Names You Need to Know: Lobsang Sangay, Tibet’s New Leader


Four centuries of theocratic rule formally ends next month when Dr. Lobsang Sangay is inaugurated as the first democratically elected Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, of the Tibetan government-in-exile. In March, the Tibetan parliament accepted the Dalai Lama’s decision to relinquish his last remaining political powers.

The Chinese government was obviously unnerved when His Holiness announced this year that he intended to end his governmental role. Beijing’s apparent tactic had been to outlast the revered leader of the Tibetans, now 76, and then watch the leaderless movement fracture.

In typical fashion, however, China did not leave anything to chance. Chinese officials in 1995 kidnapped the six-year-old boy the Dalai Lama had chosen to be the next Panchen Lama because that religious figure by tradition has a leading role in picking Dalai Lamas. Beijing then chose its own Panchen Lama and has kept him under tight control since. Four years ago, the officially atheistic Chinese government announced that the Buddhist Dalai Lama could not reincarnate without its permission.

The Dalai Lama, however, has undone much of Beijing’s handiwork by completing a process, begun in the early 1960s, of devolving power to the Tibetan exile government. In giving up the last of his political authority this year—he is still the spiritual leader—His Holiness paved the way for a younger generation, free of Chinese interference, to take up the cause.

In a March election of Tibetans in 30 countries, exiles selected Sangay over two older candidates. He was an improbable choice, spending little time up until then in Dharamsala. His father, a monk who fought the communists in Tibet, fled China and settled in Darjeeling in India, where Sangay was born. The family sold a cow from its one-acre farm to pay for his education, and eventually he earned a Fulbright to study at Harvard.

At the time of his election as the next Kalon Tripa, he was a fellow at Harvard Law School, but now he has quit so that he can earn $367.65 a month to be the leader of a people with no territory, no army, and no diplomatic recognition. He will preside over a flock divided by rivalries, religious and regional, and face a Chinese adversary that is implacable, ruthless, and powerful.

In the face of these seemingly insurmountable difficulties, Dr. Sangay now must make good on his two campaign pledges, freeing Tibet and helping the Dalai Lama return to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Few think he can succeed.

Yet despite their overwhelming power—or because of it—the Chinese have apparently lost the support of almost all Tibetans in China. Beijing maintains its rule over them only through undeclared martial law and an unprecedented campaign of coercion. Its program of bringing Han settlers into Tibet as well as its exploitation of resources there have fueled a long-lasting Tibetan sense of identity and deep resentment. Two generations in sealed-off Tibetan areas worship the Dalai Lama, although these followers have never seen or heard His Holiness and even though they have been subject to decades of unrelenting indoctrination against him. Sangay can always count on China’s hardnosed leaders to unite his people for him.

And Sangay actually has been dealt a winning hand. The Dalai Lama and elder generations have handed younger Tibetans a unique legacy. “There are no models of administrations-in-exile that are democratic,” the new Kalon Tripa told me yesterday.

Democratic governance makes national governments strong and resilient, but is democracy good for mass movements? Up to now, political scientists have assumed that a movement needed a single leader with a single voice to be successful. The Dalai Lama, however, has opted for the cacophony of democracy. Democracy ensures his movement will retain popular support around the world and will be viewed as legitimate, especially when his adversary is the increasingly authoritarian Communist Party of China.

Yet democratic institutions will also make the Tibetan cause hard to manage, especially for someone like Sangay, who has lived far from Dharamsala for almost all his life. With little experience, he will have to balance all the factions in the Tibetan movement, maintain the goodwill of a reluctant India that hosts the exile Tibetan community, seek support from nations intimidated by China, and struggle to free his people from oppressive Chinese rule.

Sangay knows what he is up against. His struggle begins on the ninth second of the ninth minute of the ninth hour of August 8, a time he chose for his historic inauguration. Nine in Tibetan stands for the challenging of evils, he says.

There is no shortage of evils bedeviling the Tibetans or confronting Sangay, unfortunately. He must, in the face of devils, protect his people and lead them back to their mountain homeland.

“I have not seen Tibet, but I am very proud to be Tibetan,” he said to me. “I always say I will die as a Tibetan, but while I live I will fight for Tibet.”

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