Peter Hartcher, Sydney Morning Herald
26 June: Any political leader feeling unhappy with his, or her, lot might consider the situation of Lobsang Sangay. He is the Prime Minister of a government that doesn’t exist, representing a land he has never visited.
And it’s an understatement to say he has a hard act to follow. His predecessor is not only a Nobel laureate and one of the world’s most famous people, but also happens to be considered a demi-god by his people.
Sangay has taken over from the Dalai Lama the political leadership, though the 76-year-old monk has retained his position of spiritual leader.
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Sangay became the first elected leader of the Tibetan exile administration, which has been based in the Indian city of Dharamsala since the Dalai Lama took refuge there from the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959.
Sangay won an election against two other candidates in April last year and took office in August. He’s young, 43 or 44; his father, a monk who was injured when he took up arms to fight the Chinese, and mother met in a refugee camp in Darjeeling and didn’t take exact note of his date of birth.
He’s a Harvard-educated lawyer who has lived in Boston for the past 16 years before moving to Dharamsala to take up his post as kalon tripa, or prime minister, of a regime that the Chinese call “an illegal criminal organisation”.
And though he has a subtle mind, movie-star looks, smooth delivery and near-native English, he cannot begin to compete with the charisma of the man he follows.
Not only that, he says he has taken over for the “hardest phase” of the Tibetan campaign for autonomy – but not full independence – from China: “If you study any movement, the beginning is swift and brutal,” he told the Herald yesterday. In Tibet’s case, it was the Chinese invasion. “And the end is swift and pleasurable – look at the result of the election in Egypt. But the middle phase is always the most difficult.”
The Dalai Lama, he says, has done “an amazing job – despite 50 years, our issue is still very much alive in the consciousness of the world.
“It’s my responsibility to carry the expectation forward – to maintain the spirit of the Tibetan people, to maintain the support of the international community, and to press the Chinese government to enter into dialogue.”
Is he succeeding in any of these three? There’s no real evidence so far. On the first score, the Tibetan people, it seems, have been reluctant to accept the Dalai Lama’s withdrawal from political advocacy. “Unwelcome but inevitable,” is how one senior exile leader put it.
And it is unclear how to interpret the acceleration of self-immolations that have taken place among Tibetans in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region since Sangay’s election. He has issued repeated pleas for Tibetans to cease but they continue at a distressing pace. “Ninety per cent have coincided with my taking over the leadership,” he says.
He concedes that it is possibly a sign Tibetans feel greater hopelessness in their cause since the withdrawal of the Dalai Lama. Or that it could be an effort to apply greater pressure on him to take a harder stance against China, but he cautions that “it’s too early to tell”.
What we can be sure of, he says, is that “the situation is not bearable”.
On the second, while Sangay has received a perfectly hospitable reception in the dozen countries he has visited in his new capacity, official recognition is much tougher. “My reception has been pretty good given the frantic phone calls from Chinese embassies” trying to defeat his attempts for visas, recognition and even speaking opportunities.
He has been welcomed and feted by members of parliament everywhere he has visited – in the US, Japan, Canada, Britain and Europe, and he will address a group of Australian parliamentarians in Canberra this week.
But he has not been granted official meetings with any nation’s foreign minister or national leader yet, unlike his president-pulling predecessor. It seems that this will be his fate in Australia, too.
On the third count, there is no sign that the Chinese are interested in talking to him or the administration he leads. The Chinese have refused any negotiations since 2008. The two special envoys appointed by the Dalai Lama quit in frustration.
Sangay continues to advocate the “Middle Way” policy – neither independence from China nor full control by China but autonomy within China.
Beijing refuses to accept the Tibetans’ good faith, accusing them of being secret “splittists” seeking to break away altogether.
Sangay says this is not the right time to expect China to start talking: “They are quite busy with their internal matters, including the leadership change” due about October. He hopes the new leadership might bring a “new perspective”.
With the present configuration of forces, how can Sangay sustain the “middle phase”?
One challenge will be to hold the line on non-violence. Many of the younger Tibetan voices despair of the moderate tactics of the leadership of the government-in-exile.
Is it getting harder?
“Yes in some senses because as more time passes, and there’s no progress, it validates the pro-independence argument – ‘see we told you so’. But for us, the values of democracy and non-violence are not negotiable.”
And Sangay can claim two victories in the first nine months of his prime ministership. First, he says, the Tibetans have debunked the theory held by some Chinese that, after the Dalai Lama dies, the Tibetan movement will die with him: “We are standing on our own feet. We have demonstrated to the Chinese leadership that our movement will stay alive – that’s why I left my job at Harvard, America and Starbucks to work for Indian rupees, drink chai and live without central heating.”
Second, he is living proof that Tibet’s exiles can accomplish a democratically elected leadership. Of the 64,000 Tibetans eligible to vote, 49,000 did, and of those 27,000 voted for Sangay.
That may not be very many votes, but it’s many more than the President of China can boast.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.