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Re-election of Exiled PM Spurs Hope for Renewed Tibet Talks

  • Shannon Van Sant

Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, speaks to media after being re-elected for second term in office in Dharmsala, India, Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, speaks to media after being re-elected for second term in office in Dharmsala, India, Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

The re-election of Lobsang Sangay as prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile has renewed hopes among some that dialogue between the Dalai Lama and China’s central government, which stopped in 2010, will begin again.

On the day of his election, Sangay vowed to push for autonomy for the Tibetan people and restart talks with the Chinese government.

“We remain fully committed to the Middle Way Approach, which clearly seeks genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within China. It is hoped the leaders in Beijing will see reason with the Middle Way Approach, instead of distorting it, and step forward to engage in dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama's envoys,” he said.

No talks since 2010

Representatives of the Dalai Lama held several rounds of talks with China until they were stalled in 2010 by protests and a subsequent crackdown in Tibet.

Tsering Passang, Chair of the Tibetan Community in Britain, said whether or not talks restart is in Beijing’s hands.

“It’s really up to the Chinese, and due to the current reality, the geopolitical situation, as well as the economic situation, China has the upper hand, so it’s going to be a challenge for the Tibetan leadership,” he said.

FILE - An elderly Tibetan woman, who was among those waiting to receive the Dalai Lama, gets emotional as the spiritual leader greets devotees upon arrival at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics near Dharmsala, India.

FILE - An elderly Tibetan woman, who was among those waiting to receive the Dalai Lama, gets emotional as the spiritual leader greets devotees upon arrival at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics near Dharmsala, India.

Sangay defeated challenger Penpa Tsering

Sangay ran against the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, Penpa Tsering and received 58 percent of nearly 60,000 votes cast. About 90,000 exiled Tibetans are registered to vote in 40 countries.

However, China has largely ignored the elections, with the foreign ministry only making terse remarks on the ballot results when pressed to comment at a recent briefing. Spokesman Hong Lei said the voting was nothing but a "farce" staged by an "illegal" organization that is not recognized by any country in the world.

Robert Barnett, the director of modern Tibet studies at Columbia University, is not very optimistic about the resumption of talks.

“It’s quite disheartening at the moment because there are no signs from the Chinese side of any concession at all, in fact very much the opposite. But of course the Chinese side would not disclose if it was going to make a move. It would be in its interest to move very quickly at a time of its own choosing,” he said.

FILE - An exile Tibetan nun cries as she prays during a candlelit vigil in solidarity with two Tibetans, who exiles claim have immolated themselves demanding freedom for Tibet, in Dharmsala, India, Wednesday, March 2, 2016.

FILE - An exile Tibetan nun cries as she prays during a candlelit vigil in solidarity with two Tibetans, who exiles claim have immolated themselves demanding freedom for Tibet, in Dharmsala, India, Wednesday, March 2, 2016.

China claims control of Tibet for centuries

China says it has maintained control of the Tibetan region since the 13th century, and the Communist Party says it has liberated the Tibetan people through removing monks from power who the party says presided over a feudal system.

But many Tibetans argue they were independent until Communist forces invaded in 1950. Nine years later the Dalai Lama fled into exile after a failed uprising against the government.

While the Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, he gave up political authority in 2011, and called for democratic elections to choose a prime minister to lead the parliament of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India.

With the current Dalai Lama now in his 80s, the issue of who will select the next Dalai Lama is gaining in importance.

But P.K. Gautam, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, said any political talks that may develop should not be confused with discussions over who will select the next Dalai Lama.

“So who selects the Dalai Lama is a very separate process, but the political negotiations, for the autonomous region, the way it is desired, that can be taken on by this central administration. So it’s a long term process; it’s just one of these steps that may lead to a solution so that the Tibet autonomous region regains its pillars,” he said.

Many Tibetans hope Sangay’s election is also a step towards easing discontent throughout the Tibetan community. More than 100 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against the Chinese government since 2009.

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