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

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'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."

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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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