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New Tibetan exile leader vows to take on Chinese 'colonialism'

Lobsang Sangay, sworn in as the Tibetan prime minister in exile, assumes political duties ceded by the Dalai Lama. The Harvard-educated leader has taken a more confrontational approach toward Beijing.

August 09, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Lobsang Sangay, left, the new prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, is blessed by Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama at his swearing-in ceremony at the Tsuglagkhang Temple in Dharmsala, India.
Lobsang Sangay, left, the new prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile,… (Ashwini Bhatia, Associated…)

Reporting from New Delhi — Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, vowed to fight China's uncompromising approach toward Tibet during his swearing-in ceremony Monday as he prepared to assume many of the political duties previously handled by the Dalai Lama.

Speaking at the Tsuglagkhang Temple in Dharamsala, a hill station in northern India, Sangay vowed to fight Beijing's "colonialism," and said his election sent "a clear message to the hard-liners in the Chinese government that Tibetan leadership is far from fizzling out."

After traditional offerings of tea and sweetened rice, Sangay, 43, took up his new post at exactly nine seconds after 09:09 a.m. Nine is considered an auspicious number that many Tibetans associate with longevity.

The Dalai Lama, 76, who stepped down voluntarily, also addressed the gathering of several thousand people. "Today is the most important day in the last 2,000 years," he said of the move toward a more representative governing structure. He will remain the movement's spiritual leader.

As Sangay's profile has risen, the Harvard-educated academic has displayed a more confrontational approach toward China than the Dalai Lama; he has called for the Tibetan flag to fly above the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the traditional seat of the Tibetan government.

Sangay faces several challenges. China has made no secret of its bid to wait out the Dalai Lama, hoping that when he dies, the Tibetan movement will suffer from divisions and lose focus.

Beijing is also trying to groom a parallel Tibetan religious leadership and has significantly increased the population of the Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group, on the Tibetan plateau. It is tightening its grip on monasteries and spending billions of dollars on the local economy and on infrastructure in a bid to dilute Tibetans' traditional beliefs and respect for the Dalai Lama.

Monday's inauguration could further complicate relations between China and India, where the Tibetan exile community is based, said K. Shankar Bajpai, an analyst and former Indian ambassador to China, especially given Beijing and New Delhi's very different forms of government.

"There's no doubt whatsoever of Beijing's sensitivity on anything concerning Tibetan autonomy," Bajpai said. "And they just go by results and say, 'You can stop this if you want to.'"

Given a string of scandals dragging down India's ruling Congress party, however, there's little chance Indian officials will display much effective diplomacy in the near term, he said. "They're very preoccupied right now," Bajpai said.

Analysts said Sangay's election, which was announced after canvassing in Tibet and among exiled Tibetans in dozens of countries, is an impressive display of the community's cohesion and commitment to democracy.

But, some said, in choosing a Harvard academic with deep American roots and who has never lived in Tibet, the movement has underrepresented Tibetans living in Tibet. And although President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House in July is an indication of continued Western support, China is growing stronger economically and diplomatically.

As a result, some observers said, any hope for greater autonomy for Tibet must ultimately involve the Middle Kingdom.

"In naming him, they only considered experts in America or the West," said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at New York's Columbia University. "I would think if he were serious, he would've spent the past 15 years learning Chinese."

Sangay, born in exile in the Indian town of Darjeeling, attended Delhi University and earned a doctorate in law at Harvard University and accepted a teaching fellowship at Harvard's East Asian Legal Studies Program.

In his new job, he's pledged to improve education for young Tibetans, upgrade the skills of the Tibetan Administration, the de facto bureaucracy, and introduce a Tibet Corps of people willing to contribute globally to the Tibetan cause.

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