|New star steers Tibetan
By Sreeram Chaulia
DHARAMSALA - When exiled Tibetan spiritual-cum-temporal
leader the Dalai Lama announced his retirement from
political life in March, he had reasons to be optimistic
that the torch of self-determination for his people would be
carried forward by a younger generation.
The timing of the 76-year-old seer's decision to separate
the religious mandate of the institution of Dalai Lama from
its political one seemed to coincide with free elections to
the Tibetan government-in-exile in April, in which a suave
Harvard-educated lay intellectual was elected as the new
Lobsang Sangay, 42, won a closely contested "transnational
election" against Tethong Tenzin Namgyal, a scholar from
Stanford University, wherein 83,000 Tibetan refugees around
the world cast votes on the basis of informed opinion.
The spectacle of a stateless nation undergoing fair
elections through long-distance voting and ultimately
winnowing the field to two outstanding liberal thinkers was
an inspiring one. The transparent manner in which the
government-in-exile picked its new representatives showed
how democracy could be practiced in communities even in the
absence of conventional attributes of statehood.
When this author met the down-to-earth "prime minister
elect", Lobsang Sangay (he will formally succeed the
outgoing Gandhian monk prime minister, Samdhong Rinpoche,
this autumn) in his sparsely outfitted office in the
headquarters of the government-in-exile, the discussion
veered towards how Tibetans living in Chinese-controlled
Tibet itself have reacted to his rise and the succession
from an older generation of venerable monks to a new breed
of articulate politicians armed with world-class secular
Lobsang narrated tales of how he had been receiving
congratulatory messages via "single-use e-mail accounts"
from Tibetans in Tibet, who keep in touch with him through
ingenious means that skirt the Chinese iron curtain.
The mood inside Tibet, according to Lobsang, is one filled
with hope even though its Tibetan residents were prevented
from participating in one of the world's most successful
Diaspora elections. The prime minister-designate recounted
how touched he was by YouTube videos posted by Tibetans from
Tibet celebrating his victory, at the risk of detection and
punishment in the hands of Chinese authorities.
The obvious freedom and civil liberties that Tibetan
refugees enjoy in India and other host countries vis-a-vis
the tightly repressed conditions inside Tibet are today
harder to conceal from the latter, in spite of China's
"Great Firewall" and zealous policing of the Sino-Indian
border to prevent crossovers.
Lobsang agreed that the parallel of North and South Korea
across the 38th Parallel was apt, since digital
communication technologies could not be bottled up by the
Kim Jong-il regime to keep North Koreans in the dark about
freedoms enjoyed in the South.
The prime minister elect spoke of coded messaging and mobile
phone chats between Tibetans in India and their kinfolk in
Tibet, where "chief" could refer to the Dalai Lama and
"brother" could mean Lobsang. The spark to rebel and to defy
Chinese rule in Tibet is not entirely endogenous, but rather
a cross-border one, as information flows into Tibet and
triggers dissident thought as to why Tibetans in India could
be governed by moderate and accountable figures like Lobsang,
while Tibet is ruled by Beijing's "puppets" such as the
current governor, Padma Choling, who need the iron fist of
the People's Liberation Army (PLA) behind their backs.
Aside from a packed agenda of reforms and governance that
awaits him, Lobsang is conscious of his symbolic value at a
delicate juncture in Tibetan history. As the present aging
Dalai Lama recedes from politics, in a similar way to the
South African leader Nelson Mandela, and given the natural
rawness of his yet-to-be-prophesied boyish successor and of
the controversy-prone Karmapa Lama (Tibetan Buddhism's
second holiest spiritual institution), it will be the
elected Lobsang who bears the mantle of charting the Tibetan
movement through a major transition.
One of the interesting priorities Lobsang shared with this
author was to establish a think-tank within the Tibetan
government-in-exile that is trained to perform scenario
planning "for the next five to 50 years" on domestic and
foreign policy issues.
The largely reactive nature of policymaking in Dharamsala,
seat of the Tibetan government in exile, on how to deal with
China and with its phenomenal rise in international affairs
will have to be transformed by equipping young Tibetans with
astute in-depth knowledge and analytical abilities to study
every aspect of 'Greater China' studies, including China's
domestic politics, economic tides, cultural evolution and
shifting foreign policy calculus towards East Asia, South
Asia and the West.
The breed of cerebral politicians like Lobsang is aware of
existing shortcomings within Tibetan refugee circles and is
striving to groom a more confident and assertive younger set
of elites who can shoulder the burden of collectively
replacing the Dalai Lama in his decades-long role as a
peerless expositor-at-large of the Tibetan movement.
In the absence of a sustained armed movement, the main
weapons of the Tibet cause are argumentation and public
relations that win more and more followers around the world
until a critical mass of global opinion might eventually
force concessions from China. One of the parameters by which
Lobsang will be judged in his first five-year term as prime
minister will be whether he invests enough resources and
energies into moulding more Lobsangs of his caliber and
Born in a nondescript refugee camp between Darjeeling and
Kalimpong in northeast India, Lobsang is the first Tibetan
prime minister who has never seen the homeland. He lamented
how he got to visit Beijing a few years ago, but went no
further than that as the Chinese government would never
permit him to enter Tibet. He wryly remarked that his new
elevated political status means that the lifelong dream of
going to Tibet has receded even further, now that he has
been officially denigrated in the Chinese press as a
"terrorist" (a more vilifying label than "splittist").
If there is one Achilles' heel for Lobsang and his ilk, it
is that they claim to represent Tibetans in Tibet despite
being denied even the minimum happiness of setting foot
there even briefly. Can representation be virtual and not
based on physical presence in a defined territory? What does
it mean for Lobsang to be prime minister of all Tibetans
when he has no control over the destinies of six million of
them residing in the homeland under the Chinese thumb? Is
Lobsang destined to remain yet another tragic personality
who will be a wandering spokesman for the Tibetan people
without attaining the much-longed-for state? Is he condemned
to be a beacon of the refugees and a non-entity inside
These conundrums may not appear up front in his calm
exterior and resolute interior, but they are inescapable
dilemmas for anyone who heads a state system without its
vital ingredients of territory and sovereignty. Finding
solace in Buddhist history and playing the waiting game for
a turn of fortunes have been the staples for the Dalai Lama
and his ecclesiastical order for over half a century.
But Lobsang is made of different fiber by virtue of his Ivy
League grounding and grassroots activism in the exiled
communities. During the conversation with this author, the
word "endurance" kept bobbing up as much as "uprising".
Emboldened by the anti-totalitarian upsurges in the Middle
East, the new lodestar of the Tibetan movement is alert to
exploiting surprising openings in the unpredictable zigzag
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India,
and the author of the newly released book, International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and
Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I B Tauris).
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