Tibetan's New Leader Won't Replace Dalai Lama

For centuries, the Dalai Lama has served as both spiritual and political leader for Tibetans. Now, for the first time, they have elected a secular political leader. The Dalai Lama, however, will remain the spiritual head. Host Liane Hansen speaks with newly elected Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, the political leader of Tibet's government-in-exile.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

For centuries, the Dalai Lama has served as both spiritual and political leader for Tibetans. Now, for the first time, they have an elected secular political leader. The Dalai Lama will remain the spiritual head. Tibetans living in exile across the globe elected Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay to run the government-in-exile from its base in Dharamsala, India. He joins us from our New York studio. Thank you for your time, Mr. Prime Minister.

Prime Minister LOBSANG SANGAY (Tibet): Thank you for the invitation, Liane Hansen.

HANSEN: Will the Tibetan community accept anyone other than the Dalai Lama as political leader? In other words, how will you earn their trust?

Mr. SANGAY: It will be gradual, but I think it's a good beginning because Tibetans in 30 countries voted for me overwhelmingly and also, it's as per the authorization of His Holiness Dalai Lama that the head of the government-of-exile be the political spokesman and face of the Tibetan people. In that sense, I will enjoy his extended traditional and political legitimacy as well as the democratic legitimacy of being elected.

So hence, I have a good foundation, and I have to work hard to win over the trust and faith and support of the Tibetan people inside and outside as well.

HANSEN: Is the creation of this position meant to safeguard the Tibetan community and create a long-lasting government in the event that the Chinese government attempts to intervene in the future of Tibet?

Mr. SANGAY: I think His Holiness himself said that he is devolving his political power to elected leaders so that it is in the best interest of Tibet and Tibetan people in the long run. Because there was a lot of resistance from Tibetans all across the world. And we went through anxious moments and emotionally, it's very difficult to accept. But His Holiness - his vision is to have a democratic secular society which will last as long as it takes to restore freedom in Tibet.

HANSEN: What will you do if the Chinese government refutes the Tibetan Buddhist leader's choice of the next Dalai Lama? Is there a possibility there could be two?

Mr. SANGAY: Well, Chinese government is likely to do that. Whatever they do, it should not make much difference because His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the ultimate authority on who the next Dalai Lama should be. He is the reincarnation, and he himself explained very carefully the idea of reincarnation is to fulfill the mission and vision of the previous incarnate Lama, which means if His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is to pass away in exile, he will be born in exile.

As far as Chinese attempts - in this regard is likely to fail because faith is matter of heart and mind. You cannot force faith. You cannot buy faith. Faith is in your heart, and Tibetans' faith and loyalty is with the Dalai Lama. And his decision is to be born outside of Tibet if the solution of Tibet is not found while he's alive.

HANSEN: Has the U.S. government offered its support?

Mr. SANGAY: Yes. U.S. government has continued to support on humanitarian issues, and on moral issues, by promoting dialogue between Chinese government and His Holiness Dalai Lama. But we want the U.S. government to do more - to be more forthright, to be more forceful, to be more persuasive in nudging the Chinese government towards dialogue whereby we could solve the issue of Tibet peacefully for genuine autonomy within the framework of the Chinese government, which is the stated policy of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

HANSEN: Is it possible, though, for the United States to openly support you - I mean, considering its trade and its financial ties with China?

Mr. SANGAY: You know, the founding principles of the United States, and the freedom struggle of the United States and the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama all indicates that there are many, many other principles - like freedom, morality, civil liberties - which are underlying values ingrained in American people, in America as a country. We want to tap into it. We want America and American people to see their own past and where they have come from, and where they have reach.

Four years ago, President Barack Obama was, you know, seen as not a possible candidate who could succeed and win the presidency - and he did. That's the American story. And we want to repeat American story in Tibet as well. Though it looks daunting, though it looks difficult - some say even unrealistic - but this is possible because His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a genuine partner of peace. The Chinese government should seize this opportunity, and have dialogue and the organization to solve the issue peacefully, and Americans to support this initiative.

HANSEN: What kind of relationship will you have now with the Dalai Lama? Will you consult him on political matters?

Mr. SANGAY: You know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been our leader since the age of 19. So, he was vast experience and I, for one, would surely seek his guidance and advice on important political matters. And he himself has stated that if asked, he will offer guidance and advice. And I'm looking forward to seeking guidance and advice from him.

HANSEN: Lobsang Sangay is the newly elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. He joined us from New York. Thank you very much.

Mr. SANGAY: Thank you very much, Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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