Blog: How it feels to lead a nationless nation

13th June 2017

Guest post by Charlotte Wigram-Evans

An interview with Dr Lobsang Sangay

Dr Lobsang Sangay heads a government no country recognises, leading a people who have no nation into a future far more uncertain than post-Brexit Britain. He is the Tibetan prime minister in exile and his people look to him for something monumental — they look to him for the return of their homeland.

China invaded, or in its eyes liberated, Tibet in 1950. More than a million Tibetans died through execution, torture, labour camps or starvation. Around 150,000 escaped, making the perilous journey across the Himalayas to India, where 68 years on, most still remain.  But six million stayed behind.

Today, while China insists it has brought development to a backwards nation, Tibetans claim that patriotic re-education campaigns, imprisoning protesters and flooding the country with Han Chinese immigrants is eradicating their identity.

And Sangay must look on as, in sheer desperation, his countrymen douse their bodies in petrol and set themselves alight. Almost 150 Tibetans have self-immolated. He is powerless within Tibet but outside, together with the Dalai Lama, he is the people’s greatest hope.

It is Sangay’s second term in office, the second time too that Tibetans have democratically elected a prime minister. Moving away from a four-hundred-year-old tradition, the Dalai Lama absolved all his political authority in 2011. Sangay still closely consults him and, following his example, is seeking autonomy within China rather than independence but, despite having the ear of the Dalai Lama, he has learnt that leadership is a lonely place:

It doesn’t matter what others tell you. Ultimately, you have to make the call. Things are never black and white, and then you make a decision and it affects some people negatively, but you have to make that call. So yes, it is a lonely place.

It must be all the more lonely, one imagines, when you are constantly fighting for recognition, repeatedly snubbed by leaders around the world. The fact that it is globally accepted that Tibet is part of China, and that in exile Tibetans are guests to their host nations, means not a single country formerly recognises his government.

In spite of what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, Sangay emits a kind of calm confidence:

You have to have a sense of equanimity and impermanence deep down in your mind. If you don’t, this job will kill you. Everybody says to me, ‘China is so powerful no one can stand up to it, no country bothers with you, no leaders will meet you, you’re fundraising to keep afloat.’ If you think of just one factor it might give someone depression. My job is to challenge all these things, to face all these things, but the most important part of my job is to connect the dots.

Sangay views life as having a beginning and an end with a bridge in between. It is connecting that beginning with the end that is both the most difficult, and the most important part. His beginning is Tibet’s occupation. His end is Tibet’s freedom. The middle is where the unsung heroes must fill the void — where they must connect the dots:

As long as I am here, as long as I pass responsibility to the next Sikyong (prime minister) I have done my job. Now I hope that the end comes during my time, you have to hope, you have to fight, but even if it does not I will have been one of those small connecting dots. Every Tibetan must be one. Me as a Sikyong, I am just one individual; it’s my Kashag (cabinet), it’s the community as a whole. We have to connect the dots – if one person does not, we become weaker.

That one part of the bridge will not be built is Sangay’s biggest fear, but Tibetans, he has learnt, are far from weak:

Tibetologists used to insist that there was prevailing sense of hopelessness in my country. That Tibetans didn’t care about their identity any more, about their language, about the freedom struggle. Then in 2008 there was a huge uprising. It shocked the experts, but I wasn’t surprised. I always knew that we were strong.

In exile too, Sangay is proud of how resilient his countrymen show themselves to be:

There are 200m displaced people in the world. If you compare us with other refugees, we have managed to set up an administration, we run our own schools, hospitals, settlements, monasteries. In fact, we share our Buddhist ideals and principles with the international community. Despite lacking many things, this is a very effectively-run administration.

Today, few people even remember a free Tibet. Three generations, including Sangay, have been born in exile and every year more and more Tibetans move to the west. Alongside physical survival, therefore, Sangay tasks himself with the challenge of protecting his people’s culture, fuelling their passion for their identity and for their homeland.

He travels constantly, visiting almost every Tibetan settlement worldwide every year: 

Even if it is only 10 people I show up. Connection is the key. One person recently said to me that he had heard all my speeches but to see me in person was different, both emotionally and psychologically. It made him feel like I cared. That is of the utmost importance to me.

Sangay’s commitment seems to be working. Last year 69,000 exiled Tibetans voted in over 30 countries. Cultural gatherings that a few years ago were attended only by a handful of elderly people are now full of feisty twenty-something- year-olds clamouring for the political stage.  For him, it is this ‘doing’ that truly proves dedication:

You might think you are Tibetan, and say you are Tibetan when you have had a glass of beer, but when you actually do it, that is different. In that sense our future is good — why? Because the younger generations are taking responsibility.

And in some ways the future of exiled Tibetans is good. They are economically self-reliant, well educated and becoming simultaneously more politically aware and culturally proud. This is all very well, but if they are ever to go home and live freely, China must be brought on side.

Official talks with the superpower ceased in 2010. Its government scoffs at Sangay’s administration, refuses to meet him, and mistrusts the Dalai Lama so deeply that his becoming a hermit would be unlikely to assuage their belief that he is plotting an uprising.

So Sangay hopes for the best but prepares for the worst, praying that China will see reason and restart autonomy talks. In the meantime he looks to the international community for help and, in this, one sees just how far-reaching Brexit ripples will be:

When Europe is distracted China gets a free ride. During the Iraq and Afghan war, for example, America was preoccupied and China got a decade to do whatever it wanted.  It consolidated its own power, getting the money without democracy. Now, for the next five years the EU will be distracted with Brexit and will focus less on human rights. You can be certain that China will once again take advantage of it.

World leaders must be reminded that money isn't everything; there is also a moral imperative. The basic principles of the UK's constitution, of the EU’s, of America’s, are based on freedom and justice. So they should stand up for freedom and justice around the world, including in China and Tibet.

What was already a lonely leadership seems destined to become even more so, but Sangay will never stop trying to build his bridge to a free Tibet. Whether he succeeds or fails is up to us.

Charlotte is a journalist at The Sunday Times and spent time in McLeod Ganj last year, writing for the local monthly magazine, Contact. While there, she conducted this interview with Dr Lobsang Sangay.