What to Expect from the Dalai Lama’s Political Successor

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Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Indian-born legal scholar educated at Harvard, was elected prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile after claiming 55% of votes cast by the Tibetan exile diaspora. His victory comes on the heels of the Dalai Lama’s announced departure from political life — a move that marks a new phase in the history of the Tibetan exiles’ struggle with China. Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University and a noted expert on Tibet and the Tibetan government-in-exile, penned this note for Global Spin on what to expect from Sangay as he takes office in Dharamsala:

The new leader has never led before, either in government or any other organization, so is as an unknown in terms of skills and personality. And despite his imminent retirement from his secular role, the Dalai Lama will remain active in public life and will be the only giant in Tibetan affairs, both inside and outside Tibet.

So in practical terms, the changes that the new prime minister can bring will be relatively small and local. If he achieves even some of these, it will be a significant success, because nothing is easy if one is running a government that no-one officially recognizes, that is under constant attack from China, and which relies on symbolic standing rather than actual authority.

Sangay got into power by being young and speaking of new initiatives, by leveraging the name of his former university in America, and by making promises on the campaign trail. Even if all else fails, his insertion of youth and campaign promises into Tibetan politics is a new and valuable contribution – but now he will need to honor those commitments. That means improving living conditions for those Tibetans living in difficult straits in refugee settlements in India, and making a real difference to much-criticized educational standards in exile schools. He will also need to address the hemorrhaging of the exile community in India caused by the flood of Tibetans like himself who have moved, often illegally, to the US and other western countries. And he will have to inject new energy into the slow-moving exile bureaucracy in India, long hampered by traditional clerical practices and ingrained cautiousness. All of this will take managerial and diplomatic skills which are as yet untested.

Will he make a difference to the wider Tibetan issue? So far he has said that he will follow the Dalai Lama’s policy of pursuing negotiations with China and seeking only autonomy with the Chinese state – but his support for this is, he says, only because this is “the official policy of the Tibetan Government in Exile”, not because of any personal commitment. And he has already gone beyond existing policy by refusing to discount future Tibetan independence, which he says “one cannot rule out or rule in.” Such tough talk will make negotiations hard (and the Chinese press has already labeled him “a terrorist” because he was a member of a pro-independence exile group two decades ago). In addition, he has never been to Tibet and, like most Tibetans brought up in exile, has not taken it on himself to learn Chinese. But talks with China are extremely hard in any case, since China remains in a hardline phase, and the exile parliament is anyway expected to ask the Dalai Lama to continue to oversee the talks process. In the final analysis, the future of the wider Tibetan issue is determined by Tibetans inside Tibet, rather than by the exiles. So even if the exiles’ new prime minister lives up only to his campaign promises on domestic issues, it’s likely that he’ll be welcomed. And if he doesn’t, his appointment still will have marked a new and robust stage in the development of exile political life.