An expert's point of view on a current event.

Government in Exile

The Dalai Lama prepares to hand-off Tibet's political leadership to a fresh new face.

By , a professorial research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Tibetan Prime Ministerial candidate Lobsang Sangey poses as he arrives to cast his vote for the Tibetan Parliamentary election at a polling station at the Tsuglakhang Temple in Dharamshala on March 20, 2011. Thousands of Tibetans worldwide vote March 20 for a new leader who hopes eventually to become the new face of the struggle for freedom in China, a cause embodied for decades by the Dalai Lama. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN (Photo credit should read RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the Dalai Lama definitively declared that he would reject any appeal to continue serving as a political leader of the Tibetan community outside of China. It was an announcement that focused renewed attention on Lobsang Sangay, the man scheduled to soon assume political authority for the nation-in-exhile -- though Sangay's likely already used to the media spotlight.

On Wednesday, the Dalai Lama definitively declared that he would reject any appeal to continue serving as a political leader of the Tibetan community outside of China. It was an announcement that focused renewed attention on Lobsang Sangay, the man scheduled to soon assume political authority for the nation-in-exhile — though Sangay’s likely already used to the media spotlight.

Indeed, last month’s election of a new prime minister of the Tibetan exile government was covered by the media across the world, from Slovakia to Indonesia — unusual for a government which is not officially recognized by any state. But amid the hubbub, much of the event’s substantive importance was lost. Much of the buzz was about the new leader’s history and style: the 43-year-old Sangay dresses like a patrician lawyer (with aviator sunglasses, according to the BBC), speaks with utter confidence in himself, and had a fellowship at Harvard Law School for much of the last 10 years — a far cry from the self-effacing, soft-spoken style of many Tibetan exiles.


Most of the media coverage focused on the unlikely ascent of a Tibetan refugee to an elite American university: “New prime minister of Tibet’s ‘government-in-exile’ attended Harvard Law School,” ran CNN’s headline for the story. The Indian media enthused as well, focusing on what Sangay calls his “humble origins,” namely his childhood in a village home near Darjeeling, India, with two to three cows, one of which he says was sold to pay for his schooling.

Sangay’s personal style was not irrelevant: His “Indian/American” approach to campaigning, as he called it, led to a far more lively election than its two anemic predecessors, featuring public debates and hard-hitting campaign websites. There was a 59 percent turnout among the 80,000 Tibetan exiles who registered to vote in the 30 countries where exile Tibetans are now living, the vast majority of them in India. Sangay’s declared priority was conventional — to “pave the way for the return of the Dalai Lama to his rightful residence at the Potala Palace” in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa — but he promised to bring “new energy, new ideas, new vigor” to the Tibetan cause and argued that his legal studies would equip him to “facilitate … dialogue” with China. He was rewarded with 55 percent of the vote, a victory described by the New York Times as “signaling a generational shift within the Tibetan movement.”

Thus it is the change in the electors that is significant, rather than the man that they elected. The election showed an exile community that wants to see change in an administration widely viewed as overly bureaucratic, poorly educated, and resistant to innovation. The voters will be watching keenly to see whether he implements his promises to reform exile education and government, and already more sophisticated discussion has emerged among exiles than the usual arguments over whether to pursue independence or to resort to violent struggle. For example, one group of young exile intellectuals has started a website that fact-checks the claims of would-be exile leaders. They have already stimulated a debate over Sangay’s funding, which some say originates not from Harvard, as he has claimed, but from a Taiwanese foundation that paid the university to give him a fellowship.

The unexpected surge of political activism and critique among exiles is a vindication for the Dalai Lama, who has been trying to get them to develop a robust leadership system that will survive his death. This March he had called on the exile parliament to change its constitution so that in the future, elected officials will replace him and his successors as heads of the Tibetan government. The Tibetan exile community had rejected a similar proposal 20 years ago, but this time, his strategy seems to have been unexpectedly successful: Many Tibetans and their organizations have publicly welcomed the advent of a secular, modern system. This adds theoretically to pressure on China, because it makes it less certain that the exile project will collapse once its spiritual leader dies, as Beijing strategists are believed to have predicted.

But Sangay’s impact will be mostly on domestic issues and the prospect of a more dynamic exile community in India. In international terms, what matters about the election is what it indicates about China and its ability to rule Tibet. It showed that Beijing’s current influence in New Delhi is limited; otherwise the polls would not have been allowed in India — this was hardly mentioned by the media. Little notice was paid to the fact that 13,000 Tibetan exiles in Nepal had their votes seized by Nepalese riot police on the innovative grounds that the election constituted “anti-China activities” and therefore was “against our foreign policy,” as a government spokesman put it. That means that China is gaining significant influence in Nepal that it never had before.

On these larger issues the exile role is limited, except for that of the Dalai Lama, who speaks for the 97 percent of Tibetans, some 5.4 million people, who remain within their country. Although he will formally give up his position as the head of the exile government on Aug. 15, it is he, not the new prime minister, who will remain in charge of any talks with China. Because Beijing has always insisted it will talk only with his private representatives — it blasted the exiled government and Sangay’s election as “illegitimate” — the exiles will certainly demand that the Dalai Lama, retired or not, continue to lead any contacts with Beijing. In any case, China’s strategists are primarily concerned not with exile politicians but with the Dalai Lama, because he is the only major charismatic leader who has millions of followers living within their territory. So its policy toward exiles will continue to focus on trying to delay serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama while he lives and controlling the selection of his successor once he dies.

These are objectives, however, that it might find difficult to sustain. In a Tibetan area of Sichuan province called Ngaba, for example, Beijing has got itself into a major confrontation in which the local monastery has been sealed off by troops for much of the last two months, 300 monks have been taken away for “legal education,” and two villagers were allegedly clubbed to death by soldiers — all because of a solitary act of self-immolation on March 16 by a local monk who wanted to commemorate the deaths of as many as 10 Tibetans shot by Chinese police in a protest there three years ago.

The exiles’ new leader can do little about the Ngaba crackdown, but the Dalai Lama, who spent last week giving public talks on ethics to students in California, could have major influence there, especially if Beijing were to ask him to give practical assistance, as it has done quietly in the past — and because Sangay’s accession will relieve the Dalai Lama of his formal political role, it will be marginally easier for Beijing to approach him with less loss of face. The questions we need to be asking are therefore not about the well-groomed prime minister shaking up the exiles’ cabinet, but about whether Tibetans in China will accept Chinese rule — and whether their continuing resistance might finally push Beijing to talk to the Dalai Lama, now that someone else has taken over his political position.

Robert Barnett is a writer and researcher on modern Tibetan history and politics. He is a professorial research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, an affiliate researcher at King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, and a senior research fellow with Hong Kong Baptist University. He was the founder-director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.

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