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Newly-Named Tibetan Exile Leader Faces Task of Reshaping Government

  • Kurt Achin

Lobsang Sengey, shows his green book as he arrives to cast his vote in Dharmsala, India (File Photo - March 20, 2011)

Lobsang Sengey, shows his green book as he arrives to cast his vote in Dharmsala, India (File Photo - March 20, 2011)

The global community of Tibetan exiles has elected a Harvard-educated legal scholar as its next prime minister. One of his first priorities will be to reshape the Tibetan exile governing structures so that they derive their legitimacy less from the Dalai Lama and more from democratically-elected institutions.

Tibetan exile officials made it official Wednesday: 42-year-old Lobsang Sangay will be the community's new leader.

Sangay, a senior fellow at the Harvard Law School, won 55 percent of the votes cast in March by more than 50,000 exiled Tibetans living in dozens of countries. He is still in the United States, but is expected to relocate within months to Dharamsala, the de facto capital of Tibetan exiles in northern India.

India has played host to the Tibetan exile community since 1959, when tens of thousands of Tibetans followed their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, across the Himalayan border to northern India, to escape Chinese military occupation.

In the decades since, the Dalai Lama has played what many Tibetans see as an irreplaceable role as spiritual arbiter, head of state, and celebrity activist. However, in March, the Dalai Lama announced he would relinquish his political role, delegating administrative decisions to elected officials.

Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer and activist, says the Dalai Lama's decision to leave politics is why the Lobsang Sangay's election is so important.

"He's not just a new prime minister," said Tenzin Tsundue. "This is the new era in Tibetan politics - to step out from the larger, overwhelming image of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and say that this is the elected representative who is going to lead the Tibetan people."

At 42, Sangay is 34 years younger, and more secular, than the Buddhist monk he will be replacing. He was born in a Tibetan refugee camp in India, but has never set foot in what Chinese maps commonly label as Tibet.

Tsundue says Tibetan voters have taken a chance that Sangay's youth and Western legal training will help him lead the Tibetan administration through a transition.

"From a very passive, Buddhist, self-effacing government to a more articulated, demonstrated government - I think that is what Lobsang Sangay will lead," he said. "A modern leader."

Sangay is scheduled to be inaugurated as prime minister - a post that Tibetans call Kalon Tripa - in August.

Choekyong Wangchuk, a member of the Tibetan parliament and executive director of the Tibetan Parliament and Policy Research Center, says Sangay will be a energetic spokesman and diplomat for Tibetan exiles.

"Unlike [the] previous Kalon Tripa, this Kalon Tripa might be having a little more responsibility in projecting the Tibetan issue at the international level," said Wangchuk.

The Dalai Lama has called for Tibet's autonomy from China, although some Tibetan activists would prefer full independence.

Here in New Delhi, three officers from the activist group, the Tibetan Youth Congress, are on a hunger strike to protest a Chinese crackdown on a Tibetan monastery. They warn that if the situation is not resolved soon, there could be a repeat of mass demonstrations like the ones that occurred in Tibet in 2008.