Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard scholar, took office yesterday as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, vowing to free his homeland from Chinese “colonialism.”
After being sworn in at a colorful ceremony in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, Sangay warned China that the Tibet movement was “here to stay” and would only grow stronger in the waning years of the Dalai Lama.
In an historic shift from the dominance of Tibetan politics by religious figures, the new prime minister, who has never set foot in Tibet, is assuming the political leadership role relinquished by the 76-year-old Dalai Lama in May.
In his inauguration speech, Sangay sought to dismiss concerns that the Dalai Lama’s advancing years and eventual death would mark the demise of the movement.
Sangay said his election in April had sent “a clear message to the hardliners in the Chinese -government that Tibetan leadership is far from fizzling out.”
He pledged to sustain the movement “until freedom is restored to Tibet,” stressing that the fight was “not against the Chinese people or China as a country.”
“Our struggle is against the hardline policies of the Chinese regime in Tibet ... against those who would deny freedom, justice, dignity and the very identity of the Tibetan people,” he said.
“There is no ‘socialism’ in Tibet. There is colonialism. Chinese rule in Tibet is clearly unjust and untenable,” he said.
Sangay’s age and former membership of the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress have fueled speculation that he may harbor a radical agenda of seeking full independence for Tibet.
In his speech, however, he stressed his commitment to the principle of non-violence and support for the Dalai Lama’s “middle-way” policy which seeks “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet under Chinese rule.
Despite devolving some powers to a democratically elected prime minister, the Dalai Lama will remain Tibet’s spiritual leader and a major influence on major policy-making.
The political transition makes Sangay a far more prominent figure than his predecessor as prime minister, but the challenges he faces are daunting.
The government-in-exile is not recognized by any foreign states, and its legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans in Tibet might be questioned without the Dalai Lama’s patronage.
Born and raised in the northeast Indian tea-growing region around Darjeeling, Sangay went on to study at Delhi University before completing a master’s degree at Harvard Law School.
He took up residency in the US and became a senior fellow at the school.
His profile is not unusual among the new generation of exiled Tibetan activists who, while observant Buddhists, see their professional qualifications as a crucial asset for leadership.
Yesterday’s ceremony, presided over by the Dalai Lama, was held in the Tsuglagkhang Temple, the spiritual center of Dharamsala where the government-in-exile is based.
After traditional offerings of tea and sweetened rice, Sangay took the oath of office at exactly nine seconds after 9:09am, the number nine being auspicious.