The Accidental Prime Minister of Tibet

How a Buddhist mindset, the "Middle Way," and a Harvard education keep Lobsang Sangay, the country's Sikyong, afloat. Oh, and no attachments, please.
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (right) and Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, at a news conference in Vienna on May 25, 2012. (Reuters)

OSLO, Norway -- In a way, Lobsang Sangay ended up overseeing of one of the world's longest-running political conflicts largely by accident. A Tibetan legal expert born to refugee parents in India, he was working at Harvard University when, on a lark, he ran for Tibet's top government job as sikyong, or prime minister, in 2011.

Sangay never actually lived in Tibet, but his connection to the region's decades-long struggle for autonomy is generations deep. His father was a monk who fled Tibet in 1959, the same year as the Dalai Lama. His uncle was shot dead. His aunt, unable to tolerate the daily injustices of her life, committed suicide by jumping in a river while pregnant. Sangay was born in a refugee camp, attended the University of Delhi, and became the first Tibetan to receive a degree from Harvard Law School. He stayed on as an academic, organizing conferences between Chinese and Tibetan scholars throughout the early 2000s.

Tibet had traditionally been ruled by the Dalai Lama, but in 2011 the aging monk said he would turn his authority over to a new, elected leader. Sangay's name was submitted to an online petition site, making him an official candidate for office. He ran dutifully and frugally, sharing cabs and hotel rooms with the other candidates, whose platforms differed from his (and each others') very little. He won with 55 percent of the vote, surprising even himself in the process.

The Democracy ReportA cornerstone of Tibet's -- and Sangay's -- strategy toward China for the past few years has been the so-called "Middle Way," or the idea that through dialogue and non-violence, Tibetan people can achieve autonomy within China, similar to what Hong Kong or Macau enjoy today. The newly chosen Chinese leadership hasn't warmed to the possibility of greater Tibetan self-determination. The government has increased its control of Buddhist monasteries in the region, pushed the Tibetan language out of regional schools, and threatened to prosecute any Tibetan caught protesting or inciting protests. As a result, self-immolations have spiked sharply -- at least 115 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since March 2011.

Meanwhile, Sangay governs in exile from Dharamsala, India, not recognized by the Chinese government but persistently urging Chinese officials to come to the table.

The Atlantic spoke with Sangay in Norway, where he recently spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Why did you decide to run for office?

My father and my mother -- when we lost our country, they fled to India as refugees, so I always had this legacy of the separation of my family. It has stayed in my mind. My parents always felt serving the cause was very important. I was in Beijing in 2005, but the Chinese authorities didn't allow me to enter Tibet. My father had passed away in 2004 -- I told the Chinese authorities that it was important for me to go to Lhasa -- it's important for Tibetans to pay respects and pray. Even then, they refused. The legacy of the elder generation and my own parents' experience was always there.

How did you come to win the election?

This guy launched a site -- [the former title for the head of the elected government]. He wanted to push candidates to come forward. Anyone could nominate a candidate, but when no candidates volunteered, it almost flopped. A friend of mine happened to visit him. He nominated me, and said, let's see where it goes. My name was put forward to entice other candidates to come forward. My name came first, then the other candidates actually came. Then newspapers started nominating names, and they all took their cue from the site, and everyone started nominating me because I was listed first. I had no plans whatsoever. I spent 16 years at Harvard Law School. I hardly ever went to the Kennedy School [of government].

"You have to always walk with hope that tomorrow will be different and better. If that hope disappears, then I think it's a very lonely place."

I said, "what the heck, I am just going to lose anyway." I thought I could improve the election by pulling the other candidates along. We never had campaigns or debates of candidates before. After I was drawn in, I started drawing interest in the cause. Conventional wisdom was that I had a 1 or 2 percent chance of winning. You're running an exile administration, filling the shoes of the Dalai Lama ... how can someone parachute in and win just like that?

Then we had debates, and interest started generating. The other candidates were seen as insiders, and me as the outside candidate. And then one thing led to another and people voted for me. It became more of an election of personalities than policies.

The Dalai Lama pulled all of his authority right at the same time. Before, the job was a lot simpler because you could just get a paper signed by him and show it to Tibetans and say, "don't criticize this." But then, His Holiness said, "you're on your own." And I thought, "Oh my goodness, what did I bargain for?"

I took it as my karma. I started moving forwarded, doing the best I can.

How could the "one country, two systems" mechanism that's in place in Hong Kong and Macau work for Tibet? What types of liberties or rights do you hope would come through that type of autonomy?

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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