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Conversation: Getting Back the High Ground

posted Dec 23, 2011, 8:12 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Dec 23, 2011, 11:12 AM ]
By World Policy Journal Editors David A. Andelman and Christopher Shay.

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.


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: 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: 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.


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