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    Greater China
     May 4, 2011

Sangay picks up exiled Tibetans' hopes
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - Hopes are high among the Tibetan community that Lobsang Sangay, their newly elected political leader, will deliver results in their struggle with China for greater autonomy. As the first Kalon tripa (prime minister of the Tibetan government in power) since the Dalai Lama retired from politics, Sangay yields significant new powers.

Beijing has denounced the election of the Indian-born, United States-based international law expert, saying it will never deal with the exiled Tibetan government, which it calls an "illegal organization". China earlier slammed the Dalai Lama's retirement plan as a "trick" to cheat the world.

In March, the Dalai Lama retired as head of state and administrative chief, ending an institution of spiritual and political leadership that dates from 1642. The shock announcement was

made just days before some 50,000 exiled Tibetans cast their votes in the final round of elections.

"Sangay won 55% of the total - 49,184 votes in over 30 countries across the globe", Election Commissioner Jamphel Choesang announced on April 27 in the exiled government's home of Dharamsala, India.

The 43-year-old Sangay easily beat two other candidates, both veteran officials from the Central Tibetan Administration, with Tenzin Namgyal Tethong and Tashi Wangdi winning just 37% and 8% of the vote respectively. Sangay will succeed the two-term incumbent Samdhong Rinpoche, becoming only the second directly elected Kalon Tripa since the post was created in 2001.

In a victory message delivered from Washington, Sangay thanked voters. "I am really overwhelmed by the support extended to me by the [exiled] Tibetan community. I am really humbled and I will do my utmost to live up to the expectations of exiled Tibetans ... I urge every Tibetan and friends of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] to his rightful place in the Potala Palace [former chief residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa]," he said. Sangay is said to be inspired by the Dalai Lama's vision of a "secular, democratic, Tibetan society".

Neither China nor any other country officially recognizes the Tibetan government-in-exile, which has been based in Dharamsala since the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled Tibet to India in 1959 after a failed armed uprising against Chinese military occupation.

"The so-called Tibetan government-in-exile is an illegal political organization established by the Dalai Lama to engage in independence and separatist activities," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing on April 28 in Beijing's first official reaction to the election.

Xu Zhitao, an official with the CCP's Central United Front Work Department, told China's state-run English-language daily Global Times, "This kind of show happens almost every year without any political significance. The Dalai Lama and his clique lost political power ever since he went to India in 1959. He and his followers cannot represent Tibet."

The United Front Work Department is responsible for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Beijing always insists the dialogue is held with the Dalai Lama "personally" instead of him representing the exiled Tibetan government.

In Dharamsala, exiled Tibetans have welcomed Sangay's win, seeing it as a new phase in their history. Younger generations say they have been looking forward to the election of a young, dynamic leader.

"It is a win for democracy, we have abided by His Holiness's [the Dalai Lama] decision to vote for our future, and today the results have proved us right. Sangay, as a dynamic figure with Kalon Tripa status, should worry China," said Chemi Dolkar, an exiled Tibetan woman.

Exiles are placing a lot of hope in Sangay, believing his victory is historic and that he will play a ground-breaking role in the future of the Tibetan movement. Many hope he and his new parliament will make some real policy changes in direct engagement with China.

An ethnic Tibetan, Sangay was born in Darjeeling in India and has never been to Tibet. Having studied at Delhi University for a law degree, he became the first Tibetan to obtain a Masters Degree and doctorate in law from Harvard Law School. Due to his Western exposure, many Tibetan exiles believe Sangay represents the younger generation of Tibetans. Followers describe him as a dynamic leader with a global network cultivated at Harvard. His expertise is international law, democratic constitutions, and contemporary China. It is known that Sangay has been holding international conferences with Chinese expatriates on Tibetan issues.

"The majority of Tibetans knew it would be a landslide win for Lobsang Sangay. The votes of the young Tibetans are not wasted. Sangay's credentials are not only limited to being an international law expert, he also has great leadership qualities and valuable global contacts," Tashi Rupten, a young Tibetan, told Asia Times Online.

Sangay's election victory has been greeted by Rinpoche. "I and my fellow members of the Kashag (cabinet) would like to extend our congratulations to Sangay for winning the election with an overwhelming majority."

Support also came from outside the Tibetan community, with Sangay's election victory also welcomed by Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). "The DDP congratulates elected leader Dr Lobsang Sangay, and it also pleased to see that the government head is democratically elected by the Tibetan people. The election result is not only a victory for the Tibetan government in exile; it is also a victory for all the Tibetan people. The DPP is looking forward to have the Prime Minister Dr Lobsang Sangay visit Taiwan and to a more firmly based friendship."

But in Beijing, where the government has in past months keep a close watch on Sangay's growing influence among Tibetan exiles, he has been described in state-run media as a "terrorist" for his part in the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a radical group that advocates full independence for Tibet.

Sangay's association with the TYC even once landed him behind bars. He was locked up in India's Tihar jail for a few days in the late 1990s after being picked up during an anti-Chinese government demonstration while he was a student in Delhi. However, in his election campaign, Sangay made it clear that he fully supports the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way", which seeks "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet.

"In my 16 years at Harvard, I organized conferences and met hundreds of Chinese scholars. I would like to continue the dialogue at the people level, and if the Chinese government is willing, also at the government level," Sangay told the Wall Street Journal in a phone interview. "More moderate policies and attitudes will serve their interests, too. Tibet is under occupation and there is ongoing repression, cultural assimilation and economic marginalization," he said.

Despite his words, observers expect Sangay to take a tougher line with Beijing. His added political powers since the Dalai Lama's retirement are leading to higher expectations than were placed on his predecessors.

Sangay will also face pressure because of frustration in the Tibetan movement, whose younger activists have pressed for a more assertive campaign to seek Tibet's outright independence, Srikanth Kondapalli, a Chinese Studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Bloomberg.

The Dalai Lama has welcomed the election results, stating that they validate his decision, "Now the conditions are sort of right, so I now decide to hand over all my legitimate political authority to the elected political leadership," the Dalai said during a tour in Japan. "Now the majority of them [Tibetans] understand my decision is timely."

However, Tibet experts say that despite the election, the government-in-exile's political legitimacy may suffer without the Dalai Lama's patronage.

"The problem for any prime minister is that, compared to the Dalai Lama, he enjoys little name recognition outside the exiled Tibetan circle, and that will be a difficult dynamic to shift," said Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told Agence France Presse.

"This was not necessarily a welcome change but [it was] an inevitable change," Penpa Tsering, who serves as speaker of the Tibetan parliament in exile, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Chinese observers say the Dalai Lama will continue to pull the strings of power. "Sangay is young and active, but the Dalai Lama is still the mastermind of the group," Lian Xiangmin, a research fellow at the China Tibetology Research Center, told Global Times. "In recent years, we have seen conflicts increasing among different stakeholders within the clique. With the Dalai Lama holding religious power, Sangay really doesn't have too many options to ease the discord."

Sangay has already showed some firmness, asking Beijing to review its "hardline" Tibet policy and take a more moderate and liberal approach. He said that if China wanted to become a new world superpower, it could not do so through economic or military might, but would need to exercise moral authority.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.

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