A Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans Face Uncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era

By Erich Follath in Dharamsala, India

Part 3: A Tibetan with No Experience of Tibet

In the eyes of many of his fellow Tibetans, the new Kalon Tripa, the official title of the prime minister of the government-in-exile, already has two strikes against him. First, Lobsang Sangay has no religious education. And second, he only knows the country which he is fighting for from second-hand accounts. He is a Tibetan with no direct experience of Tibet.

This is probably the reason that there was some tension between him and his rivals near the end of the election campaign. "But I did capture 55 percent of the votes in the end," Sangay, who is married with one daughter, says proudly. He rejects the criticism that someone in his position should wear a robe instead of tailored suits, calling it a cliché. His father was a monk whose monastery was completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. His uncle, says Sangay, went underground and was presumably arrested or killed, and then disappeared without a trace. "One can be devout without spending one's life behind monastery walls," he adds.

His parents fled to India in 1959, the year of the failed popular uprising. They married there and their son was born in India. They did everything they could to make sure that he had access to a good education, even selling a cow, one of their most valuable possessions, so that Sangay could attend an advanced school.

A gifted student, he seized the opportunity and earned a degree in English literature from the University of Delhi. He won a scholarship to Harvard, where he eventually earned a doctorate in law, writing his dissertation on the history of the Tibetan government-in-exile. He has been at Harvard for 16 years and has consistently worked on behalf of the Tibetan cause. In 2008, he testified as an East Asia expert before a US Senate committee, and on two occasions he arranged for secret meetings between the Dalai Lama and academics and artists from the People's Republic.

In 1992, he became the youngest member of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) in Dharamsala. Despite its respect for the Dalai Lama, the TYC has always called for a tougher approach to China, and has demanded Tibetan independence instead of merely "true" autonomy. Some of its members dreamed -- and probably still dream -- of armed resistance against the Chinese occupiers.

During the 2008 popular uprising in Lhasa and other regions in the Chinese-controlled territory, many Tibetans died at the hands of brutal police officers and plainclothes security forces. But the violence was not one-sided. Tibetans, apparently encouraged by fellow Tibetans in exile, destroyed Chinese businesses. And the recent self-immolations of Tibetan monks in China are also not without precedent. As an act of protest, a member of the TYC set himself on fire in India a few years ago. And the TYC leadership is currently staging a hunger strike in New Delhi in protest against the siege of the Kirti monastery.

Violence against others, as well as violence against one's own body, is forbidden in Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama condemned the acts of protest. Sangay agrees with him, but he also expresses "great understanding for the courage of my fellow Tibetans, who are understandably outraged and distraught," and says that he respects their actions. He is performing a careful balancing act, as he tries to reconcile the highly contradictory positions in his community.

"I also welcome the intervention of the United Nations in Ivory Coast and Libya," says the new premier, "and I call upon the world to intervene in our cause, as well."

Is Sangay seriously calling for an armed international campaign on behalf of Tibet, within the internationally recognized borders of the People's Republic of China?

"No, no, not military," he adds. He is careful not to portray himself as an unrealistic dreamer. "But Tibet should become the subject of serious negotiations at a level that would involve presidents and prime ministers," he says. "The whole world is morally and politically obligated to get involved." He believes that the revolutions in the Arab world could become a model in China. "Wherever there is repression, there is always resistance. But I do not advise my fellow Tibetans who are oppressed in the People's Republic to use violence."

Sangay believes that the Chinese cannot resist the tide of history forever, a tide that is increasingly being shaped by the free will of the people. "I am democratically legitimized, but the leadership in Lhasa is not. The authorities in Beijing will have to talk to us sooner or later," he says self-confidently. He expects especially strong support from Germany and points out that Chancellor Angela Merkel is a committed champion of freedom. "She knows what it means to live under communist tyrants."

Naturally the premier-in-exile, who was sworn in at the parliament-in-exile two weeks ago, pays close attention to the political maneuvering of the communists.

The Communist Party, which has always equated Tibetan Buddhism with "feudalistic practices," has long attempted to exploit religion in a bid to silence Dharamsala. Tibet's god-kings have traditionally participated in the search for their spiritual deputies. In 1995, the Dalai Lama designated (or recognized, depending on one's worldview), a young boy as the reincarnation of the deceased Panchen Lama, and hence the new second-highest ranking member of the religious hierarchy. Through middlemen, the abbot of the Shigatse monastery in communist-controlled Tibet had secretly sent photos of various candidates to Dharamsala.

China's political leaders were outraged. Their agents abducted the boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was six at the time, and brought him to Beijing. Since then, the authorities have refused to provide any details about the boy, even though foreign delegations have repeatedly requested information about his whereabouts and wellbeing. Human rights groups have called him the "youngest political prisoner in the world." When asked about his fate, officials in Beijing say tersely that he is doing well, that his parents are anxious to give him a "normal life," and that it was necessary to protect him from the "Dalai Lama clique."

"We don't even know if he is still alive," says Sangay. "He would be 22 now."

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