Tibet hails its new chief protector

Harvard professor replaces Dalai Lama as political leader

Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 09 August 2011 00:00
Lobsang Sangay, left, and the Dalai Lama
Lobsang Sangay, left, and the Dalai Lama

As musicians played traditional instruments and crowds cheered, the man chosen to take over from the Dalai Lama as the political head of the exiled Tibetan community and continue its struggle for freedom was yesterday sworn in.

Lobsang Sangay, who was chosen earlier this year as the Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, by tens of thousands of Tibetans around the world, took the oath of office in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, surrounded by well-wishers, nuns, monks, and the Dalai Lama himself. The Harvard scholar, who returned to India to lead the Tibetans' autonomy movement, said the ceremony underscored the life that still pulsated within the community.

On a day of monsoon rains, the Dalai Lama had accompanied Mr Sangay to the Tsuglakhang temple where the ceremony took place at precisely 9.09am, a time considered to be auspicious.

After several speeches, a 260-year-old seal was handed over by the outgoing prime minister to Mr Sangay to mark the transfer of office. "Tibetan leadership is far from fizzling out... We are here to stay," he said.

Mr Sangay was elected to the position after the Dalai Lama announced this spring that he intended to end his role as the community's political leader. While the 76-year-old said he would continue as religious leader, he said it was important that somebody else take on the political duties.

There have been previous Kalon Tripas, but the Dalai Lama's activities in both the religious and political sphere have always tended to dominate. As a result, the work of the previous prime ministers, including the outgoing Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Tenzin, has been largely overshadowed.

For Mr Sangay, the position comes with massive challenges. While the Dalai Lama said the election of a new political leader could help the community's attempts at dialogue with the Chinese, he will know the authorities in Beijing are unyielding and inflexible. To date, there have been nine rounds of talks with the Chinese authorities, who have described the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), of which Mr Sangay was once the president, as a "terrorist organisation".

In his speech, Mr Sangay, who was born in Darjeeling and who has never visited Tibet although he went to Beijing in 2005, vowed that he would continue to pursue the Dalai Lama's so-called Middle Way, which calls for "meaningful autonomy" rather than out and out independence for Tibet. He said he wanted to reach out to "Chinese friends" with a "firm commitment to non-violence and [was] willing to negotiate with the Chinese government anytime, anywhere".

He added: "I am here not as a result of my personal achievement but as a result of the hard work and sacrifices made by elder generations in Tibet and in exile... I pledge to strengthen and sustain our movement until freedom is restored in Tibet, and His Holiness returns to our homeland."

Kerry Wright, a Tibetan rights activist from Australia, who attended the ceremony in the town that has been the Dalai Lama's home since he fled China in 1959, said the new prime minister had received loud and enthusiastic applause. "Everybody is just walking around with a huge grin on their face," he said. "It was very uplifting."

Mr Sangay will know he will need to get straight to work. One of the toughest challenges, say observers, will be persuading foreign governments to meet with him and his senior officials. While many world leaders meet regularly with the Dalai Lama, they do so in his capacity as a religious leader, rather than as a political figure. Whether governments choose to antagonise China by recognising the Tibetan community's political leader could be very significant.

"His biggest challenge will be to secure meetings. It will provide a litmus test of international governments' support for a free Tibet," said Stephanie Brigden, director of Free Tibet. "Governments can no longer side-step the issue."

Among those countries that could find themselves in an awkward position as they seek to walk the diplomatic tightrope is the UK. Earlier this year, in response to a parliamentary question as to whether the British government planned to invite Mr Sangay for talks, Jeremy Browne, the Foreign Office Minister, said: "There are no plans to invite the Kalon Tripa to the UK. Since 1980 the UK has not accorded recognition to governments; we only accord recognition to states. So no question of our recognising the Tibetan Government in exile can arise."

Yet asked about the government's interaction with China on the issue of Tibet, he continued: "While we recognise Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China, we believe long-term stability in Tibet can only be achieved through respect for human rights and genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We have urged the Chinese government to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama's representatives as the best way to make this happen."

The Dalai Lama's decision to end his formal political duties has been triggered at least in part by the realisation of the turmoil that will be triggered upon his death. He knows that for political reasons, the authorities in Beijing will seek to select their own choice as his reincarnated successor, in much the same way as they picked their own Panchen Lama, another senior religious figure, rather than recognising the young boy identified by the Dalai Lama in 1995.

Since then, while Beijing has promoted its Panchen Lama, 15-year-old Gyancain Norbu, in an attempt to secure influence over the disputed Tibetan region, the young boy identified by the Dalai Lama has not been seen after being taken into state custody at the age of six.

By separating his two roles and handing over political responsibilities to Mr Sangay, the Dalai Lama hopes to neutralise China's influence upon his death. The Dalai Lama described yesterday as being one of the most important occasions of the last 2,000 years. He said: "The world belongs to the 7 billion people of the world and not to kings or religious heads, and likewise Tibet also belongs to the Tibetan people and not to a few kings or lamas."

Notable Dalai Lamas

Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588)

The third Dalai Lama was the first to be awarded the prestigious designation, though it was then posthumously bestowed on two other Buddhist teachers believed to be previous incarnations of the third. The title of Dalai Lama, meaning Ocean of Wisdom, was offered to him by the Mongolian King Altan Khan, who then accepted the title of Brahma (king of religion) from him in return.

Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682)

Only the fifth and the thirteenth Dalai Lamas are remembered as "Great". The fifth was the first Dalai Lama to become political leader of Tibet in addition to his spiritual role, following the invasion of a Mongol warlord who supported him. The Dalai Lama commissioned the building of Tibet's magnificent Potala Palace, which housed the current Dalai Lama until 1959 when he fled Tibet after Chinese troops crushed an attempted Tibetan uprising.

Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933)

The thirteenth Dalai Lama was an intelligent reformer who devolved monastic power, introduced currency, modernised the judiciary system and redefined Tibet's relationships with the looming empires of China, Britain and Russia.

Enjoli Liston

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in