Darjeeling-born and Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay is the third elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. But his post, to which he was elected three years back, became more significant as the Dalai Lama had made a conscious decision then of giving up his political role. A well-known academician, 46-year-old Sangay has been involved in organising conferences and seminars involving Chinese scholars and Tibetan experts on the Tibet issue. Since being elected PM, Sangay, a former member of the militant Tibetan Youth Congress, has actively engaged with the Tibetan diaspora. He has been relentless in an effort to gather support for the ‘middle way approach’ that calls for finding a solution to the Tibet issue within the constitution of China. At a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping is in India, Sangay spoke to Pranay Sharma on a variety of issues. Excerpts from the interview.
Tibetans are no longer demanding independence but a ‘genuine autonomy’ within the PRC. How should that demand be seen—as a political, social or cultural one?
Genuine autonomy is based on the middle way approach of the Central Tibetan Administration. Given the urgency of the situation—of 130 self-immolation attempts, 112 have died—it is imperative that we soon find a solution. The memorandum on genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people lays out the details which are social, culture and political related.
You were an invitee at Narendra Modi’s inaugural ceremony. Does the fact that you, and not the Dalai Lama, was invited indicate a shift in India’s position?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama mostly does not attend public functions. His Holiness is an honoured guest of India. For someone who was born and brought up in India, and given the significance of the occasion, it was a privilege and an honour for me. Success for India is success for Tibet.
Is the Tibet issue linked to the unsettled boundary between India and China? And if so, do you think it can be resolved only after the boundary issue is settled?
Yes, because before 1951, for centuries, the border has been between India and Tibet. So the Tibet issue has to be addressed to resolve the boundary issues. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Simla convention of 1914. On its sidelines, two agreements were signed—one on border and the other on trade. The border between Tibet and British India came to be known as the McMahon Line—the preferred border of India. The trade agreement was renewed every ten years, in 1924, 1934, 1944; but in 1954, it was renewed between Beijing and New Delhi. In the preamble of the agreement, five points were added and this came to be known as Panchsheel. The Simla convention between British India and independent Tibet was the mother and McMahon Line and Panchsheel were the children. If the children are legitimate then the mother convention is the legitimate foundation. Hence, the Tibet issue is directly linked to the boundary issue.
Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj says Beijing will have to accept a ‘one-India’ policy in exchange of New Delhi’s support for a ‘one-China policy’. How do you see it in the context of the Tibet issue?
The one-China policy was conceptualised to mainly address the issue of Taiwan. Nowadays, it is extended to other issues, including Tibet. If China insists on a ‘one-China policy’, it’s natural for India to raise a ‘one-India policy’. It is in the best interest of China to address the Tibet issue which will help bring peace in the region, including India.
Despite widespread sympathy for the Tibetan issue, no government, including India’s, has decided to make it a ‘core issue’ in their dealings with China. What are the chances of it coming to the centrestage?
China says that the Tibet issue is a core issue given the boundary and fragility of Tibet’s environment, Tibet as birthplace of major Asian rivers, and a source of freshwater to over a billion people. It has to be a core issue for India as well. Tibet and India have close civilisational and spiritual ties. Mount Kailash and Mansarovar Lake are in Tibet.
In the current context, do you see an opportunity for meaningful negotiations with China?
We remain hopeful, as President Xi Jinping has consolidated his authority in making major policy changes, including on corruption and economic matters. His father Xi Xun Zhong was one of the most liberal Chinese leaders, had affinity with the Tibet issue and was a close friend of the Panchen Lama. Given this, Xi should realise that the present hardline policies are not working and liberal policies towards Tibet is imperative.
What does it mean to be the elected PM of the Tibetan people?
It is an honour to serve as the Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration at this critical period. Given the support I have received from Tibetans in and outside Tibet, I can say that the Tibetan struggle will be led by more talented and educated leaders in future till the Tibet issue is resolved.
What role will the Dalai Lama play in your engagement with China?
As before, the dialogue will be between the envoys of His Holiness and representatives of the Chinese government. Given the faith and devotion Tibetans in Tibet have for His Holiness, he will play a pivotal role.
The Tibetan community in India has chosen the path of democracy. Will this make engagement with China more difficult?
Tibetans are proud to have adopted democracy in exile. We are one of the most successful models of exiled or diasporic communities. Democracy in China is the ultimate solution for the Chinese people. Even Chinese leaders have said political reform is in the best interest of China, including rule of law, freedom of speech and the media. However, our practice and aspirations for democracy will not be an impediment in engaging with China.
Both Modi and Xi are regarded as powerful leaders. Does it brighten the chances of addressing the Tibetan issue more seriously than in the past?
For a leader to address a complicated issue, he must understand it and have courage to lead. Given Xi Jinping’s present status and his background, he has both vis-a-vis the Tibet issue.
Realistically, what are the chances of the Tibet issue being settled, say, within the next 10 years. And what are the factors that will play a role in its early resolution?
It is realistic that the Tibet issue will be settled within the next 10 years. There is a growing realisation amongst Chinese writers, scholars and over 300 million Buddhists that the middle way approach seeking genuine autonomy is reasonable and moderate. Most agree that it is in China’s best interest to resolve the issue within the Dalai Lama’s lifetime. Most importantly, even after 50 years of occupation and repression, young Tibetans are out in the streets, demanding the return of His Holiness and restoration of basic freedom. With this sense of solidarity supported by increasing numbers of Chinese and international communities, the Tibet issue can be resolved early.
(Outlook is the largest circulated Indian weekly magazine)