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.
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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 -- kalontripa.org [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?

Ideally, you want as much freedom as possible. But realistically we would like something in the middle of repression and separation. Ongoing repression is unbearable. At the same time we are not seeking separation from China.

There is a racial element to this. The Chinese government is giving autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau; the message seems to be that for Tibetans, we don't trust you. The Chinese constitution clearly says the Tibetan language should be encouraged, and Tibetan culture should be promoted. We want Tibetans to administer their own regime.

Has the fact that you are no longer pushing for full separation resulted in any dissatisfaction among Tibetan exiles?

There are some Tibetans who believe independence is our birthright, and historically speaking, they are right. How we deal with that is that we are a democratic society, and we are all entitled to our own views -- we try to maintain it as difference of views, but not divisions.

Do you think there will be a solution to the Tibet issue within the lifetime of the current Dalai Lama?

Yes. Otherwise why would I leave my job at Harvard and go to Dharamsala? 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. You have to believe that he will be able to return to Tibet during his lifetime.

The Tibetan struggle has been going on for so long ... how has it changed over time?

Our elder generation were sincere, dedicated, hardworking, they sacrificed a lot. We have to continue that tradition and build on it, with modern education, exposure, and the understanding that we have. The traditional ethos and the modern know-how -- you have to have both. People are engaged from different countries and different backgrounds -- that is a challenge. Before, everyone was on the same page.

The situation inside Tibet has also gone from bad to worse. Before, there were protests, now there are self-immolations. The Chinese government is more powerful militarily and economically. But you have to keep the spirit and solidarity of Tibetans inside Tibet strong, and united with the spirit outside of Tibet also. We have to keep pressing the Chinese government to enter dialogue with Tibetans. And at the same time we have to invest in nonviolence and democracy, and hope that Chinese leaders will realize that repressive policies toward Tibet are not working.

We've seen self-immolations increase sharply in the past year. What explains the rise?

The system is so repressive that there is bound to be resentment and resistance. In 2008, there were a lot of protests all over Tibet. The consequences were very harsh. Most of them were arrested, tortured, put behind bars, and many died. Self-immolation is also a form of protest, but unlike before, self-immolators are drinking poison or petrol before they self-immolate, or left messages saying, "Don't let me fall into the hands of Chinese authorities" -- they wanted a quick death rather than to suffer at the hands of the Chinese.

The macro cause is repression, and the immediate cause is that there is no space for any form of protest. The Chinese have been cracking down on domestic monastic communities. Now the Communist party decides who can be a monk or not, and that seems to cause some monks to commit self-immolation. The largest number of self-immolations took place during the Party Congress in November -- they wanted to send an urgent message to the Chinese leadership.

There have been some signs that China has recently stepped up the campaign to suppress Tibetan culture. Do you think anything will change for the Tibetan people under China's new leadership?

On the personnel level, there used to be one representative for "minorities" in the Politburo. In the 200-member central committee, there were 16 representatives for minorities. The one has been reduced to zero, and 16 to 10. Even the token representation has been reduced. It doesn't look like they're giving priority to the minority issue in general and to the Tibet issue in particular. Also, at the ground level, the Chinese are prosecuting self-immolation. It seems they really want to continue this vicious cycle. In that sense, it's not that optimistic.

But they only took over fully in March. By March of 2014, we'll get a clear picture of whether Xi wants to bring change or not. It's a little early at the moment.

How do you feel like your Harvard education and U.S. experience has helped you so far?

It helps you meet all kinds of leaders. It gives you knowledge and confidence. But I'm a Tibetan, and humility is an integral part of Tibetan tradition. It's how to balance learning from America but not being too American. You have to be individualistic in some sense, but at the same time you're very aware of the communitarian mindset that Tibetans have. You have to balance between the two.

How do you work with the Chinese government, since they won't recognize you?

Publicly, we reach out to say that we are ready for dialogue, that's our stance. Now, formally, we haven't had dialogue since January 2010. But informally, many Chinese do come to Dharamsala -- journalists, scholars -- and I convey to them the same message. When I come out here [to Oslo] or anywhere, I meet Chinese scholars. My commitment to dialogue is established. Now, the Chinese government has yet to respond.

It sounds like you were subject to Chinese phishing attempts via email attachments? Does that happen often?

Yes, all the time. They try to monitor me, destroy my computer, make my life difficult.

It's where the Buddhist philosophy comes in -- don't have attachments!

What can the everyday people do for Tibet, if they're interested in the cause?

First, I would urge them to visit Tibet.net. Through that, get engaged in Tibetan issues. And after that, they should write to congressmen and senators on the need to support the issue of Tibet. It's an urgent critical situation. And come Dharamsala!

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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