Lobsang Sangay set to become Tibet's political leader

Lobsang Sangay speaks to the BBC's Adam Brookes about his hopes for an autonomous Tibet

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Tibetans in exile have elected a new political leader - Lobsang Sangay, a 42-year-old academic with chiselled features who has spent the past 15 years at Harvard University.

Following elections in March, Mr Sangay emerged as the surprise front-runner to become Kalon Tripa - a position often referred to as "prime minister" of a "Tibetan government-in-exile" headed by the Dalai Lama.

But the new Kalon Tripa is expected to have to shoulder much of the authority previously borne by the Dalai Lama, who, at the age of 75, has announced he is to give up his political role.

He will have to lead a global movement that campaigns for Tibetan rights and freedoms under Chinese rule. He'll also manage the ramshackle "government-in-exile" that sits on a dusty hillside in northern India, in the town of Dharamsala.

But his "government" has neither country nor international recognition. And the exiled Tibetans appear to have elected a man who has almost no experience of his homeland, and none of government.

Refugee family

Lobsang Sangay was born in 1968, in India. "India is my second home. I have never been to my first home," he says, meaning Tibet, that vast tract of territory controlled by China since it sent in troops in 1950.

Lobsang Sangay Lobsang Sangay says he has cultivated contacts in China and is ready to lead

His father - a monk who saw his monastery in eastern Tibet destroyed by the Chinese military, according to Mr Sangay - fled Tibet in 1959, at the same time as the Dalai Lama. His mother left the same year, aged 17. The two met as refugees in India, and settled in a village called Lamahatta, near Darjeeling.

Mr Sangay's father ran a small business. The family kept chickens and cows, one of which was sold for 500 rupees to fund the young Lobsang's school fees.

"I owe a lot to a cow," he says.

At his boarding school in India for Tibetans - "lentil soup and rice every day for 10 years" - his teachers encouraged their students to serve the Tibetan movement.

The Tibet Divide

  • China says Tibet was always part of its territory
  • Tibet enjoyed long periods of autonomy before the 20th Century
  • In 1950, China launched a military assault
  • Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising in 1959
  • Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India
  • Dalai Lama now advocates a "middle way" with Beijing, seeking autonomy but not independence

At Delhi University he joined the Tibetan Youth Congress, long the most radical of the exiled groups, and demanded Tibet's independence on the streets of Delhi.

A Fulbright scholarship took Mr Sangay to the US and to Harvard University, where he acquired a doctorate in law, and a family.

The Tibetan exile boy now drives a silver four-wheel drive and wears aviator sunglasses, yet his English retains the accent, musical and sibilant, of Tibet.

He has moderated his calls for independence, and now, he says, supports the Dalai Lama's view that Tibet deserves "genuine autonomy" within the borders of China.

When Mr Sangay takes up the role of Kalon Tripa in the summer, he will move to a two-bedroom apartment in Dharamsala, and a salary worth $400 (£242) a month.

He will inherit an institution that looks less like a government and more like a large charity. The "Central Tibetan Administration" is the object of China's relentless scorn. It has 1,100 officials to its name, and ministries of health, education and security.

Last year, its expenditures, according to Mr Sangay, were about $20m dollars. It provided basic services to Tibetan exiles living in India, and lent focus and identity to a Tibetan diaspora of many tens of thousands in 30 countries.

'Genuine autonomy'

Mr Sangay's ability to run the bureaucracy of exile will surely be a test, but the far greater test will lie in leading the Tibetan exiles as the Dalai Lama ages.

The 14th Dalai Lama has headed Tibetan Buddhism and the exiled Tibetans' movement for half a century. His calls for "genuine autonomy" for Tibet have been ignored by the Chinese state.

His successor, traditionally, would emerge through reincarnation, followed by a long, complex education over perhaps 20 years. Many Tibetans fear that on the Dalai Lama's death, the Tibetan movement will wither for lack of a charismatic leader.

Start Quote

As long as this repression continues, there will be resistance from Tibetan people”

End Quote Lobsang Sangay Tibetan prime ministerial candidate

But in China, the Dalai Lama's death is viewed as an opportunity. The Chinese government in 2007 passed a law - apparently without irony - asserting that only the atheist Chinese state can appoint the religious leaders of Tibet.

China intends to ensure that the next Dalai Lama grows up inside Tibet, under the tutelage and control of the Communist Party, thus depriving the exile movement of its figurehead.

The Dalai Lama is taking two steps which appear aimed at heading off that eventuality. He has announced that he may choose his own reincarnation, outside Tibet. And he is strengthening the institution of Kalon Tripa to take the movement forward.

Mr Sangay says that he will support the Dalai Lama's positions.

"What His Holiness stands for is the 'Middle Way', which is genuine autonomy within China or within the framework of the Chinese constitution," he says.

"If Tibetans are granted genuine autonomy then his Holiness the Dalai Lama said he is willing to accept Tibet as part of China."

But when pressed on whether independence for Tibet could ever be feasible, he is cautious. "That is hypothetical so one cannot rule out or rule in."

Tibetan dilemma

China frequently accuses the Dalai Lama of covertly supporting independence, and of fomenting unrest in Tibetan areas inside China - most recently the violent demonstrations of 2008.

"We don't encourage Tibetans inside Tibet [to demonstrate]," Mr Sangay responds, "We don't encourage, but we understand their frustration and their sentiment because of the systemic discrimination and repression."

It's a response that demonstrates the dilemma of the Tibetan exiled leadership.

Non-violence is the Dalai Lama's mantra, one that has brought him moral authority over the years in the eyes of his sympathisers. Yet non-violence has done nothing to change Tibet's status under Chinese rule.

And violent demonstrations in Tibetan cities - and the response of the Chinese state - never fail to refocus global attention on the Tibet question.

Lobsang Sangay meets people in the street during his election campaign Mr Sangay, seen here on the campaign trail, advocates dialogue with China

"As long as this repression continues, there will be resistance from Tibetan people," says Mr Sangay. "That is why the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government are saying we ought to have a peaceful dialogue [with China], to resolve this issue as soon as possible."

But there have been nine rounds of dialogue between the Dalai Lama and China, and no tangible measures - a return visit to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, by the Dalai Lama, for example - have emerged.

It is not yet clear if the Dalai Lama will continue to head the dialogue with China, even after he steps down from his political role. It seems likely the new Kalon Tripa will take on greater influence in this area than his predecessor.

Mr Sangay insists he is prepared, and has cultivated contacts in China carefully during his time at Harvard.

Not everyone is convinced.

"There is a huge amount waiting to be discovered here," says Robert Barnett, of Columbia University. "The Tibetans are taking something of a gamble."

For centuries, Tibet and China have vied for control over the strategic heights of Asia. China now considers that battle over: Tibet is subdued and firmly within China's borders.

The Tibetan exiles wage a lonely struggle to prevent their cause fading from global consciousness. As the Dalai Lama ages, Mr Sangay may find himself at the forefront of a struggle to keep his legacy alive.

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