Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese

    South Asia
     Jun 2, 2011


New star steers Tibetan transition
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 prime minister.

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 knowledge.

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 charisma.

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 Tibet?

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 of history.

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).

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Tibet's only hope lies within (May 7, '11)

Dalai Lama's retirement sparks fear, hope (Mar 17, '11)


  Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strike

2. Asia Times Online journalist feared dead

3. Hitler and the Chinese Internet generation

4. Asia Times Online journalist missing

5. Humpty Obumpty and the Arab Spring

6. France BRICS up emerging economies

7. Egypt opens a new front

8. China drops the Gwadar hot potato

9. Taiwan subs plan tests the waters

10. Pain and state bankruptcy

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, May 31, 2011 )


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110