Tibetans Elect Harvard Law Scholar to Head Dalai Lama’s Exile Government

A Harvard University law scholar has been elected prime minister of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan exile government, which demands autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule.

Lobsang Sangay, 43, won a March 20 election among the 130,000 Tibetans living outside China to head the Central Tibetan Administration based in the Indian town of Dharamshala, the administration’s election commission said at a press conference there today. Sangay will inherit much of the political leadership role that the Dalai Lama announced last month he intends to relinquish.

Sangay won 55 percent of the vote, defeating two longtime officials of the Tibetan exile administration, according to results announced today by Chief Election Commissioner Jamphel Choesang. More than 48,000 Tibetans around the world voted, a 50 percent increase over the previous prime ministerial election in 2006. The Himalayan state of Nepal, where 14,000 exiles live just south of Tibet, was criticized by the European Parliament for refusing to allow voting under pressure from China.

By opting to focus on his spiritual leadership of the estimated 3 million or more Buddhist Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, 75, will leave Sangay and the 46-member exile parliament to handle a stalled, nine-year effort at dialogue with China. “Sangay will face pressures because of frustration in the Tibetan movement,” whose younger activists have pressed for a more assertive campaign to seek Tibet’s outright independence, Srikanth Kondapalli, a Chinese studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said by phone.

China Talks

While “the United States and European Union, and to some extent India, are pressing both sides to talk to each other and find an amicable solution,” a new round of talks with China is not likely for several months as the new Tibetan leadership defines its policy, Kondapalli said yesterday.

The elected exile government may also add to anxieties among Chinese officials over pro-democracy pressures within the country raised by the popular uprisings against authoritarian governments in Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria, Kondapalli said.

In pursuit of the Dalai Lama’s focus on non-violence, “I’ll do my best to reach out to the Chinese government, to have a dialogue to resolve the issue peacefully,” Sangay said in an interview last month with radio station WBUR in Boston. Sangay said he will give up his Harvard post and move to Dharamshala from his home in the Boston suburb of Medford to take up the prime ministership at a salary of $400 a month.

Sichuan Monastery

Tibetans periodically have protested China’s rule since the Chinese army invaded in the early 1950s. China has cracked down on Tibetan dissent since the eruption in 2008 of the most violent anti-Chinese protests in 20 years.

China accuses the Dalai Lama of spreading “anti-Chinese propaganda” and secretly seeking independence for Tibet, which forms about a quarter of China’s territory. In the two sides’ most recent talks, in January 2010, China rejected “a high degree of autonomy” for Tibet.

Tibetan monks and residents have confronted Chinese police in an ethnic Tibetan region of Sichuan province since a Buddhist monk immolated himself March 16 at the Kirti Monastery to protest Chinese rule. Police sealed off the monastery and last week detained about 300 monks, killing two people among protesters who had gathered in their defense, the Central Tibetan Administration said in an April 23 statement.

Lama Rule

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not comment on the reported killings, telling journalists in a briefing yesterday that the turmoil was caused by monks who have been “damaging the normal, local social order” and “tarnishing the image of Tibetan Buddhism.”

While Tibet’s Dalai Lamas historically ruled by decree, the current lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has instituted the elected government in exile, which poses a challenge to China’s authoritarian system of rule. The inauguration of Sangay as a secular prime minister to replace Samdhong Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk, will shift the Tibetan movement a further step away from religious governance, a move the Dalai Lama has publicly supported.

In announcing the handover of political authority to elected leaders last month, the Dalai Lama “is preparing the Tibetan people for a future beyond his lifetime,” said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, which helps represent the Dalai Lama overseas.

Mineral Reserves

Tibetans regard the Dalai Lamas as reincarnations of an ancient spiritual being, meaning that a succession between them can take many years as senior monks designate and educate a young child as the new leader.

China says it is spending heavily to develop Tibet’s economy, while activists such as Sangay say Tibetans suffer from rapid urbanization and get few benefits of economic growth.

The China Geological Survey said Feb. 24 that Tibet has the nation’s biggest reserves of chromium, copper, and salt lake lithium amid total mineral deposits valued at more than $152 billion, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. China’s Tibetan authorities say mining could contribute more than 30 percent of Tibet’s gross domestic product by 2020, compared with 3 percent now, the agency said.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rupert in New Delhi at jrupert3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.