On March 10, the Dalai Lama dropped a bombshell: he had decided to stop all political activities. In one way, it solved the problem of 'succession' as all the executive powers were now to be concentrated in the elected prime minister. A few days after the announcement, the ballot box spoke out: Dr Lobsang Sangay, born in India 43 years ago and educated first in India and then at Harvard Law School, was elected as the new Kalon Tripa (prime minster).
Many in the Tibetan community saw Sangay as a Tibetan Obama. 'Change' was the buzz word in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama in Himachal Pradesh. Even the Tibetan charter (constitution) had to be amended to reflect the change: Article 1 of the charter now terms the Dalai Lama as the "human manifestation of Avaloketeshvara, the guardian and protector of the Tibetan nation," but with no political power.
Claude Arpi travelled to Dharamsala to record the newly elected prime minister's views on the election campaign, his objectives, his government's relation with China and the changes he would like to bring about in Tibetan society. Dr Lobsang Sangay candidly answered all the questions put forth to him.
Can you say a few words about yourself; your 'Indian' life and your 'American' life?
Both my parents fled Tibet in 1959 along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. My father was a monk during the guerilla resistance; he fought some battles, then he came to India. All his family members were left behind in Lithang in Kham province. From my mother's side, all the family members managed to come to India, with the exception of one, who went back to Tibet to fight the Chinese army; he never returned. I grew up in a very small Tibetan refugee settlement between Darjeeling and Sonada in West Bengal. From there, I went to the Central Tibetan Schools of Sonada and Darjeeling. Then, I attended school at St Stephen's in Darjeeling and later went to University of Delhi where I obtained degrees in arts and law.
In 1995, I left for the United States as a Fulbright scholar (it was originally for two years, but later I got other scholarships). I pursued MA at Harvard Law School and completed my PhD in 2004. While I was in Delhi, I was elected as a Tibetan student leader, and later joined the Tibetan Youth Congress as a member of the National Central Committee (CENTREX).
When did you decide to start campaigning for the post of Kalon Tripa?
At first, I did not have plans to run for the post of Kalon Tripa. Till the fall of 2009, I did not attend any special course. I remained in Harvard Law School, with the East Asian legal studies programme, mostly working on China-related programmes.
In early 2009, the Tibetan community started talking about the election of the Kalon Tripa, even a website was created. By fall 2009, I started to take courses in leadership, communication, election campaign and so on. By spring 2010, it became serious; some national organisations began nominating me. I thought, "OK, why not give it a try". On Radio Free Asia, they had this weekly programme on democracy and the rule of law. I was often asked questions like, 'how to improve our legislative system?'
My answer was, "Candidates should go to the people, candidates should debate amongst themselves; they should share their policies and platforms, they need to be well-informed". I said this all along. When this platform for the Kalon Tripa elections was offered to me, I thought I should do what I always preached: "Go to the people and debate about policies". This was really appreciated by the people. Sometimes thousands turned out in monasteries, in schools, refugee settlements, everywhere. It was a first. I never asked for votes, I just said, these are my ideas, "If you don't like them, sorry to have wasted your time".
Do you have a vote bank or banks?
I have the vote bank of the younger generation, but also the older generation, above 60. The monks also voted for me, and often women.
There is a famous picture of you just coming out of the booth and many nuns are looking at you in a beatific way. Did they vote for you?
Yes, they voted for me.
Tibet expert Robbie Barnett wrote in Foreign Policy that it is the first time that the election of a prime minister, not recognised by any government, was reported so widely in every corner of the planet. It is the (Tibetan) people's recognition all over the world. It appeared in all the main newspapers: The New York Times, the Washington Post, Le Monde, London Times, etc. I was told that even a village newspaper in Switzerland reported about the campaign.
Was it enriching for you?
In the beginning, during the first round, the candidates visited only a few places, but for the second round (it was a two-round election), the three candidates travelled to all the settlements. It was very enriching because for the first time during a campaign, candidates had to face the people, face their tough questions. We had to face the difficult terrain, the high altitudes of Ladakh, we crossed the Brahmaputra river and went to the border of Tibet, then all the way down to the hottest settlement in Maharashtra and then down south to places in Karnataka, and also to Europe and America.
It was indeed very enriching. It was more difficult than any other campaign where you remain in your own constituency or at the most, you conduct a national campaign. Ours was a cross-continental campaign from Europe to Asia. It was a widely reported and testing campaign.
You got 55 per cent of the votes as compared to 80 per cent for Samdhong Rinpoche in the previous elections. Soon after his first election, he had told me that he would not have accepted the job if he had got only 50 or 55 per cent of the votes. He wanted to be the prime minister of ALL Tibetans. Are you the prime minister of all Tibetans?
I feel that I am the PM for the entire community in exile as well as the Tibetans in Tibet; this, for several reasons. First, I understand why Samdhong Rinpoche says that. He had a stature; he was a great scholar, speaker of the parliament (who is higher than the Kalon Tripa as per protocol). That is why he could have this expectation, but he did not have any opposing candidate.
I was competing against a former prime minister and the most seasoned Tibetan foreign minister. In a democratic election, if you receive 10 per cent more votes than any other candidates, it is considered as a landslide. I had 17 or 18 per cent more than the second candidate. The Tibetans in Tibet also voted!
They went to the monasteries to pray, lit butter lamps, went to mountain tops to burn incense, they sent me kathags (ceremonial scarves) and messages, some even through Facebook. After I won, people of Kham and Amdo provinces in Tibet sung songs. One song speaks of the Three Lions (two Lions on the Tibetan flag and Sangay, 'lion' in Tibetan); another one quoted my campaign theme -- 'the Legacy of my late Father'. Indirectly, they voted for me. Most importantly, I was blessed and authorised by His Holiness, who devolved his political powers to the elected leader. I have a historical legitimacy which, combined with the democratic legitimacy (the actual votes) and the indirect vote from inside Tibet, I have all these mandates.