Tibet’s newly elected leader Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-educated legal scholar, assumed office on Monday, the birthday of the Indian guru who, legend has it, subdued the menacing deities of the land and brought Buddhism to Tibet. The timing of his inauguration could not be more apt. Tibetans need all the help they could possibly summon on this journey.
A Tibetan born and raised in India and educated first there and then the US will become the first Kalon Tripa, head of the Tibetan administration in exile, after the Dalai Lama announced his full retirement from politics in March this year. It is a pity that the Chinese government has already branded him as a hot-headed activist seeking independence, someone with whom it will not sit down and talk with.
It is important to know that he is not an enemy of China. Like all Tibetans in exile whose families have suffered from China’s oppression that continues to date, he had taken part in his share of peaceful demonstrations in the past. But what China didn’t say is that the person whom it had branded a “terrorist” had also been working tirelessly over the past decade to build deeper understanding between the Tibetans and the Chinese people.
He had singlehandedly organised countless talks between Chinese scholars and Tibetan counterparts at Harvard, including several meetings between Chinese people and the Dalai Lama. His success in this enormously difficult task is unprecedented. (Even the most liberal of Han Chinese, who would otherwise give their right arm to sit at the feet of Tibetan lamas, would frown upon any assertion that Tibet had once been an independent nation.)
Historian Tsering Shakya had written: “It seems that asking some Chinese intellectuals—be they Communist Party officials, liberal democrats or dissident writers—to think about Tibet in an objective and reasonable manner is like asking an ant to lift an elephant; it is beyond their capabilities and vision. Their perception is impaired by racial prejudice and their imagination clouded by the convictions and certainties of all colonial masters.”
The perception gap is enormous but it is not insurmountable, if only the Chinese people and the government are willing to open up a little. If China hopes that the retirement of the Dalai Lama from active politics and the power of its burgeoning economic and military might will together hit the final nail in the coffin of the Tibetan movement, it is mistaken.
The struggle for Tibetan identity and dignity will only gain momentum with the passage of time and Tibetans will continue to demand – like the people in the rest of the world, particularly as we witnessed this spring in Arab countries – the freedom and justice they deserve. This is the same inside Tibet, as shown by the widespread protests in 2008 and 2009, and also seen in exile. The enthusiasm with which Tibetans in nearly thirty countries participated in the last election, aided by the connectivity of the Internet, has set a powerful example for other stateless communities looking for ways to imagine their homeland in the age of the Internet.
Of many things that this election represents, the most significant is that the baton of the Tibetan freedom movement has been successfully passed on to the new generation born in and raised outside Tibet. These young Tibetans – born not in Lhasa and Amdo but in Darjeeling and Dharamsala – will breathe new life into their struggle and pump much-needed oxygen to the movement fighting a global order asphyxiated by the rise of China.
That Tibetans could hardly imagine a life without the Dalai Lama is not surprising, for generations of Tibetans are used to having the reassuring presence of the Dalai Lama at their helm. However, the implementation of democracy and separation of religion and politics is the right thing to do in the long run, even though some feel as if they had been left rudderless in a rough sea.
Over the years, the Dalai Lama has miraculously helped put the Tibetan community, of which there are only around 100,000 people, on the international map and turn it into a soft power to reckon with. Dharamsala, the capital of displaced Tibet, has been turned from a recommended stop on the Himalayan hippy trail to a common dateline in global media. Even after his retirement, the Dalai Lama’s influence and reach as a global religious leader – unlike athletes, spiritual masters only get better with age – will only likely increase.
Earlier this month, he gave Tibetan Buddhism’s most powerful teachings in Washington DC, in an event attended by many Chinese followers, and spoke to nearly 20, 000 people in front of the US Capitol, quite a difficult scene to imagine when China is intimidating every possible country in the world, including the US, to give the cold shoulder to the Tibetan leader.
The reason is simple. However large a trade surplus China runs with the rest of the world, its treatment of Tibet will be a stain on its resume. It is high time that they acknowledge this fact and sit down and talk to Tibet’s new leader.