New Leadership and Challenges for Tibetans-in-Exile
Debasish Chaudhuri

Tibetan society did not enter into transformational stage until it had faced brutal forces of the communist China in 1950 which led to the so-called revolutionary transformation of the subjugated community. The real transformation of the traditional Tibetan society began since the arrival of the 14th Dalai Lama along with 80,000 Tibetans in India from 1959 on. Over the years the Dalai Lama, the religious leader and head of political authority of the Tibetan people has painstakingly been leading the Tibetan society into the path of democratic transformation through institution building, spreading education and developing a culture of debate/dialogue. The Dalai Lama long realized that true democracy cannot be achieved until he gives up his political authority, therefore, the March 10 declaration is not too sudden. This was the final move on his part to democratize the Tibetan politics and in this world of realpolitik another uncertain journey is ahead for the Tibetan community. Immergence of new leadership in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGiE) and its challenges needs to be studied in this context.

A swift glance at the result of the election of 3rd Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) will give some idea about the emerging leadership who would gradually shoulder political responsibilities from the Dalai Lama. In this election 43-year old former president of Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and a senior scholar of Harvard University Lobsang Sangay defeated two elderly candidates Tethong Tenzin Namgyal and Tashi Wangdi with huge electoral margin. Both the defeated candidates have long involvement in the Tibetan movement and administration in the exile government, especially Tashi Wandi who has actually worked for the poor and downtrodden people of his community. He developed a very intimate relation with the Dalai Lama as well as Indian people during his forty-four years of work at different capacities in TGiE. In contrast Sangay remained an outsider to Tibetan exile politics in India during his long stint at Harvard University.

According to some Tibetans, Lobsang Sangay’s participation changed the nature of campaign in the election for the highest position in the exile government, an exercise which was supposed to be a low key affair. During the campaign the candidates and their supporters mainly inspired by Sangay organized a pompous show of electioneering extravaganza that reminded more of a copybook display of election in the USA than a humble democratic exercise of an exile government, which has not been recognized by any country in the world. Thanks to the aggressive campaign that has revealed some important facts about the future political leader of the Tibetan community in exile.

Lobsang Sangay’s victory was obvious – his age, Harvard background, association with TYC1 and an early start-up in campaign helped him pull a large section of Tibetan voters especially young Tibetans. It is also a possibility that the Dalai Lama’s blessings went in his favour. It appears that his victory was largely welcomed by the Tibetan community.

An expert on International Law, Sangay, completed his Ph. D. on Democracy and History of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile from 1959-2004. In course of his research on TGiE he must have developed good relations with various groups of people within exile Tibetan community. As an outsider of Dharamsala politics, it might be easier for him to perform his duties without getting involved in partisan politics. It will be a testing time for Sangay who had earlier revealed excessive domination of the Dalai Lama’s family and other traditional elites within TGiE in an article.2

Sangay appears to be an over enthusiastic practitioner of Track II Diplomacy who organized seven major conferences on Tibet among Chinese, Tibetan, Indian and American scholars. He also organized a meeting between the Dalai Lama and thirty-five Chinese scholars. It is reported in a website that he ‘trains Tibetan youth and students on effective interaction with Chinese students/people’.3

In 2005 Sangay also made a trip to Beijing and interacted with a few academic institutions. The purpose of the visit, according to him was twofold: to continue to have dialogue with Chinese scholars and explore possibilities to replicate Harvard conference on Tibet in Beijing; and to visit Tibet. It is not surprising at all that none of his purpose came to be fulfilled. He also claimed that the trip was sponsored by Harvard University. There is nothing wrong to have academic interaction or any form of dialogue between Chinese citizens and a responsible member of exile Tibetan community. Sangay had not only properly informed the Tibetan authority in Dharamsala about his visit, but this was also clarified by Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, who served as prime minister of TGiE for last two terms. However, what surprises us is that a former president of TYC, which endorses complete independence of Tibet, got the permission to visit Beijing in the first place.

It is possible that the Chinese scholars who had earlier interacted with him must have sensed that Sangay’s opinion about the future of Tibet have changed during his long stay in the USA. During his election campaign and after his victory, Sangay all along adhered to the Middle Way (i.e. seeking genuine autonomy within China) policy, the official position of TGiE. But as an academic he must have thought of a third possibility to resolve the Tibetan conflict that might have sounded much soothing to some Chinese Scholars.

There is however a serious allegation made by a more radical section of his community that Lobsang Sangay visited Beijing on an Over Seas Chinese (OC) Visa. Exiled Tibetans visiting Tibet to meet relatives and family members on OC Visa is not a new thing, but what is new about this is that a future Kalon Tripa of TGiE visiting Beijing with such travel document to meet Chinese academicians.

The third possibility for the resolution of Tibetan problem came up in the process of investigation of an allegation that Sangay wished to be ‘China’s Obama’ at the Woodrow Wilson conference which took place a few days before the victory of Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The editorial board of the Tibetan Political Review got hold of the audio version of Sangay’s speech on “China’s Tibet Policy in the Aftermath of Last Spring’s Unrest” and put forward their analysis.4 The editorial board of the Tibetan Political Review made further investigation on Sangay’s scholarly works and pointed out that in many occasions he simply followed Chinese depiction of post-1949 Tibetan society as ‘feudal’ or Sino-Tibetan relations as ‘harmonious’ during the rule of Songtsen Gampo who married a Han princess.5

The point Sangay wanted to make at the Woodrow Wilson conference is that the Tibetan problem can be resolved if China ensures political representation of minorities within its political system. He simplified the problem by drawing analogy between Afro-American people in the USA and Tibetans within PRC. This may be applicable to a certain extent for some ethnic minority groups living within Chinese boundary, but it is preposterous to relate Afro-American civil rights movement with the existential problem Tibetan people have been facing since the ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet. Sangay finally concluded that China should emulate certain good things from America like ‘principle of equality, freedom and justice’. China not wanting to emulate western liberal values - is the main strength as well as weakness of the Chinese political system.

One should not forget that Tibetan society at large has still not crossed the stage of infancy in terms of democratic transformation. It is the favorable political space provided by the host society that made it possible for the Tibetan community in India not only to keep their movement alive but also inject modern elements into their traditional political system. Like any other exile people across the world, even after fifty years of exilehood, struggle for existence and identity is still a daunting challenge for the Tibetan community.

Excessive reliance on huge funding from the Western countries appears to have made the Tibetan leadership almost forgetful of its immediate neighbourhood.6 Some suggest that the process of democratization in the Tibetan politics has been initiated out of the desire that if Tibetan government-in-exile resembled a Western democracy, it would get more support from the West.7 Legitimacy of the future Tibetan movement depends on their ability to remove this negative image of the community. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, continuous erosion of trust and empathy towards Tibetan exile community has already been taking place in India for over a decade. It is up to the Tibetan leadership to decide as to how its problem with the Chinese authority should be resolved in a manner that does not hurt community’s interests. The biggest challenge in front of the new leadership is to work towards rebuilding Tibetan community’s confidence back on the Indian populace.


  1. Lobsang Sangay resigned from TYC in October 1994 upon his election as General Secretary of the new Chushi Gangdurg.
  2. Stephanie Roemer, The Tibetan Government-in-Exile – Politics at large, London and New York, Routledge, 2008, p. 91.
  4. Investigating Lobsang Sangay’s “Obama of China” Statement, October 25, 2010
  5. “A Review of Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s Published Scholarly Works”, January 8, 2011 (Updated January 10)
  6. Even some western scholars face difficulties in conducting fieldwork in Tibetan settlements because many people of the community generally perceive anybody from the West as volunteer, sponsor, traveler or prospective student of Buddhism. See Roemer (2008), p. 5.
  7. Jane Ardley, The Tibetan Independence Movement – Political, religious and Gandhian perspectives, London and New York, RoutledgeCurzon, 2002, pp. 172-3.

Published Date : 5th May, 2011

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