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Interview with Tibetan Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay.

Aired October 5, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Here, in the foothills of India's Himalayas, lies the town of Dharamshala. A somewhat sleepy settlement that has become popular with foreign tourists. For more than half a century, it's also been home to the Tibetan government in exile.

And it is here the Dalai Lama has reigned as the spiritual and political head since he fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. But, in March this year, he announced he would relinquish his political duties. That paved the way for a democratic election among Tibetan exiles.

The winner? Lobsang Sangay, who became the new Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister. The Harvard graduate is not a monk, nor has he ever stepped foot in Tibet. He won on a campaign of "The Middle Way". The Dalai Lama's held policy of seeking true autonomy, not independence for the Tibetan People within China.

LOBSANG SANGAY, TIBETAN KALON TRIPA: Long live his holiness, the Dalai Lama.

SIDNER: The 43-year-old was inaugurated in a ceremony steeped in tradition and ritual. Morning prayers at a monastery, cups of butter tea and sweetened rice. And an official blessing by the man he'll replace.

This week on "Talk Asia", we sit down with the new Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, to find out how he plans to continue the Dalai Lama's vision for Tibet's future. Plus, he takes us on the streets of Dharamshala and reveals his strategy for communicating with the Chinese authorities.


SIDNER: Well, welcome to "Talk Asia".

SANGAY: Thank you, Sara.

SIDNER: You are now officially the head of the Tibetan government in exile. The Dalai Lama is obviously known around the world as the person who really brought the Tibetan issue to the world stage. How will you continue to make this an issue?

SANGAY: Sara, as you rightly pointed out, His Holiness, one can say, single-handedly internationalized the Tibet issue. In that sense, my job is a lot easier because I have to be the secondary voice - political voice at the international level so that people understand the situation in Tibet and that it's tragic and that it needs to be addressed. So, in some ways, my voice will be a compliment to what His Holiness has already done so much for Tibet and Tibetan people.

SIDNER: Do you feel like it's a bit of a hard act to follow, though?

SANGAY: Not just hard act, hardest act. I think that I shouldn't have even tried to follow his footsteps. Rather, my responsibilities and expectation is to fulfill his vision. That is that Tibetan movement becomes stronger and sustained for prolonged period of time.

SIDNER: There's more than 300 years of history where the Dalai Lama has been chosen by, what his followers believe, is divine right instead of by, you know, average human beings - people voting him into place. Why is this change happening now? Why this shift that now the political head of the government in exile is different from the spiritual head of the government in exile?

SANGAY: His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, all along, for the last 60 years, has been taking gradual steps to establish genuine democracy. Now, in 2011, His Holiness thinks this is the right time, because he has been the leader for the last 60 years. It's high time he gives up, or divorces political power to an elected leader. And then, we have political movement moving forward independently and standing on our own feet.

SIDNER: The Dalai Lama has had what many people would say - it's a very Buddhist-centric policy when it comes to how he believes Tibet should be dealt with. In 50 plus years, his wish for Tibet has not come true. Has it worked?

SANGAY: It's the lack of reciprocity from the Chinese government side. That is the stalemate. So, as far as I'm concerned, I will continue with the Middle-Way policy and extend our hand to solve the issue of Tibet peacefully. On a basis of win-win proposition for genuine autonomy within the People's Republic of China. That is still on the table. Now, what will be slightly different will be that I will be more forthright and frank about the realities in Tibet.

Present Tibet is a tragedy. Chinese government promised us Socialist paradise in early 50s. 60 years after, what you see is not Socialist paradise.

SIDNER: What is it that you see now in Tibet?

SANGAY: There is no Socialism. There is colonialism. There is no paradise, there is a tragedy. Tibetans are suffering on a daily basis and the Chinese government know it very well because many leaders went to Lhasa to observe the 60th anniversary of so-called peaceful liberation of Tibet. But then, they did it under undeclared martial law with troops roaming the streets of Lhasa, with sharpshooters on the rooftops, you know? And even tourists were banned from visiting Tibet during those times. So, it's very clear, Beijing knows that their rule, or their hard-line policies is definitely not working.

SIDNER: You've never been to Tibet. You're not allowed to go there. You've never visited. What qualifies you, as a Harvard grad who lived in both the U.S. and in India - what qualifies you as a representative of the people who live there?

SANGAY: Number one, the Tibetan population in exile includes Tibetans who flee from Tibet every year. Hundreds, sometimes thousands. So, the population exile are the people from Tibet. That's number one. Number two is, in the Tibetan world, I am the only one who has the most vote. And, most importantly, no one in Tibet - Chinese or Tibetan leaders - have more mandate than me. I doubt any one of them got even single vote from Tibetan people to be their leader. And it is the Communist party who have imposed these, you know, leaders on Tibetan people whether they like it or accept it or not.

SIDNER: The Dalai Lama - we'll go back to him. Because he is, perhaps - he is - he's the most famous Tibetan in the world. What in the world makes you think you might be able to make a change? As everyone knows him?

SANGAY: Just look around the world, actually, you know? If you look Arab Spring, if you look at Berlin Wall, if you look at Soviet Union at one time, color revolution, Indian Freedom movement - there's so many successful nonviolent models that we can follow. And we believe that, like them, we will succeed as well. Because, even after 60 years of occupation, our Tibetan spirit is very, very strong and it is rooted in Buddhism, which is 2600 plus years old. Communism is just hundred some years old. So, philosophically speaking, we will definitely last lot longer than the Communism and the Communist Party.


SIDNER: That sounds like a challenge to the Chinese.

SANGAY: It's not a challenge, it's a fact.



SIDNER: So, we're on the streets of Dharamsala?


SIDNER: What would you say are the day-to-day issues, though, that Tibetan exiles face?

SANGAY: On a day-to-day basis, yes, a lot of things, you know? Obviously, the big question is always thinking of Tibet, Tibetan people back home. But, individually, you know, finding job, taking care of your family. And those who have come from Tibet, let's say for 10, 20 years ago, they have never met their families back home, you know? So I'm sure they go through a lot of -

SIDNER: Mental struggle - mental strife.

SANGAY: Yes. Yes. A lot of memories.

SIDNER: You are very familiar with politics and how campaigns are run in the U.S. and in India. They can be very fierce. People go after the candidates. Each candidate is fighting with each other, saying bad things about the other. I read that on your campaign trail, you actually shared cabs and hotel rooms with the other candidates.


SIDNER: How's that work?

SANGAY: As a Tibetan, Buddhist campaign. We took a taxi from here, the other person who lost and me, and we drove - I think, normally, it takes 12 hours. I think 13 or 14 hours to Delhi. And then we stayed in same hotel. Not just in same hotel, they had only two rooms.

SIDNER: Wasn't there any animosity? You're all going for the same thing.

SANGAY: Yes. In fact, we shared one room. We had breakfast, we shared campaign tips, and we are still friends. And so that's how we run a campaign.

SIDNER: How hard was it for you, a person who came from humble beginnings, has done very well - went to Harvard and now a scholar, people listen to you - how hard was it for you to come back here, take a huge pay cut, I would imagine, and have to deal with some very tough issues?

SANGAY: It is where I was born and this is what I have to do, because I am a Tibetan. If I don't, who will? So I'm asked by the people. I asked for it, they supported me, and I will do it. So, mentally, I'm at the right place.

SIDNER: I want to ask you one more question about you as a person. You're married?


SIDNER: You have children?

SANGAY: Yes. Daughter.

SIDNER: What - how's your family going to be involved, you think? Will they stay here or will they stay back in the U.S.?

SANGAY: Yes, they are here for the inauguration, but they will be leaving me soon. That's a very difficult question, you know? It will be a separated life, at least for the time being. I'm more or less like an absentee father, I must confess, you know? Because I travel a lot for the sake of Tibet. In some ways, even my wife and daughter is contributing their bit for the cause. So, in the long run, I hope my daughter will understand.



SIDNER: When you were younger, you started out as a Tibetan refugee. What was that like?

SANGAY: Yes, my parents met in a very small village called Lamahata. Eight, nine Tibetan families at most, surrounded by Nepalese people, you know? So, I spoke, actually, Nepalese language more than Tibetan at one time. We all had acre of land for each family, two, three cows. So, I spent my childhood, actually, going to forest, fetching wood, and you know, chasing hen and picking eggs. And my parents sold one of their cows to send me to the Tibetan refugee school.

SIDNER: Explain to me what happened to your family. Did your father ever tell you the story of him coming here and what that was like in 1959?

SANGAY: Very painful. For he was a monk and his monastery was bombarded and reduced to rubbles in 1956. Then he joined the guerilla force to fight against the Chinese Red Army. And, of all things, he was made in charge of arms and ammunitions. Can you imagine a monk become arms and ammunitions?

And then his sister - actually, her husband - fought against the Chinese and she was labeled a rebel. And she had to endure, really, not only her husband got killed - on a weekly basis, she was paraded in her village and all her neighbors taunted her, abuse her, insulted her. So she found it so unbearable that she jumped into a river. She was pregnant with an infant. So, all these painful stories, our parents' experience, lives in the heart - memories, actually.

Despite all that, I still believe in nonviolence.

SIDNER: You went around and talked to many, many Tibetans. Tibetans mostly living in exile, obviously. What are some of the major things that you're hearing that they're struggling with as they live in exile?

SANGAY: In '95-'96, when I came here to interview former political prisoners, they tell you in harrowing details, what they been through.

SIDNER: Torture?

SANGAY: Torture. And then different kinds of tortures. Obviously beating. You know, putting you in cold room without any clothes. And one of the worst one is what they call cattle prod. It's an electric shock used for cattles. It's so powerful it will throw you off between six to 12 feet and you go unconscious. You urinate, you even bleed. They use that in, you know, very sensitive parts of - even nuns. We have nuns here who have experienced that.

SIDNER: China's going to deny this, almost guaranteed. And they may also say, "If you want to have a conversation with us, and you keep bringing this up, we're not going to talk to you. You're telling lies". What do you say to that?

SANGAY: One evidence they cannot deny is, every year, hundreds of Tibetans cross miles and mountains and come to Dharamsala. Why would anyone do that? Why would parents send their six or 10 or 12-years-old kid to India, to a strange place, with no one else? Why? Because Tibetans are not happy in Tibet. And, if Chinese government really deny all these things and say they are the legitimate leader or the government. Then, you know, we can have election or vote in Tibet and make Tibetan choose between the Dalai Lama and Hu Jintao, or the party secretary in Tibet autonomous region and me - I'm pretty sure that, even though I'm not a well-known person, you know? But given a choice, Tibetans in Tibet will choose a Tibetan any day than a Chinese.

SIDNER: That sounds like a challenge to the Chinese.

SANGAY: It's not a challenge. It's a fact. If we are not saying the truth, Chinese government can have referendum and prove us wrong.


SIDNER: What is it that you want from China? What are the main things that you will be asking for?




SIDNER: The year was 1951, and a newly formed Communist China had taken control of Tibet, enforcing its claim by sending troops to the region. Mao Zedong's government promised Tibetans autonomy under Chinese rule, but Tibetans felt China did not deliver on its promise. So, in March, 1959, ethnic Tibetans took to the streets in an uprising against Chinese rule. A move crushed by Chinese troops.

As a result, the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fled their homes and crossed the Himalayas to seek refuge in India, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile reside today. This would be the beginning of decades of tensions between Tibetans and the Chinese government.

The end of the 1980s brought two years of sometimes-violent unrest in and around Tibet as monks, nuns, and lay-people staged protests. It was an outcry against what they say was Chinese suppression of Tibetan culture and worship. There was also anger about the influx of Han Chinese in Tibet, who Tibetans say were taking the best jobs.

Most recently, in March, 2008, Tibetan monks took to the streets once again to voice their discontent with Chinese rule. A number of people were reportedly killed and injured during the clashes. Today, the Chinese flag flies over Potala palace, once the home of the current Dalai Lama. Signifying the prevailing Communist leadership.

Beijing continues to refute claims that Chinese rule is damaging the region. Rather, authorities insist that their presence has brought economic growth and prosperity to the Tibetan people.


SIDNER: There's really no doubt about the fact that many people's lives have improved economically as China has grown economically. What about the argument that Tibetans were better off if they just went ahead and accepted China as their government?

SANGAY: The question is, who are the primary beneficiary? For example, it is reported by NGO (ph) that 70 percent of private sector jobs, businesses, hotels, restaurants, even taxis are owned or run by Chinese in Tibet. More than 50 percent of Communist Party cadre - government officials from, you know, drivers, postmen, to the top leadership are Chinese.

Around 40 percent of Tibetans with high school or college degrees are unemployed. That is why there are bound to be protests and that is why they are bound to resistance from the Tibetan side.

SIDNER: Is it going to be more difficult for you to have conversations with a government that's been pretty constant with its policy on Tibet. It has not changed its mind.

SANGAY: Clearly, yes. With a great economy and military might, China has more power. But, no matter how much you repress, it has not worked. Also, China will gain something if they solve the issue of Tibet. They have money power and military power, as you said, but no moral power. China will not be respected if they continue to repress Tibetan people. If they want respect, they have to earn it. They have to earn it by performing a noble act. Performing an act which is based on universal freedom and human rights for Tibetan people.

SIDNER: What is it that you want from China? What are the main things that you will be asking for?

SANGAY: Genuine autonomy for Tibetans, so that we can preserve, protect our identity, our culture, our custom, our tradition, and have our basic human freedom, you know? That is what we're asking. And it's on the table. It's in written form. And, if you read the memorandum on genuine autonomy, it essentially says, if the Chinese government implements its own laws, which have several provisions that Tibetans can use their own language, have their own culture, and have their own education system - Tibetan language ought to be encouraged. That's the word.

Now, what is happening now is Tibetan language is discouraged at university level, high school level, middle school level, even at primary school level. They want Chinese to be the medium of instruction. So, these are in clear violation of their own laws.

SIDNER: The comments China officials have made about you is that you're illegitimate and they've gone as far as to say that you're a terrorist because of your activities in protest against Chinese policy on Tibet. What do you make of that? And how will you sit down with a government that calls you a terrorist?

SANGAY: Well, I was sitting down with Chinese scholars for the last 16 years at Harvard University. I'm the same guy. I didn't have to talk to Chinese students and scholars. I did, because I believed in that law. And they came and they participated in my conferences. And they are Communist Party members. And the Chinese government knew they were agreeing. And we have had our laws.

Now, after the election, I have remained the same. Same principals, same approach. The Chinese government has changed their tune. That is not my fault, right?

SIDNER: How long do you think it might take?

SANGAY: As long as it is necessary, definitely. But, you know, who knew Arab spring would happen? Until recently, I've been reading about, you know, oh, Islam and Democracy are not compatible. Things change in the world.

SIDNER: Thank you so much. Perfect ending.