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Harvard Fellow Expected To Lead Tibetans In Exile

This article is more than 12 years old.
Lobsang Sangay talks in front of a Tibetan flag in Dharamsala, India, on March 20. (AP)
Lobsang Sangay talks in front of a Tibetan flag in Dharamsala, India, on March 20. (AP)

The likely new leader of the Tibetan people lives much closer to you than you might expect.

Lobsang Sangay has a home in Medford and has spent the last 15 years as a research fellow at Harvard Law School. But next Tuesday he is expected to be named the winner of the election for Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, of the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala, India.

Beyond just his ZIP code, Sangay is an unlikely selection. At 43, he is the youngest of six candidates and by far the least experienced. But in an interview with WBUR's Bob Oakes, Sangay said he thinks he won over voters with an "American-style campaign" — going to the people to talk with them directly.

That's no easy task when your constituents are scattered across 30 countries all around the world, and sometimes in very remote locations. Getting to the polls was an hours-long trek for many voters.

In Tibet, which has been under Chinese control since the 1950s, the Tibetan community is not allowed to vote. But Sangay says his top priority is to peacefully gain freedom for those Tibetans living inside Tibet. He considers it part of the job of Kalon Tripa to serve as their representative as well.

"Tibet is under occupation. There is political repression, economic marginalization — it's a painful experience that Tibetans inside Tibet are enduring," Sangay said. He gave the example of a monk who recently set himself on fire to protest the Chinese occupation. Instead of putting out the fire, Sangay said, Chinese policemen beat the man, who died from his injuries.

"This kind of tragedy is an ongoing experience for Tibetans inside Tibet and this ought to end," Sangay said. "And if I'm fortunate enough to be elected, I'll do my best to reach out to the Chinese government, to have a dialogue, to resolve the issue peacefully and non-violently."

This year's election has taken on extra significance because of the recent decision by the Dalai Lama to relinquish his political role and focus more on the spiritual, a decision that Sangay said has brought some anxiety to the Tibetan people, himself included.

"It's quite difficult to digest, emotionally," Sangay said, "because he has been our leader for so long, he has done so much. He's a brilliant leader who has led us so efficiently. And to see a scenario where he will not play an active political role is difficult to digest for any Tibetans because we have a very personal, emotional, like kind of a family relationship."

The Dalai Lama has said he will still be available for advice and guidance. Sangay said he sees his leader as a kind of father figure and he would definitely seek him out.

After all, they would be living in the same city. Sangay wrapped up his position at Harvard Law just a couple of weeks ago and, if elected, he will be leaving Medford for Dharamsala.

It may take some getting used to — the position pays just $400 a month.

"The present prime minister, he's a monk," Sangay said. "He lives a very Gandhian, kind of austere life. So I'll have to adjust to that kind of lifestyle. But, given the fact the Tibetans in Tibet are suffering, they're giving up their lives, I'm willing and happy to give up the comfort and privileges of the People's Republic of Cambridge and go to India and serve my people."

This program aired on April 20, 2011.


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