The New Leader of Tibetans on the Dalai Lama, China, Harvard, and More

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An interview with Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile

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Sangay, left, stands next to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as he greets the crowd at his swearing-in ceremony in Dharmsala, India on Monday. AP.

On August 8, Lobsang Sangay was sworn in as prime minister of the Tibetan exile government based in Dharamsala, India. Sangay, 43, left his post as a fellow at Harvard Law School to take his new position in Dharamsala, the northern Indian hill town that's been home to the Dalai Lama after he fled China's invasion of Tibet in 1959.  

The new prime minister bears more responsibility after the Dalai Lama, 76, relinquished his formal political role in the exile administration in June to strengthen a secular exile government that could be independent of him.

While the Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan people, the administration-in-exile oversees the day-to-day affairs of Tibetans refugees, from running an extensive Tibetan school system in India, to managing finances to assist refugees, to shaping policy toward China. Nearly 100,000 Tibetans live in India -- the world's largest population outside of Tibet.

Sangay was born in Darjeeling in northeast India, went to schools for Tibetan refugees and has a law degree from Delhi University. As a child, his family sold one of their few cows to pay for his education. He won a Fulbright scholarship and in 2004 earned a PhD from Harvard Law School. At Harvard, he wrote his dissertation on the democratization of the Tibetan exile administration.

On April 26, Sangay was elected prime minister. In an interview in Dharamsala in May, he talked about his humble origins as the son of Tibetan refugees in India; why he left Harvard to earn $300 a month as prime minister; his outlook on Tibet and relations with China; what he will miss about Boston (white chocolate mochas at Starbucks); and the contributions that he and other exiles can make to Tibet.

What is the feeling within the Tibetan exile community about the Dalai Lama's resignation from his political role?

His Holiness thought this was in the best interest of Tibet and Tibetan people. In 1959 he started devolving power and every five to ten years he made major decisions. In 2001, the Dalai Lama announced his semi-retirement and in 2011 his full retirement [from a political role]. Looking forward we are all very anxious; it is emotionally hard to digest. But we are hopeful and committed that this should work out. My role is to fulfill his vision of a democratic secular society and live up to his expectations as the political spokesman for Tibet and Tibetan people. 

From the 1950s His Holiness was impressed with Indian democracy. He was always for reform. All along, I've been amazed by his timely intervention and decisions, which proved very good for Tibet and Tibetan people. In 1960 he said: "We must have an elected parliament." People said, "Why do we need that? We have you."

Chinese officials have refused to negotiate with you and say they will speak only to the Dalai Lama's envoys. What is the outlook for relations with China?

For us, the process [of negotiations] is not the primary concern, outcome is. If they want to substantially negotiate with His Holiness's envoys...it's fine with us. So far the obstacle has been the hardliner statements and policy from the Chinese government side. They have started labeling me and calling me names. It's uncalled for and unfortunate. We are willing to negotiate with the Chinese government anytime, anywhere.

Have you ever been to Tibet?

I went to China in 2005 for a conference. Unfortunately they didn't allow me to go to Tibet, although I was in Beijing. If they can't allow a single individual to go to Tibet -- despite their claims that anyone can come to Tibet and see for themselves, and for someone like me who made all this effort to promote dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese -- are they really interested in solving the issue of Tibet? That really bothers me. In 2006 I made a similar effort to go to Tibet but they said, "Next year, next time."

What is your message to young Tibetans?

Perseverance, patience, and pride. I share my personal story of a humble upbringing, struggles, challenges and hard work. Hopefully that will inspire them because for the first time in our exile history, we have a prime minister who is very similar to their experience and background: grew up in a refugee camp, went to a refugee school, Delhi University. I hope my story will resonate with them. They have to work hard and education has to be the number one priority.

My parents had two or three cows and one acre of land -- there was never a fall-back plan for me. So I had to keep looking forward and working hard.

We must remember the legacy and hard work of the older generation and pass on the torch to the younger generation. I can see young, very bright, talented Tibetan youth joining the Tibetan administration and leading much more vibrantly and dynamically. In the long run we'll be in safe hands.

You left a position at Harvard Law School for a job in India that pays about $300 a month. What will you miss? Why did you decide to do this?

Physically and personally, moving to India is not that easy. At Harvard, in Cambridge, you can listen to top leaders and intellectuals from around the world.  You will miss white chocolate mocha, going to Starbucks, getting a corner sofa and getting a Boston Globe or New York Times in your sneakers, jeans, T-shirt, whatever. No one bothers you and you don't bother anyone. That's the American sense of individual privacy.

My giving up anything -- Harvard, America, job -- pales in comparison to what Tibetans are going through in Tibet, to what my parents went through in the past. It's a great opportunity and honor that I could fulfill the legacy of my parents and the aspirations of Tibetans inside Tibet. I've been given this opportunity so I should utilize it the best I could.

The Dalai Lama is 76. What is the outlook for Tibet if he should pass away?

That's a long way away. His Holiness is very healthy. But there will be a lot of challenges. We might become like any other movement, and there are successful movements. We will have the next Dalai Lama though. That's the beauty of reincarnation -- he will always come back.

Without the Dalai Lama, do you think violence could erupt among Tibetans?

I can't rule out some element, though in India there is rule of law so you can't resort to violence and get away with it. But what will happen inside Tibet? What will it do to them? There will be a big emotional outburst for them. Tibetans in Tibet more and more might not forgive and forget [the] Chinese government, and by extension Chinese people, for their tragic reality. It's very much possible they will say, "This is the system that didn't let us meet our leader one time in our lives." That kind of scar will be so deep. I'm worried where it might lead to.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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Amy Yee is a journalist based in New York. She lived and worked in New Delhi from 2006 to 2013.

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