After spending six years doing research mainly in Dharamshala, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Democracy and History of Tibetan government in exile from 1959-2004 for which he was awarded Yong K. Kim 95 Special Award of Excellence. He also authored a book on Human Rights in Tibetan language. He travels around the world giving lectures on Tibet and has published in several journals and books and was selected as one of the twenty-four young leaders of Asia in 2006 by Asia Society based in New York, USA. Dr. Lobsang Sangey, is being seen as a strong contender for the 2011 Kalon Tripa (Tibetan Prime Minister-in-exile) in the upcoming General Election.
Following is the interview with Dr. Lobsang Sangay by Rinchen, a student of University of Utah in U.S.
1. You are considered as one of the leading candidates for the Kalon Tripa Election. How do you feel?
I'm humbled to see my name mentioned as a viable Kalon Tripa candidate. I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to fellow Tibetans for their support and encouragement. Whether I win or lose, I will do my best to live up to their expectations and continue to work for our sacred cause. Ultimately, Tibetan democracy and its electoral process should be the winner which is only possible through public participation and I will duly serve my role to engage in every possible way.
The fact that an ordinary Tibetan raised in a refugee settlement camp and a Central Tibetan School (CST) is seen as a potential Kalon Tripa is, in my view, evidence of the progress our community has made in the last five decades. It is a testament of confidence in the new generation of Tibetans which is the fruit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's far-sighted vision and his tireless effort to promote reforms and democratic practices in our society. The Tibetan Legal Charter states that any able Tibetan above the age of 35 can aspire for such a high-profile office in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.
2. Your potential candidacy for Kalon Tripa has generated a good deal of attention. Many Tibetans are keen to know what you've been doing in the United States for the last fifteen years.
I came to the United States in 1995 on a Fulbright Scholarship, and attended Harvard Law School. After completing my Masters, Harvard offered me a scholarship and I enrolled into a Ph.D program there.
Upon completing my Ph.D. in 2004, I wrote to the Department of Education in Dharamsala about my status, my academic work including Track II Diplomacy with Chinese scholars and sought their guidance. On 17 June of 2005, Sherig responded with a decision that academic work at my university will be considered equivalent to Tibetan community service, thereby waiving my service bond. The Fulbright Program endorsed my academic and Track II Diplomatic work and strongly supported my stay at Harvard. On 13 February 2007, the US Department of State granted me a visa waiver. I got appointed as a Research Fellow at the Harvard Law School and promoted to a Research Associate in 2008. I still maintain the Indian Certificate (IC) for travels, including to India.
On the academic front, in the last fifteen years, instead of pursuing a private lucrative career as a lawyer like most of my Harvard classmates, I have steadfastly worked on how best to help Tibet and Tibetan people. I have taken courses from and interacted with the best minds in the world on China, international politics, democratic constitutionalism, leadership, conflict resolution, human rights, western philosophy and anything that will strengthen the case of Tibet. I spend every day trying to do something on Tibet and regularly travel around the world to promote the Tibet issue.
3. To whom do you credit the accomplishments you have had so far in your life, and who inspires you?
I'm reminded of my graduation commencement in 2004 when my good friend, the late Tendar la of the Office of Tibet in New York, asked me a similar question for a piece for Phayul (http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=7093&t=1). The three things that I have and continue to be profoundly grateful for are His Holiness the Dalai Lama; my parents who never understood why I took much longer studying in University than in high school; and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. When I didn't have much, Tibetan government under the leadership of His Holiness provided and protected me. Now having stood firmly on my feet both professionally and personally, I remain committed in doing all I can to strengthen and sustain the achievements resulting from the hard work of elders in laying a solid foundation for the Tibetan government and our movement.
4. Websites and current Blogosphere discussions have you and Tenzin Namgyal Tethong la as the two leading candidates for the 2011 Kalon Tripa elections. Your thoughts?
It is an honor to be mentioned along with Trisur Tenzin Namgyal Tethong la, whom I know well and have respect for. I believe it's still too early as the initial chatter and buzz has been mostly internet-generated through various websites, blogs and chat rooms among youths and netizens but the majority of Tibetans have limited access to the Internet.
I've highlighted the dismal voter turnout in the 2006 Kalon Tripa election where more than seventy percent of eligible voters did not vote --- a lower turnout than Iraq and Afghanistan where citizens voted in spite of voter intimidation and a real threat of being killed. (http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=26694) Will 2011 be different? I'm hearing Tibetans might want something different than the status quo. Well have to wait and see. I hope we have much higher voter participation this time around. Regardless of who you vote for in the Chitue and Kalon Tripa elections, I urge every eligible Tibetan who can vote to register before the August 18, 2010 deadline. Please contact your local Tibetan associations ASAP.
5. Some have highlighted the experience of working in Dharamsala as important requirements for the Kalon Tripa post. Your thoughts?
Like elections in any other country, the upcoming Kalon Tripa election will among other things be a choice between the status quo and change. The people content with maintaining the status quo will obviously play up the experience card, but those wanting change will be advocating for a candidate with a fresh set of eyes and ideas.
Recently, Indians voted for the status quo and re-elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Similarly, in 1988, Americans voted for the status quo and elected the then Vice-President Bush Sr. as the President of the United States of America. But recently in the United Kingdom, change as represented by David Cameron and Nick Clegg (43 and 42 years old respectively) trumped the experience of Gordon Brown and his Labor Party. Likewise the American Presidential elections of 1992, 2000 and 2008, when lack of experience in Washington DC was made an issue but the advocates for change prevailed. In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated the incumbent President Bush Sr. Governor Bush Jr. of Texas defeated the more experienced and Washington DC-based Al Gore in 2000. In 2008, a young senator (46 years old Obama) surprised both his more experienced primary challenger (Hilary) and his eventual opponent (McCain).
So experience albeit important is not the determining factor. Because, at one point, everyone starts anew or afresh as the President or Prime Minister, and faces new sets of challenges and opportunities. Ultimately, like with any new government, the success of Kalon Tripa will depend on team work. As long as you have a combination of seniors with experience and wisdom, the young professionals, women, and educated people who have knowledge and respect for Tibetan tradition and culture, the Kashag will succeed.
In relation to my experience: even though I have not worked in Dharamsala from 9-5 in an office, I understand Gangchen Kyishong pretty well. Whenever I am invited by the government, Parliament, Tibetan Youth, Women or other organizations to give lectures and workshops, I have often obliged. Having traveled there almost every year and spent anywhere from few weeks to few months, I interact and have strong relationships with every level of Tibetan leadership with the respected Kalons, Chitues, administrators in bureaucracy and activists in non-governmental organizations. Having consulted a number of them, many seem to be confident that I can do the job.
I have a fair understanding of politics in Dharamsala, as I spent six years doing research for my doctorate dissertation and interviewed the "who's who" of the Tibetan community from late Kundeling Kungo, Kungo Tara, Sandu Rinchen to the present Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche not to mention the Kalons, Chitues, civil servants and personalities of NGOs. Having written extensively on the founding of the Tibetan government and democracy from 1959 to 2004, I believe I have a pretty good grasp of the inner workings of Dharamsala.
Yes, administrative experience is important, but administration is essentially about law. Having researched the Tibetan constitution and the Charter, Indian, American and other comparative constitutions, I am pretty confident that my twenty years of legal background will come in handy. It is not a coincidence that many of the world leaders are lawyers. President Obama and Hillary Clinton are both lawyers. Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang of China, who will take over as President and Prime Minister in 2012, have legal backgrounds. President Ma Ying Jeou of Taiwan is also a lawyer.
Most importantly, I'm very secure in knowing that I understand and can empathize with the average Tibetans. I am familiar with the situation in the Shichaks (Tibetan settlements). I know what it feels like to go through another season of poor harvest in the Shichaks or warm weather for the sweater-selling season in the winter. I have lived in a Shichak, accompanied my parents on sweater-selling trips, and eaten the Tingmo and Dal, the staple diet at various Tibetan schools. Because of these experiences, I would consider it a privilege to return to Dharamsala and serve under His Holiness.
6. What do you see as some of the key responsibilities of the next Kalon Tripa?
First we have to define whether the Kalon Tripa is a leader or an administrator. If Kalon Tripa is simply an administrator, then experience, both institutional and personal, is a must. However, His Holiness himself has stressed, as our democracy progresses, the Kalon Tripa should assume more political leadership. Organizational studies define the core qualities of leadership as vision/planning; the ability to communicate and inspire; the courage to lead and execute, among many others, with experience as an additional skill.
For the Kalon Tripa as a leader, the primary responsibility is to resolve the Chinese occupation and alleviate the challenges faced by our brave compatriots in Tibet. Secondly, it is to gain support from the international community and to raise the profile of the Tibetan government which is rather weak. Thirdly, the Kalon Tripa has to sustain and strengthen our exile government in India while at the same time securing support from the Indian public. Fourthly, the Kalon Tripa must monitor daily developments in China and strategize our short and long term plans and policies to deal both with the government and the people of China. Lastly, the Kalon Tripa must be cognizant of the aspirations and anxieties of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, and must ensure the welfare of the exile community both in Asia and the West. Within this it is important to interact with and nurture our youth to engage in the Tibetan government and the Tibetan movement.
If therefore the Kalon Tripa is a leader with these responsibilities, the last two decades of my life have given me extensive experience in all these five categories. My interaction with hundreds of top Chinese scholars as well as intellectuals, diplomats and leaders from around the world have given me a close view of global real politik. In depth exchanges with scholars and students from Tibet have enriched my understanding of their aspirations, their current reality and the complex path towards resolution. And needless to say, growing up in India provided personal affinities with Shichaks and Indian communities.
7. Several Tibet Support Groups and activists advocate using the Chinese legal system to make a case for Tibetans inside Tibet. What would you, as a legal scholar, bring to the table if you were elected as the next Kalon Tripa?
I have fifteen years of experience directly interacting and debating with Chinese scholars. I know quite a bit about Chinese politics and laws as well as the Chinese mindset. Through multi-track diplomacy, I have brought together hundreds of Tibetan and Chinese scholars in unprecedented ways at various large conferences at Harvard.
I am in agreement with Tibet supporters that one tactic is to conduct a thorough examination of existing Chinese laws and use them to alleviate challenges facing Tibetans in Tibet. As Vaclav Havel, the former President of Czech Republic stated in his seminal book, "The Power of the Powerless," when a state mistreats people, it uses law as a justification. Therefore, the power of the oppressed is to utilize the same law to seek redress. It is a win-win proposition, because you can prove either that China does not abide by its own laws if they do not implement their laws or if they do implement, then we can gain our rights. As you might know, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were all lawyers who used their oppressors' laws to gain rights for their people. I humbly feel my years of having studied Chinese politics, Chinese laws and monitoring the legal situation in China will come to good use in our movement.
8. How does religion play a role in your life?
Religion plays an important role in my life. My late father was a monk in Tibet, but disrobed during escape and later settled in India. Everyday, he recited his prayers and imparted to me as a child the importance of religion. My mother, who lives with me, prays daily and still does her 108 prostrations despite knee and back problems. My wife ends her day with a short prayer book. Since August of last year, I have attended three teachings by His Holiness. I hope to attend an upcoming teaching in Dharamsala in September. I am doing my best to fulfill my late father's parting words, that one can only take religion when you leave this world. Obviously, these teachings help me pray for my late father, loved ones, Tibetan compatriots and sentient beings in the world. As the saying goes, "Serving our society is also dharma."
9. You recently visited various Shichaks in India. Where did you go and do you plan to go again?
Just to make it clear, before coming to the US, I had visited many Shichaks in different capacities, including Himachal and Uttaranchal, Mainpat, Bylakuppe, Hunsur, Kollegal and obviously many settlements in Nepal and the North East as I am from the area.
This June I was invited by few organizations to give a workshop on "The State of the Tibetan Movement: Ten Powers." I want to sincerely thank all those who organized the visit to Shichaks, monasteries and schools. It's always a humbling experience to visit the Shichaks, and I feel at home in the Shichak settlements.
This time my India trip took me again to Hunsur, Kollegal, Byllakupe and Dharamsala. But it was my first time to Mundgod. I also visited all the major monasteries in Southern India, and several schools. Altogether with this and previous trips, I have now visited almost sixty percent of all the shichaks, important monasteries belonging to the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Geluk, and Bon traditions, and many TCV and CST schools. I hope to cover seventy five percent of all the shichaks before the preliminary election (Oct. 3rd) for the Kalon Tripa.
In addition to the shichaks and schools in India, I have met hundreds of fellow Tibetans in North America, Europe and Australia. My profession as a scholar enables me to participate in scholarly gatherings around the globe where I have met and interacted with numerous scholars from Tibet as well.
I am a strong believer that one of the best ways to consolidate and energize our democracy is to strengthen the democratic process. I am fortunate to be provided this great honor and fantastic opportunity to be a candidate for this high profile position, so it is incumbent upon me to do my utmost best. I traveled to Shichaks to meet with people, monks in monasteries and students and youth to understand their aspirations, anxieties, optimism and challenges. I strongly believe a good leader is one who interacts with and understands people's mindsets. Hence I urge every potential candidate to travel and meet with fellow Tibetans as such experience will only help you become a better Kalon Tripa.
I have engaged in debate in Switzerland, and in Portland, Oregon, and have an upcoming debate in San Francisco, California. I am doing my best to create awareness about our democratic system, and also learning a lot in the process. I hope that others will follow suit.
10: Are you standing for the post of Kalon Tripa?
I will issue a brief and simple press release explaining why I will go through the preliminary round of the Kalon Tripa election. This is another effort on my part to strengthen our democratic process by taking every formal step of a regular election campaign. So in the next election, candidates will conduct themselves in a like manner and participate as in any other normal election in any other democratic nation. When candidates are actively involved in the election process, voters will also be actively engaged and involved. If this happens, it will be my contribution to the Tibetan community, to our democracy and to our movement.
Please register by August 15th and go vote in both the Chitue and Kalon Tripa election. I wish the candidates all the best and all my Tibetan brothers and sisters a better tomorrow. Tashi Delek