Tibet’s new prime minister faces a string of daunting challenges: moving out of the Dalai Lama’s long shadow; navigating a shifting balance of power in negotiations with China; and tackling the domestic concerns of a politically heterogeneous exile community.
By Denis Burke
Lobsang Sangay assumed the office of prime minister of the Central Tibetan Administration (also known as Tibetan Government in Exile) two months ago. His election is noteworthy for several reasons. Sangay is the first prime minister to hold all executive authority within the government in exile – until March of this year, executive authority was shared between the prime minister and the Dalai Lama. Sangay is not only the first secular prime minister but also the first Tibetan born in exile to hold the post. Most importantly, his appointment demonstrates a new, more balanced and perhaps more realistic approach to the challenges faced by the exile community today.
Moving into the light
Despite the Dalai Lama’s handover of formal political power earlier this year, Sangay remains in his shadow. The Dalai Lama continues to be the unifying force of the exile community. Democratization has also been attributed to his efforts – almost exclusively. The Tibetan exiles’ peculiar process of democratization from above has meant that the Dalai Lama has remained, seemingly unwillingly, at the heart of political decision making in exile.
The unifying power of the Dalai Lama, however, does not mask the political heterogeneity of Tibetans. Finding another leader who can satisfy and represent the interests of Tibet’s different regions in exile, speak for those born in exile, find credibility among those who fled, satisfy those seeking independence, or support the ‘Middle Way,’ seems difficult if not impossible.
And the road to naming a successor for the aging Dalai Lama is far from clear. Beijing has signaled that it is preparing to recognize and appoint its own candidate for Dalai Lama. It is possible that two Dalai Lamas will be appointed – one by the exiles and one by China. Avoiding chaos during the coming uncertainty of succession is a priority for the exiles. Capitalizing on it is a priority for Beijing. “It’s as if Fidel Castro were to appoint the next Pope. On the one hand, China’s Communist Party persecutes anyone who so much as displays a photo of the Dalai Lama on its territory, and on the other hand it is extremely concerned about the continuity of Tibetan Buddhism. I would say that the Communists have a credibility problem when it comes to reincarnation,” Sangay told Der Spiegel.
In response, the office of prime minister should take on even greater importance in the inter-Dalai Lama period yet to come. There is precedent for such a political evolution. “The exiled Tibetan community has shown itself to be resilient even decades after the exodus from Tibet, but in the same time it has also evolved. This evolution includes the Middle Way approach first broached by the Dalai Lama and the changes to the role of the Dalai Lama within Tibetan politics and society,” Andrew Swan of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) commented.
The shifting balance of power with China
Not only is Sangay tasked with succeeding a charismatic, internationally championed and highly popular leader, he also must face this challenge at a time when official foreign support for Tibet is waning and Chinese power is on the rise.
Just four years ago the shape of the Tibetan struggle was very different. Prior to the Beijing Olympic Games, which was something of a coming out party for the world’s superpower in waiting, Tibet enjoyed a place on the international advocacy agenda. It was still possible for public sympathy in the West to convince governments to take China to task over Tibet.
Increasingly, however, this pressure is going the other way. It is problematic for the West to both confront China over human rights violations in Tibet while simultaneously relying on trade with the Asian giant to keep its economies afloat. South Africa recently stalled on granting a visa to the Dalai Lama, prompting him to cancel his trip and causing Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the ANC government as “worse than the apartheid government”. American President Barack Obama has kept his meetings with the Tibetan spiritual leader low-profile, in contrast to his predecessors. Former UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband’s turn around on Tibet’s status was also highly damaging to the exiles’ cause.
Nevertheless, Sangay has spoken of his commitment to continued negotiations. The Hindustan Times quoted him as saying, “From our side we abide by the Middle Way Policy and from our side we are willing to negotiate with the Chinese government anytime, anywhere.”
Though China has met with representatives of the Dalai Lama in the past, the government has been adamant that it will not deal with Sangay, as they do not recognize the legitimacy of the government in exile. This is unlikely to change.
“I believe the Tibetan Central Administration will never close the door on negotiations but, as the past years have shown, Beijing appears more comfortable using its resources to suppress dissent however trivial it might seem,” commented Andrew Swan of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), “These efforts are both increasingly transparent and increasingly resented by people living within China who come from all manner of ethnic, cultural or religious communities. As more people discover the grievances that are common between them, and new technologies and media allow individuals to circumvent state controls, we may see a critical mass building – just as we have seen elsewhere. The question will be whether Dharamsala is ready to seize the initiative when change comes – ultimately I believe it will be ready.”
Part of this readiness certainly stems from political positioning. If the Dalai Lama is not the head of the CTA, but simply a figure of huge cultural significance for Tibetans, then Beijing has the opportunity to talk with him without being seen to give any legitimacy to the idea of a government in exile. Sangay will also have to face a diplomatic balancing act when traveling abroad. The fact that he claims to be the prime minister of Tibet is an obstacle for some Western governments. In the same way as the Dalai Lama did through the course of his life, Sangay will have to work hard to establish his personal rather than his official credibility on the world stage.
The negotiations have started and stalled repeatedly over the last decade. While signs of frustration with the process have been evident for years, Tibetans at home and in exile have recently been showing renewed desperation. Hunger strikes have occurred in exile. Seven reported self-immolations have taken place in Tibet itself this year. Sangay met with the hunger strikers and applauded their goals if not their methods, citing concerns for the long-term efficacy of their protests. In joining the Dalai Lama’s condemnation of the immolations, Sangay added that he had great understanding for their courage. So far he has shown a nuanced and tactful approach to his community.
But after 50 years in exile, the Tibetan community has other concerns beyond its relations with China. At home, Sangay’s administration faces challenges in numerous areas, including education, cultural preservation and cohesion of a diaspora whose members are moving further from traditional centers.
Sangay is demonstrating a delicate, pragmatic touch in domestic affairs. As a product of extensive formal education, Sangay has been quick to prioritize it, and has even taken on the post of education minister. “Sangay seems to understand that education is a horizon-broadening process and not just a food-providing process,” remarked Thierry Dodin of Tibetinfonet, adding that, “He is trying to build on existing structures where they are working”.
Similarly, his nomination for Minister of the Department of Information and International Relations, Dicky Chhoyang, is indicative of an attempt to make the CTA more vocal and proactive. Chhoyang’s youth, Western background, and English skills suggest she has been selected for her potential to make the department more cosmopolitan and effective.
Sangay’s approach is certainly new and pragmatic, but his administration is still in its infancy. “These are projects that will take time, not only to devise the policies needed but also to implement them once they are decided upon. This time will be important to assemble a working and effective team of officials that can collaborate”, said Swan.
Sangay’s rhetoric of inclusion on the campaign trail has so far carried over into office. His recent cabinet choices appear to fulfill his promises to appoint a minister (Kalon) “from each of the three provinces, three elders, four younger members, two women, one ecclesiastical, and one representing new arrivals from Tibet.”
Surely Sangay will not replace the Dalai Lama per se. His goal, for now, seems to be to broaden the capacity of the CTA to improve the welfare of the exile community. It is difficult to say whether he will be able to impact on the dialogue with Beijing, but that is ultimately out of his hands anyway. It remains to be seen if he can grow into and further develop the existing structures of the community in exile.
Denis Burke is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam where he currently works with The Broker magazine.
Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)