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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

‘The world is scared of this unknown entity called China that has come up. But we know them very well’

September 20, 2011

Lobsang Sangay, political successor to the Dalai Lama, was sworn Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile last month. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Consulting Editor C Raja Mohan, Sangay speaks about Beijing’s “hardline attitude” and autonomy for Tibet within China.





C Raja Mohan: Tell us about yourself and the challenges of leading the movement.


Lobsang Sangay: I grew up in place called Lamahatta. It is between Darjeeling and Kalimpong. It’s a remote Tibetan refugee camp better known for radish and carrots. I owe a lot to India and the Indian people—I grew up in a refugee camp subsidised by the Indian government. My parents own an acre of land and a couple of cows. They sold one of the cows to send me to a Tibetan refugee school. Later, I attended Delhi University and then went to the US. What does this transition of political power from His Holiness Dalai Lama to me mean? On August 8, His Holiness made a very powerful and important historical statement. He said, “When I was young, the elderly regent Takdrag Rinpoche handed over the political power to me, today I am handing over it to young Lobsang Sangay”. Some people misunderstand this devolution of political power to mean the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter. No, it’s a continuation of the same chapter. That means the history of Tibetan leadership, the legitimacy of Tibetan leadership and the political authority of that leadership continues. What has happened is that the institution of Dalai Lama has separated spiritual authority and political authority. It is very difficult to fill His Holiness’s shoes and I am not here to fill his shoes. Rather, I will do my best to live up to his expectations and endeavour that the Tibetan movement led by Tibetans will stand on its own feet. I will try to make the movement stronger and sustain it post His Holiness. His vision of secular Tibetan democracy needs to be fulfilled.


C Raja Mohan: At a time when China is getting stronger, your talks with them have broken down. China is putting pressure on most governments in the world to stop their interaction with His Holiness. Has negotiating with them become more difficult as China grows stronger? How do you see the prospect of engaging the Chinese?


Lobsang Sangay: Number one: for India and Indian people, China is new. As Tibetans, we don’t look at China and the Chinese people that way. We are genetically disposed to dealing with China as we have been next to each other for the last 2,000 years. They have invaded us, we have invaded them, sometimes we have chased them out, and sometimes we have settled issues amicably, sometimes violently. We have seen ups and downs. When China invaded Tibet, the 13th Dalai Lama fled to India, to Kalimpong. We fought hard and were successful in making the return of His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama to Tibet possible. So we have done it before and we are confident that we will do it again.


Second is Buddhist philosophy. We believe our identity is based on Buddhist philosophy, which is 2,000-plus years old while Communism is just 100 years old. We know we will live through it and we will return to Tibet and restore freedom. At the moment, there is this tunnel vision in seeing China as a great military power and a growing economic power. At the moment, they call me names and call me illegal. But I am the democratically elected leader, hence legal. It is tough at the moment but in the long run, we will prevail.


Coomi Kapoor: Your aim is autonomy in Tibet but aren’t there more Chinese in Tibet than people of Tibetan origin?


Lobsang Sangay: The scary number is 7 million Chinese in Tibet, outnumbering 6 million Tibetans. But that includes the border areas of Tibet which have more Chinese; in inner Tibet, the majority is Tibetan. In urban areas, increasingly the Chinese presence is felt. In Lhasa, the majority is Chinese. But thanks to Tibet’s altitude, it is so cold in winter that 70 plus per cent of Chinese flee Tibet and go to their hometowns. It will take genetic adaptation for the Chinese to permanently settle down in Tibet. In rural areas, Tibetans are in a majority.


Dilip Bobb: What will the Dalai Lama’s role be now?


Lobsang Sangay: He has always said he has three main roles in this world. One is to spread peace and non-violence. Two, is an inter-faith dialogue. And the third is Tibet and the Tibetan people. That is his responsibility. The political aspect he has handed over to me. But he is a Tibetan and it is the responsibility of every Tibetan to speak for Tibet and its people. In that capacity he will continue to do so. But politics will be handled by me—he has 60 years of experience as a leader and a vast source of knowledge which anyone should tap, and I will do so whenever it is necessary.


Amitabh Sinha: There’s one viewpoint that in recent years, the Dalai Lama was becoming more of a problem in initiating a dialogue with China than a solution. Do you think that will change with your appointment?


Lobsang Sangay: When you say Dalai Lama is more of a problem, it’s a narrative and you have to look at the source of the narrative, which is clearly Beijing. Why is Dalai Lama the source of the problem? He has advocated peace, non-violence, moderation, autonomy within China. So what is the problem? The problem is Beijing’s hardline attitude. I will continue the same middle-way policy—I ran my election on that and people voted for me supporting that policy. I am familiar with Chinese propaganda and how the system works. It’s all scripted—Dalai Lama was the problem and hence they were not talking to us. Now if they want to change the script and say Lobsang Sangay is the solution, then I will be happy to facilitate a dialogue because I have said this over and over again: we are willing to negotiate with the Chinese government anytime, anywhere. I have a 16-year track record to prove it. When I didn’t have to, I have talked to hundreds and hundreds of Chinese scholars at Harvard University. We are sincere, we believe in dialogue.


C Raja Mohan: There were 6-7 rounds of negotiations between 2002 and 2008. What are the sticking points now in terms of your demands and Beijing’s position?


Lobsang Sangay: I remember speaking to a very senior Chinese scholar and asking him, do you see Tibet as a difficult issue or an easy issue? And he said, Tibet is a difficult issue if the Chinese government doesn’t want to talk to you and it is an easy issue if they want to talk to you. As simple as that. If they want to resolve the issue, then I think it has an easy solution. They bring in the issue of greater China and that we have a hidden agenda of independence. It is the suspicious mindset that is the problem. They always project a scary image and say Dalai Lama is asking for one-fourth of China and that is so unreasonable. It does sound unreasonable but the Tibetan plateau is one-fourth of China, and Tibetans live on the Tibetan plateau. One-sixth of China is Uighur, the Xinjiang autonomous region, and the Chinese have already granted one-sixth area to Uighur and one-ninth to Inner Mongolia. So what is the problem with Tibetans saying, ‘Can we live on the Tibetan plateau where we have livesd for 2,000 years?’ In our language, in our writing, for thousands of years we don’t have a word that combines us as a nation or one people or one language. It’s not like we are artificially creating it now. Having said that, we are different and distinct does not necessarily mean we cannot be part of the same entity. Look at the European Union. Germany and the rest of Europe fought brutally at the cost of millions of lives but they are living together, so that’s the civilised way of doing it and we are willing to do it.


Manu Pubby: One reason the Dalai Lama has a presence around the world is that he represents not just Tibet but he is spiritually revered by many. You represent only the political side of Tibet. How difficult will it be for you to make a name for yourself?


Lobsang Sangay: His Holiness had led us brilliantly and by combining a spiritual and political role, he has made a tremendous contribution to the Tibetan cause. By separating the two, he is highlighting the political aspect of Tibet. My duty is to put Tibet and the Tibetan people at the centre. There ought to be support worldwide for Tibet not simply because it is the cause of the Tibetan people but because the Tibet issue reflects and represents general injustices around the world. The issue of Tibet is linked to India’s, Asia’s and even global concerns. India shares a land border with China. It has a sea border too. So, the Tibet issue has a direct link with India’s security. The Tibet issue is vitally important for the international community because the world is confused, anxious, to some extent scared, of this unknown entity called China that has come up. We know them very well. The Tibet experience reflects the dark side of China, not the one you read in the business section of newspapers and news magazines. The tragic experience of Tibet reflects the brutal side of hardliners in the Chinese government who can kill Tibetan people and get away with it. If the Chinese government gets away with Tibet, they will think they can get away with the rest of the world.


If the Tibet issue is solved, we will be the catalysts for moderation and humanisation of China because only then will they accept the principle of diversity and freedom. The Tibet issue is not a constitutional or institutional or political problem. The Chinese government has the political ability to grant autonomy. They have done so for Hong Kong and Macau— there is a Special Administrative Region for Hong Kong and Macau. Institutionally, they are separate. For Tibet, they are not willing to do this. Why? Because we are not Han Chinese.


Mine is a very challenging job. But the definition of leadership is when an ordinary person does something extraordinary.


N P Singh: Do you think there is a similarity between the situation in Tibet and the situation in Kashmir?


Lobsang Sangay: I think they are two different issues. What we are striving for is genuine autonomy within China. If we are granted what Kashmir has, we will welcome it. Having said that, basic human rights ought to be respected everywhere in the world.


Coomi Kapoor: How successful has the Chinese government been in assimilating Tibetan people into mainstream Chinese society? How long can Tibetans hold out?


Lobsang Sangay: We can hold out for a very long time. Obviously, the ultimate goal of the Chinese government is the assimilation of the Tibetan people into China’s fold. They have done that in Manchuria, Mongolia. They are doing it with four to five other minorities. For example, there are minorities who don’t speak their own language. They speak only Han Chinese or Mandarin. In Tibet, they are trying the same thing. But we will preserve our language and culture, as was demonstrated in 2008 when Tibetans in 100-plus countries protested against the Chinese occupation. When the Chinese first came to Tibet, they promised a socialist paradise. And some Tibetans helped them build roads. But soon we realised that once roads were built, tanks would follow and trucks and they would encircle cities and towns. And the trucks would go straight to our pristine forests and cut out trees, mine all our mineral resources. Tibet is the source of major rivers in Asia as a whole—10 major rivers of Asia flow from Tibet. The Teesta river, which Mamata Banerjee was complaining about, is also Tibetan water.


Shubhojit Roy: How much of a free hand do you envisage for yourself as a political leader without being tied down by the spiritual heads of your community here?


Lobsang Sangay: I have an absolutely free hand. Spiritual leaders don’t get involved in Tibetan policies generally, except for His Holiness because he had a political role to play earlier. But all the religious heads are coming to Dharamsala in September, and they’ll discuss mainly the spiritual aspect. Talking to all the major lamas will be a challenge for me. I am young but sensible. I would not run with decisions that will backfire eventually. So, I’ll take everyone on board.


Coomi Kapoor: There is a whole set of issues about the Dalai Lama’s legitimacy to select his own reincarnation. Dalai Lama himself has talked about modernising some of the procedures, even having a woman (as Dalai Lama). Is there going to be some change in the religious organisation?


Lobsang Sangay: I think and sincerely feel that India and people in the world should get over the fear psychosis while dealing with China. China is questioning the reincarnation of Dalai Lama. If you keep giving validity to that question, they will keep on asking the question. You should just brush off their questions.


I am not very spiritual. If you ask me the intricacies of reincarnation, spirituality, I am no authority. But I think the idea of reincarnation is based on karma—what you sow, you get. It’s like a bank account. If you have more balance, you have more to withdraw from at the end of your life. And if you keep withdrawing, in the end you pay in the spiritual sense.


There is a believer and a non-believer. The non-believer says this is nonsense, we don’t subscribe to this. Believers believe that reincarnations come for the good of humanity and I am one of those who believe in it.


Amitabh Sinha: What is it like being a prime minister without a country?


Lobsang Sangay: I try not to think too much about what it means to be a Prime Minister. But this position gives you a microphone and louder volume and I make use of it for Tibet and the Tibetan people. I am a leader of people without a territory and a country. And when I get an opportunity to meet people like you, I try to make use of it for Tibet and Tibetan people.




Transcribed by Ananya Bhardwaj and Sumegha Gulati

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