New Tibetan PM has a tough road ahead

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A Harvard law scholar will be the next Prime Minister for Tibet’s government in exile. Lobsang Sangay, 42, will take over as Kalon Tripa in August.

Sangay has a doctorate in international law and he has been working and studying in the United States since 1996. As Kalon Tripa he will work from the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. 

Sangay has never been to Tibet; his parents met in a refugee camp in India after fleeing the Chinese invasion.  However, for most of his life, he has been involved in the fight for Tibetan rights. As a young man, he was involved with the Tibetan Youth Congress. His campaign website states that he is now “an expert on international law, democratic constitutionalism and conflict resolution.” 

Sangay beat two other candidates for the post, Tashi Wangdi and Tenzing Tethong, both of whom have previously been cabinet ministers for the government in exile. They won six and 37 percent of the votes respectively. Fifty-five percent of voters cast their ballots for Sangay.

Critical time for Tibet
The Tibetan administration says that more than 49,000 exiled Tibetans voted in the election. The Dalai Lama’s representative in Switzerland, Tseten Chhoekyapa, says the high voter turnout is partially due to intensive campaigning.

“There has been a lot of campaigning by candidates and voter registration drives to raise awareness. There is definitely more interest in these elections.”

The five years of Sangay’s first term will be a critical time for the future of Tibet. Shortly before the March elections, the Dalai Lama reiterated his desire to hand over his political power to elected officials. The Tibetan parliament has scheduled a special session in May to discuss the handover.

Democratic governance
Robert Barnett from Columbia University’s East Asia Institute says that Sangay might maintain the current momentum.

“Things are happening faster than one would have expected. It does look like there’s more willingness for the Dalai Lama to hand over power than there was 20 years ago. There are a number of people in the Tibetan community who are asking that the process be slowed down so that other options, like a constitutional monarchy, can be considered.”

The 14th Dalai Lama has advocated for democratic governance for Tibet since he left the country in 1959, following China’s takeover. He has steadily devolved political power from his office. Elections in 2000 brought the first generally elected Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Tenzin, into office. Now that his two terms are up, Lobsang Sangay will take his place.

Tibet without the Dalai Lama?
The Dalai Lama has been a lightning rod for China’s displeasure with the ongoing Tibetan self-determination movement. In his discussions with China, the Dalai Lama has advocated for an autonomous Tibet within China. Despite that public position, the Chinese government says the Dalai Lama is “a wolf in monk’s clothing”, secretly agitating for Tibetan independence. Talks with China seem stalled.

Add into the mix the Dalai Lama’s age – he is now 75 – and the situation becomes more complicated. China has been positioning to name its own replacement for the Dalai Lama, although the reincarnation is traditionally found by monks from the old Dalai Lama’s retinue. Finding and educating the next Dalai Lama would effectively cement political and religious control of Tibet in Chinese hands. 

“Even if there is an end to a joint religious-political system, the next Dalai Lama will be a hugely political figure,” says Barnett. “The Chinese have said they will never negotiate with the government [in exile]. Tibetans will ask him to continue the talks process with China.”

Shifting targets for China
Lobsang Sangay will have all of these issues to contend with, along with overseeing the administration’s health, education and security services to Tibetans living in exile.

Meanwhile, China seems to be gearing up for attacks on Sangay. China’s government-controlled People’s Daily newspaper labeled him a terrorist as soon as early poll results suggested that he would be the next Kalon Tripa.

If the 14th Dalai Lama hopes that devolving political power to a lay person will defuse some of the issues with China, he may be disappointed.