Tibetan President-in-Exile Lobsang Sangay visits Yale to talk about autonomy

Written by Max Krupnick

In mid-February, President of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) Lobsang Sangay spoke to around fifty Yale students in a talk hosted by Davenport College and the Yale Political Union. Sangay has headed the Tibetan-government-in-exile since 2011.

One year into his term as Kalon Tripa (prime minister), the Dalai Lama requested that Sangay assume the role of sikyong (ruler), removing the religious leader from the political organization.

Without an autonomous territory to govern, the CTA operates differently than other governments. Its leaders cannot enter Tibet — they would be immediately arrested by Chinese authorities — so they operate out of India. Sangay himself has never lived in Tibet. The body governs Tibetan people, providing education, refugee resettlement, and infrastructure. Their mission is to return to a Tibet which acts as an autonomous region within China.

The CTA is a thriving democracy. “The uniqueness of Tibetan democracy is that you have to pay a voluntary freedom tax to vote,” said Sangay. Tibetans elect a 46 member parliament who are obliged to answer any and all questions and concerns from their constituents. He continued, “it is a partyless democracy… Do you see any kind of democracy like that? They ask questions, we answer.”

Sangay’s administration places Tibetan cultural preservation at the core of its mission. The president-in-exile describes their school system as “a bird of two wings: modern and traditional.” Through primary school, pupils are taught exclusively in Tibetan, ensuring that the nation’s mother tongue survives.

Lacking the legitimacy which comes with national sovereignty, Sangay must travel around the world to educate people on why Tibet matters. At Yale, he began by discussing water: Tibet’s glacial melt form Asia’s major waterways, including 40% of the Indus River. “Up to 1.4 billion people are reliant on Tibet for water,” said Sangay. “Tibet is the water tower of Asia. China controls that water tower, and China hasn’t signed the UN water-sharing agreement.” China’s lack of cooperation has allowed the nation to build dams at an unprecedented quantity and scale.

Tibet’s glaciers are fast disappearing: in the last 16 years, 50% have melted. In reference to global climate change, “Tibet is called the third pole,” said Sangay. Around 70% of the region is covered in permafrost, under which lie significant greenhouse gas reserves. “No one would deny global warming exists if that amount of carbon dioxide [were to be released].”

Buddhism, both as a cultural phenomenon and a religion, helps cement Tibet’s importance in the global narrative.

“In this day and age, mindfulness is big,” said Sangay. “If you really want to understand mindfulness, you need to understand Buddhism. If you want to understand Buddhism, you need to understand Tibetan language and culture… the Chinese policy is to discourage Tibetan language. We have to preserve Tibetan language. If we don’t, we won’t know what Buddha said.”

Many Tibetans fear that the Chinese government will attempt to name a new Dalai Lama when the current Lama dies. Sangay believes that if China chooses to do so, that leader will not be seen as legitimate. “It’s like Kim [Jong-Un] choosing a pope and expecting Catholics to follow… Yes, you can buy politicians, but you can’t buy faith….On a spiritual front, we have already won vis a vis the Chinese government. We knew we would win: Buddhism is 3,000 years old and communism is 100.”

Tibet’s struggle for autonomy is often silenced before it can leave the nation. Freedom House ranked Tibet as the second least free country in the world for the fourth year in a row, only more free than Syria, and Reporters Without Borders has stated that it is harder to work and get into Tibet than North Korea.

“Not many people know the real situation in Tibet because the media doesn’t have access. The moment there is a protest in Tibet, everything shuts down: internet, phone, everything,” said Sangay. The yearning for international attention has contributed to a dramatic rise in self-immolations in recent years.

Sangay warned other nations, specifically developing nations, of China’s dangerous allure.

“What happened in Tibet 60 years ago is happening in Africa,” said Sangay. China exerts its influence by funding infrastructure and hiring local government officials as consultants. “In Tibet, 1 road has led to 1000 roads. And all the roads confidently lead to our minerals!” China’s annexation of Tibet created a direct border between India and China. “India: what happened to Tibet could happen to you,” said Sangay. “In the 1950s, Indians believed that by giving China Tibet, there would be ‘peace.’ Chinese influence has now come to all the border regions.”

Around the globe, the president-in-exile faces protest from Chinese officials, students, and nationals. During a recent trip to a South African university, administrators were pressured to cancel his talk. Ultimately, they allowed him to meet, but Sangay was met by a crowd of Chinese students.

“When you see this protest, the banners are really well made,” remarked Sangay. “It’s all staged and bought.”

Sangay prides himself on Chinese-Tibetan diplomacy, holding multiple summits between leaders and students during his time at Harvard. “If there are Chinese students, I welcome them. I truly welcome them,” said Sangay. “I was an activist when I was young. I gave them a big smile and a peace sign… I can speak in South Africa about Tibet and not be thrown in jail.”

At the end of his talk, the president-in-exile urged Yalies to stand up for Tibet by starting a Students for a Free Tibet chapter, inviting Tibetan speakers to campus, and promoting Tibetan culture. Steps are being made to recognize Tibet on campus, including the new course “Tibet: An Enduring Civilization,” recently profiled by the Yale Daily News.