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From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue
A Conversation with Lobsang Sangay, the Kalon Tripa of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile
For half a millennium, since the Mongol ruler Altan Khan, descendant of Genghis and Kublai Khan, bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the first ruler of the Yellow Hat Buddhists, the Dalai Lama has represented the spiritual and temporal states of the Buddhist nation that dominates Tibet and Mongolia. This summer, the 14th Dalai Lama stepped down from his role as secular ruler to focus on his functions as religious leader. For the first time, Tibetan Buddhists in Asia and around the world have a new political leader—the Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, who hopes one day to be able to return to rule the nation of Tibet, now firmly under Chinese control. Lobsang Sangay was chosen last summer—elected by all Buddhists able to cast ballots (largely outside of tightly-controlled Tibet itself). From his headquarters in Dharamsala, India, he spoke with World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and managing editor Christopher Shay.
World Policy Journal: We are especially interested in the nexus of religion and politics. Tibet and the Dalai Lama are uniquely positioned in that respect. So perhaps, you could start out by helping us understand where the spiritual and the secular converge or diverge in your view.
LOBSANG SANGAY: In 1642, the fifth Dalai Lama took over the political leadership of Tibet. Since then, both the spiritual and political leadership have been united in the institution of the Dalai Lama. On March 10 of this year, the current Dalai Lama transferred his political power to an elected leader. On August 8, the day of my inauguration, he said that had been his long, cherished goal. And this is very important, because some people call it the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter, but his statement makes it very clear it is simply a continuation of the same chapter. Now we have, constitutionally and institutionally, separated the spiritual from the political leadership of the institution of the Dalai Lama. We have done that by amending the constitution and various legal provisions where His Holiness had political or administrative authority. In the long-term interest of Tibet and the Tibetan people, it is best that the Tibetan people stand on their own feet and run the Tibetan movement themselves, rather than lean on one person. His Holiness did it in the interests of Tibet and the Tibetan people, because he thought it undemocratic to have one leader with both spiritual and political leadership. I think this will withstand and sustain the movement for a long period of time.
WPJ: Effectively, the Tibetan nation is really just one subset of the spiritual world that the Dalai Lama rules. Therefore, by separating his secular and religious authority, can he not look to a much larger following beyond simply Tibet?
SANGAY: All along he’s said that he has three main interests: promoting the human values of compassion, nonviolence, and peace; encouraging interfaith dialogue and assuring the well-being of Tibet; and the Tibetan people. So, he will continue to promote the first two goals and as a Tibetan citizen he will continue to speak for the Tibetan people.
WPJ: What has been most difficult about taking on the political role of the Dalai Lama?
SANGAY: Difficulty is a part of my job description. I’m not trying to fill the shoes of the Dalai Lama, because it’s not possible. Rather, my responsibility is to fulfill his vision of a secular, democratic Tibetan society and to live up to his expectation that Tibetan people stand on their own feet and lead the Tibetan movement forward on their own. I’m determined to fulfill those visions and expectations and also live up to the aspiration of Tibetans inside Tibet—to restore freedom in Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the capital city of Tibet.
WPJ: We would assume that no Tibetan in Tibet itself was really able to join in the electoral process?
SANGAY: Tibetans are scattered in 30 countries and all of them, or rather all of those who could, participated on election day. Some participated in 40 degree below zero temperatures in mountains near Tibet. Indeed, Tibetans from Alaska to Australia participated. Unfortunately, Tibetans inside Tibet, where the majority are, could not join in the election, because the Chinese government prevents them from doing so. But they participated indirectly. On the day of the election’s preliminary round and in the final round, we have reports that many Tibetans went to the monasteries to pray for the success of the election. And in the final round, some artists composed songs and put them on YouTube, praying for the success of those who were elected. This is the first time we have had debates, campaign posters, and leaflets—all new in the Tibetan world.
WPJ: What is it about the nature of the Buddhist religion that seems to have brought it into such conflict with China? Is it more a question of fear, that Tibet could generate sufficient centrifugal forces to spin off from China, touching off rebellion in other fringe locations? In other words, a political issue. Or is there something deep within the Buddhist religion, which would seem to be a very non-confrontational religion?
SANGAY: As far as our conflict with China, it’s the Red Army which invaded and occupied Tibet and that led to the conflict. From our side, we have maintained and continued to maintain non-violence and dialogue as a means to solve the issue of Tibet. Fundamentally as a Buddhist, showing compassion to your enemy is the ultimate ideal. Even if you cannot show compassion to your enemy, at least one should not resort to violence and try to resolve this peacefully. We have heard reports about some monks and some youths immolating themselves, pouring kerosene on their bodies and setting themselves on fire as a form of protest over the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Rather than harming others, one is harming oneself. That reflects one element of Buddhism—do no harm to others, but instead harm oneself to reflect the true sufferings of Tibetans inside Tibet. His Holiness always preaches that nonviolence and compassion in a peaceful way should be our fundamental philosophy and strategy in dealing with the Chinese government. In the last 60 years, we have invested our energy and time in the democratization of Tibetan society—not on guns and violence. That also shows our commitment to nonviolence is sincere and real. And it will remain so.
WPJ: Do you feel there is a generation gap between younger Tibetans and older Tibetans, with the younger generation perhaps being more militant?
SANGAY: When I ran for election I advocated the “middle way” policy, which is the stance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as the stated policy of the Tibetan administration. I also advocated nonviolence and a peaceful way of dealing with the Chinese government. And I won majority support. So I know that the majority of the Tibetans support such ways of dealing with the Chinese government. There might be a few individuals who are more vocal in expressing their individual views, but there is no organized group that advocates a violent or military way of dealing with the Chinese government.
WPJ: If the Chinese government continues its tough crackdown, young people could become increasingly frustrated. Or, by contrast, China could move towards a more democratic system, with the rise of capitalism and its spread into the interior, so future generations could find repression counter-productive. Which direction do you see this going?
SANGAY: I do think the majority of Tibetans really will stick to nonviolent methods. As for China, whether it becomes fully democratic remains to be seen. But an argument could be made that, just because China becomes democratic, does not necessarily mean it will solve the issue of Tibet. But Tibet could be a catalyst for moderation, humanization, and the eventual democratization of China. I say this for the following reasons. China has a 92 percent Han Chinese population. It is a monolithic country, and nationalism is on the rise at the moment.
The Tibetan issue is not a constitutional problem, an institutional problem, or even a political problem. Article 31 of the Chinese constitution granted a “one country, two systems” rule to Hong Kong. They have granted “one country, two systems” to Macau. They made the argument that Hong Kong was granted a separate system, because there was a rule of law, and there was a commercial system. But then Macau did not have a rule of law, or a commercial system. In fact, it was a crime-infested island. Many criminals and fugitives from China lived in Macau. Finally, Tibet is not a political problem in any real sense. They have the political will to grant more autonomy, and they have granted autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau. Why did the Chinese government do this for these other examples and why are they not doing it for Tibet? This is a very important question.
WPJ: What if, in the future, China decided that people can worship freely? Tibetans could openly practice Buddhism, come to the monasteries, and pray with the lamas. At the same time, Tibet would remain administratively and politically part of China. It would not become an independent country with its own army or police force. What if China simply allowed Tibetans to practice their religion freely, as is possible in Hong Kong? Would that be sufficient for you?
SANGAY: If the Chinese government grants us something like Hong Kong for our status, we’ll take it. That is the definition of autonomy. With the “middle-way policy,” what we want is genuine autonomy within China. The Chinese government has granted such a system to Hong Kong and Macau, and they are willing to do it to Taiwan, but not for us. Why? Because we are Tibetan. We are not Han Chinese, while Hong Kong and Macau are Han Chinese. We are racially different, so they treat us differently by not granting us autonomy.
WPJ: When you were young you were president of a chapter of the Tibetan Youth Congress. Its official position is that Tibet should be independent from China. How and when did you shift from advocating independence from China to this “middle-way policy”?
SANGAY: After coming to Harvard Law School, I studied the right of self-determination, and I found the limitations of public international law. I also met a lot of Chinese students and scholars. We discussed Tibet, and I found that we could have dialogue and come to some kind of understanding. Through that relationship, I organized a series of conferences on Tibet at Harvard University, inviting prominent Chinese scholars from top universities in China. So eventually it evolved into something from independence to “middle way.”
One incident that influenced me was when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Harvard. We organized a protest with 4,000 people, the largest protest in Cambridge since the Vietnam War. But after the protest, I started thinking an activist’s role is more reactive. If someone comes, you protest; if someone gets arrested, you protest, someone gets killed, you protest; something happens, you protest. I realized that the Israelis and Palestinians also talk, Northern Ireland and the British government talk, and I learned that Gandhi also talked with the British people, and Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. All of them have had dialogue that resolved issues, by and large, peacefully through dialogue. Then I thought, “There are lots of precedents where nonviolence and peaceful dialogues have worked. It should work for Tibet as well.”
WPJ: What is your vision for Tibet’s future? Where do you see Tibet a generation from now?
SANGAY: Our ultimate vision is obviously freedom in Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his rightful place in Lhasa. And that will happen. In 1910, the Chinese army invaded Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama—the 13th Dalai Lama—fled to India. In 1913, His Holiness returned to Lhasa, to a free Tibet. We have done that before, we will do so this time. And that is the reason I left my job at Harvard, and for the time being my family, to be here to devote myself to a cause—our vision, our dream of a free Tibet.
WPJ: How have you been inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings? Are there lessons that Tibetans can draw from this movement?
SANGAY: You can’t simply isolate one peaceful democratic revolution as the only source of inspiration. What happened in the Arab revolution is what has happened in the world for centuries—respect for universal freedom. It happened this time with the Arab Spring. It happened during the color revolutions in Eastern Europe. It happened during the Berlin Wall collapse and the Soviet Union, and it happened during the anti-apartheid regime, during the nonviolent movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in India, and when Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement in America. All these are sources of inspiration for Tibetans, but ultimately, the Tibetan spirit is the foundation on which we have built our movement—based on 2,500-plus years of Buddhism compared to communism, which is 100-plus years old. We do believe time is on our side.
WPJ: You mentioned that time is on your side, but are you worried that now, with more Han Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans, over time aspects of Tibetan culture might be assimilated into mainstream culture?
SANGAY: The ultimate goal of the Chinese government is to assimilate Tibet and the Tibetan people into China. Having said that, Tibetans are still a majority in inner Tibetan areas. The Chinese are increasing their presence in the border areas and in the urban areas. In some cities and towns Chinese are majority. But in inner Tibet, which constitutes 80 percent of the area and where 80 percent of the Tibetan people live, Tibetans are still the majority. The high altitude of Tibet is preventing the migration and settlement of Chinese populations. At the moment, time is on our side. For the Chinese to settle permanently in Tibet, they need genetic adaptation, because they are low-land people, and Tibet is a country with high altitudes.
WPJ: Are you at all concerned that there could be some kind of a rapprochement in the coming years between China and India that would make life there untenable for the Tibetan people?
SANGAY: One cannot rule out anything. But due to the rise of nationalism and assertiveness of China—and its declared or undeclared goal of making their nation number one—rapprochement, which we are not against, is not a likely scenario between India and China. China has essentially surrounded India, and some would say they are also trying to co-opt Burma, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. India clearly sees the assertiveness of the hardliners in China. So, alas, rapprochement doesn’t seem likely.
[Drawing: Miguel Jiron ]