DHARAMSALA — After the Dalai Lama relinquished political power in 2011, increasing attention has turned to the head of Tibet’s government-in-exile Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, in the hope of breaking a decades-long standoff with Beijing.
And yet the situation remains grim, with some 120 Tibetans having set themselves ablaze over the past four years to protest China's policy in the Himalayan region. New Chinese President Xi Jinping has so far shown no signs of loosening Bejing's grip. Just this past Sunday, 60 Tibetan protesters were injured in clashes with Chinese police.
In an exclusive interview at the prime minister’s office in Dharamsala, India — the de facto capital of exiled Tibetans — Sangay, a 45-year-old Harvard-educated legal scholar and activist, talked about both Xi and the Dalai Lama, and responded to criticism from the exiled community that he has not been able to break the impasse in negotiations with Beijing.
Worldcrunch: Last month, you completed two years in office. How does it feel to be the prime minister of a non-established country?
LOBSANG SANGAY: We are not the first one in history nor are we likely to be the last. Many have succeeded and some have not. As far as Tibetans are concerned, inside Tibet, the spirit and solidarity is high, and we have to lend voice to their aspirations. It is an honor and privilege to represent and reflect their views.
At the same time, it is sad, in the sense that Tibet is going through a tragic time. During such time, determination, perseverance and resilience are called for. This is what we are trying to do.
Recently, members of the Task Force on Sino-Tibetan negotiations met in Dharamsala. Has something new come up in discussions that would break the impasse on negotiations with Chinese government?
Different strategies were discussed, but at the same time we believe any new leadership needs time to consult, as Xi Jinping has only been in power for the last seven months. By March 2014, he will have completed one year in office, and thereafter we have to see what his policies are towards the world in general, towards Asia, India and in particular Tibet. So it’s still a wait and watch.
Could you update us on the current human rights situation inside Tibet, especially at a time when over 100 Tibetans have self-immolated inside China? Are you getting any reports from Tibetans inside Tibet?
The situation inside Tibet is grim. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has come out with a report, and the U.S. government and various other governments have had a human rights dialogue. All have concluded that the human rights situation has gotten worse. There is a lack of religious freedom, where even photographs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama are discouraged. Even the natural resources and climate are exploited.
Thus culturally, politically and environmentally — all kinds of human rights violations are taking place inside Tibet.
There have been 120 self-immolations (103 of which were fatal) that reflect the pain Tibetans feel under the repression. They even lack freedom of speech and the freedom to protest, and they see no other options but to take such drastic action, which is in fact very sad.
Do you think there will be a solution to the Tibet issue within the lifetime of the current Dalai Lama? Is the Chinese government actually interested in resolving the Tibet issue?
Absolutely yes. Solving the issue of Tibet is in their best interest.
Given the rise of China — economically and politically — they have to earn respect from the international community. It would not serve them to let things continue like this — after the 1987–1989 Tibetan unrest, the events of 2008, and the situation now. The form of protest is getting worse because the situation is getting worse. And it doesn’t help anyone. We don’t want to see Tibetans die, and the Chinese government doesn’t want its image being affected negatively. The best solution is genuine autonomy for Tibet and respect for China.
How do you see the U.S. stance on Tibet? Do you expect more from the Obama administration?
The U.S. is one of the few countries that has openly spoken on the issue of Tibet. Recently, in the annual U.S.-China human rights dialogue that happened in the Yunnan province of China, the representative of the U.S. spoke about the deteriorating human rights situation inside Tibet and that there is a need for dialogue to solve the issue. And then President Obama (after meeting the Dalai Lama in 2011) also said he supports the middle-way approach and that only through dialogue can the issue of Tibet be solved.
We would appreciate it if more could be done, and if the U.S. could press the Chinese government to solve the issue of Tibet peacefully through dialogue.
What are your views on Nepal and its treatment of Tibetan refugees?
I was born in Darjeeling, in Northeastern India, and I have been to Nepal many times. I speak Nepali also, so I have some kind of affinity with the people of Nepal. And, there is a long history between Tibet and Nepal — they had friendly relations for hundreds of years. Culturally also, there is a lot of affinity. In fact, Nalanda-based Indian Buddhism spread to Tibet, and one of the main routes was Nepal.
Given all this history, the conditions of Tibetans in Nepal could be a lot better. The statement issued by the Nepal government, we understand on the one hand is because of pressure from the Chinese embassy. But on the other hand, Nepali people know the situation very well, so we think it’s natural that they should be helping in elevating the situation of Tibetans in Nepal.
What are your views on growing Nepal-China relations that pose difficulties for Tibetans and India?
As far as their relationship is concerned, that is for both Nepal and China to decide. But in no way should it affect the situation of Tibetans in Nepal, simply on humanitarian grounds. Tibetans should be looked after by the government of Nepal. For many years they have done so, but in recent years the situation is unfortunate.
There are often reports of Chinese phishing attempts via email attachments or hacking of exile websites? What are your views?
It happens on a daily basis. It is such a nuisance, but you have to live with it. They the Chinese try to extract our emails and follow us closely, so that is how they are penetrating. And obviously, we have to increase Internet security from our side and be careful. But that’s the way it is, it shouldn’t affect our day-to-day function. It’s just a daily nuisance we have to deal with.
Despite the change of leadership in Beijing this year, the new Chinese government shows no signs improvement on Tibet talks. Is that how you see it?
One should always be hopeful. Once they realize that the hardline policy is not working, they ought to change it. And only through dialogue with the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama can they solve the issue of Tibet.
Your government seeks the middle way policy with the Chinese government. But with no dialogue with Beijing over the last three years, supporters of full independence are critical of your position. How do you respond to them?
Well, the Tibetan community is democratic. There is freedom of speech, and people can criticize. There are some policy issues where there are bounded differences, which is part of the process. Dialogue takes time.
Tibet is known to be the third pole. With recent climate changes in the plateau, what risk does the world face in view of Beijing’s continuous resource exploitation?
The melting of glaciers at such a fast pace is very disturbing. The rivers that originate from inside Tibet provide livelihood to millions of people downstream agriculturally. Some climatologists even say that the monsoon of Asia is affected by Tibet. Also the exploitation of natural resource by the Chinese is poisoning these rivers. Environmentally, Tibet is vital for Asia, and its future has a major impact in the region.
What are the difficulties the exile community is currency facing?
When you are in exile, obviously there are some inherent challenges about how to keep your identity alive, how to preserve culture, religion and tradition because that is the foundation of a community. On top of that, better education and quality of life are concerns, especially at a time when Tibetans are now scattered in over 40 countries. So keeping them coordinated, maintaining communication, affinity and solidarity across the exiled Tibetans — all these are challenges. But we are trying our best, and so far over the past 50 years, we are one of the better, if not the best, functioning exiled administrations and movements.
Recently, there were security alerts in the exile community of Dharamsala, in regard to security of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and others. Are you concerned?
We have read some reports, and it’s a matter of great concern that we have to be aware of. But we have always shared with the rest of the world the idea that Buddhism is a religion of non-violence. One of the major roles of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is promoting interfaith dialogue and religious harmony. And he is not just advocating it, but also practicing it by visiting various Hindu temples, churches and mosques. He is a living embodiment of religious harmony, and I really don’t see why there should be any threat to Tibetan Buddhist society.
Do you have any appeal to the international community?
Tibetans advocate non-violence and practice democracy. We have done this for many decades. Hence non-violence and democracy ought to be respected, including by the international community and world leaders.
Lastly, despite His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s relinquishing of political roles to you, do you ever seek his guidance on political matters? How do you see your relationship to him as his political successor?
He has 60-some years of experience. Seeking his advice and wisdom is just a wise thing to do. But he always says that I have to make the decision and I am directly accountable to the Tibetan people. He separates the constitutional amendment put in place and maintains the separation functionally as well.
He is the most revered leader of the Tibetans. He was my parents’ and grandparents’ spiritual guru and remains my spiritual guru. I have the highest respect and reverence for him.
*Saransh Sehgal is a Vienna-based freelance journalist and photographer
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article featured a headline that referred to Sangay as the "exiled Prime Minister," which may have given the false impression that he was sent into exile while serving in the position.