often misty valley below. A 30-minute stint on a treadmill and some stretching exercises keep his 6-foot frame in shape. He flies economy class and carries his own bags. He writes his own speeches.

A lone bodyguard follows him when he goes to his office and when he travels in Dharamsala. But though a direct attack by Chinese agents on Sangay seems unlikely, his government must be constantly on guard against attempts to undermine it in other ways. Last year, the Tibetan community was shaken after huge amounts of cash, including Chinese currency, were found in the monastery of the young Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual leader of growing popularity and stature, near Dharamsala. The discovery of the money, described as donations by devotees from around the world, prompted speculation of the Karmapa’s being a Chinese spy, much to the distress of Tibetans and other Buddhists. Indian intelligence, however, never found any evidence to support those allegations. And now, senior Chinese leader Zhu Weiqun, in charge of Tibetan affairs, has ruled out talks, dubbing Sangay and his government "illegitimate."

Sangay’s office is a simple room with a desk and a couple of sofas. A life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama adorns one wall of his office. He often joins other ministers to discuss official matters over lunch. The exile government runs over 40 schools and several hospitals and looks after settlements and monasteries spread across India. Sangay often poses with starry-eyed ordinary Tibetans for a photograph — an obvious gesture to connect with the people from whom he has been away for nearly 16 years.

Some Tibetans think Sangay has been out of touch with ordinary Tibetans for far too long. "I didn’t vote for him," says Palden, a young Tibetan refugee living in Delhi. (Like many Tibetans, he uses only one name.) "He does not seem to have any [administrative] experience." Some others find him aloof. "His stint in America has given him an edge," says a member of the Tibetan Parliament who requested anonymity. "And that can sometimes make him appear arrogant and pompous." Those are traits looked down upon by the generally courteous and deeply religious Tibetans.

Sangay admits that he is not very spiritual and does not have much of a daily religious practice. His knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan literature is rudimentary. But he is trying to improve upon that. It also remains a great challenge for him to inculcate secular values in a devoutly Buddhist Tibetan society. "He comes as a breath of fresh air," says Youdon Aukatsang, a member of the newly elected Tibetan Parliament. "He however has to prove himself and live up to the challenges facing him."

To his credit, Sangay does not underplay the challenges. Responding to the self-immolations entails a delicate balancing act. Like the Dalai Lama, he does not condone suicide — and yet each new self-immolation generates powerful publicity for the Tibetan cause. He explains at great length how some Tibetans see no other way than immolating themselves to free their people. "I find him quite articulate and impressive," says author and Tibet expert Claude Arpi. "But I am not sure if the Chinese will take him seriously or open negotiations with him." Still, he has shown his readiness to hold talks with the Chinese, he says, "anytime, anywhere." He is also prepared to accept a status for Tibet like that of Hong Kong and Macau under China’s "one country, two systems" policy.

There is no sign yet that that is going to happen anytime soon. But bleak prospects do not deter Sangay, who takes a long-term view of Tibet’s difficult past and draws strength from the Buddhist understanding that change is inevitable everywhere. He says Tibetans are a sturdy people who have endured many upheavals without losing their optimism and fortitude. Though the 13th Dalai Lama had to flee to India when the Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1910, he was able to return three years later. It seems, for now, that Sangay will need a lot of praying to keep that hope alive for the 14th Dalai Lama.

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