Lobsang Sangay was elected to the role of sikyong, or prime minister, of Tibet’s government-in-exile in April 2011, following the Dalai Lama’s decision to retire from frontline politics. Sangay quit his position as a fellow at Harvard Law School to assume his new office in Dharamsala, the Indian town that hosts Tibet’s politicians. At 44-years-old, like many overseas Tibetans, he has never been to his homeland.
Monocle: How daunting was it to replace a revered leader such as the Dalai Lama?
Lobsang Sangay: It isn’t a question of replacing him so much as fulfilling his vision.It is his vision and expectation that Tibetans themselves will provide leadership to the Tibetan movement. Of course he’s popular – but I have democratic legitimacy, as well as the blessing of the Dalai Lama himself. So I’m on a sound footing. I have met hundreds of Tibetans from inside Tibet and they all seem to know my name. There’s a very strong emotional bond and it’s very moving. I’m determined to do my best to represent them and advance the Tibetan cause.
M: What have you found most challenging and surprising about the job of being Tibet’s prime minister?
LS: Obviously the job description is difficult. It’s very challenging because you’re running an administration that doesn’t have a homeland and the people are scattered across the world. [You want to have a say in] whatever happens in international forums but at the same time you can’t have a direct impact. But I’m a Tibetan and as a Tibetan I have to lead. And I am determined to do so.
M: We tend to associate political leaders with large entourages, limousines, private jets and so on. Is life more modest for a leader-in-exile?
LS: I think simplicity and humility are the guiding principles that we try to follow. We travel in economy class, if necessary with just one secretary. We have one Ambassador car with one person in charge of security. But our government is actually quite like others, with different departments. Our education department, for example, runs 70 schools with thousands of students, preserving our culture and tradition.
M: You once wrote a paper at Harvard on the Tibetan government in exile. Does the government look different from the inside than it did from the outside?
LS: On a day-to-day basis there are all the decisions you have to make and how intense and busy you can be – all this cannot be captured in a scholarly paper. You always read that leadership is a lonely place and I used to subscribe to that saying. But once you sit in the chair, you do realise how lonely a place it is. When something lands on your table you’re not supposed to analyse it, you have to make a decision. That is the daily challenge: to keep on doing it, to keep improving and to retain the support of Tibetan people.
M: Do you think that you’ll ever get the chance to see Tibet?
LS: I remain very optimistic that one day I will go to Tibet and visit Lhasa, and visit the Jokhang Temple, pay homage to the gods of Tibet and respects to my dead father. And I’ll also look at the Potala Palace. That was the reason I left Harvard Law School after 16 years, to come to Dharamsala and serve the Tibetan people.
M: It is difficult to see Tibet not being a part of China. So what is the way forward?
LS: What we seek is genuine autonomy within China. The Chinese government wants stability and harmony. The plans we have proposed are moderate solutions that can be amicable and are based on mutual interest, through which we can administer ourselves, preserve our language, culture and identity. It is a meaningful proposition for the Chinese government, and so far they have not responded hopefully. [What we need is] the realisation in the mind of the Chinese leaders that one way or another hard-line policies are not working and have not worked.
M: How do you account for the wave of self-immolations occurring in Tibet?
LS: On a personal level, as a Tibetan and also just as a human being, this is a matter of great concern. The reasons are the occupation of Tibet and the repressive policies of the Chinese government. Since the uprising in 2008 there has been a harsh crackdown on people all across Tibet and especially monastic communities. Monks have been forced to choose between speaking out against the Dalai Lama or being expelled from the monasteries. Their lives as they knew them have ended. In those circumstances it seems better to give up your life than to lead your life. It’s really tragic but, as a form of protest, some have resorted to it.
M: A new generation of leaders will take over China later this year. Are you hopeful that they will change course on Tibet?
LS: One should always remain hopeful because hope will keep you going forward. However, given what we have seen from the Chinese leadership for the past 50 years, the prospect for a better future remains uncertain. When Tibetans protest, they are shot at. But in Wukan [a village in Guangdong province that has become famous for protesting successfully] when people protested against their leaders they were put in charge. They cannot keep on treating Chinese people in one way and Tibetans in another.