Dr. Lobsang Sangay is the democratically elected leader of the government-in-exile that has led Tibetan people around the world since its formation in 1959. The country has been under the rule of Communist China since 1951, and continues to seek to regain its political autonomy.
Sangay, 47, was elected as Sikyong — the head of Tibet’s Cabinet, equivalent to the office of prime minister — in 2011. Upon Sangay’s election, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, announced the transfer of his political authority to the office of Sikyong. Currently, Sangay is seeking re-election, which he is expected to win in a runoff election scheduled for March 20.
Born in Darjeeling, India, Sangay earned bachelor’s degrees in English and law from India’s Delhi University, master’s and law degrees from Harvard University. He also was a Fulbright scholar. Since assuming the office of Sikyong, Sangay has worked to unify and energize the Tibetan people and build global awareness of the issues of Tibetan autonomy and cultural identity.
Sangay was in Birmingham on February 15-17, following up on the Dalai Lama’s visit to the city in 2014. He attended a dinner in his honor, given by the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations, and spoke to students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham about human rights. He also sat for an interview with Weld publisher Mark Kelly, which is excerpted below.
Kelly: Let me start by asking what brings you to Birmingham.
Sangay: When you study and read about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., Birmingham obviously comes into the picture very prominently. You read about Martin Luther King being here, the marches, the rallies. I have seen pictures of the protests during those days, the water hoses and dogs and all that. So when I was driving through downtown, I could visualize the images of what happened here, almost like a snapshot, and I thought, This is where the changes happened.
And it was done nonviolently. For me, and for the Tibetan people, that is an inspiration. We can connect with the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, and reflect on the symbolism of what that means around the world. So this visit to Birmingham is special for me. Birmingham is one of the success stories of nonviolence, and I can take a piece of that with me, back to the people of Tibet.
The fact that His Holiness came here, invited by Mayor Bell, and filled your baseball stadium shows that people are interested. It showed the openness of the city of Birmingham, and it resonated in the support shown to [the Dalai Lama] and the Tibetan people. It helps us to understand what is possible.
Kelly: What do you want people in Birmingham to know about your country?
Sangay: I feel that people around the world ought to know what’s going on in Tibet. There is a saying: Silence is complicity. So I have come here to make a case for why the Tibetan movement is relevant for people in America, and for people in Birmingham. We are facing challenges that are similar to the challenges that the people in this great city went through, and we believe that, like you succeeded, we also will succeed.
Tibet is important. People might think of Tibet as just a tiny country in the Himalayas, but actually, it is huge. It is as big as Texas and California combined, 2.5 million square kilometers of land.
Environmentally, Tibet is vital for the rest of the world. The climate of South America is affected by the jet stream over Tibet. Tibet is a high plateau. It’s called the “third pole,” because after the Arctic and Antarctic, Tibet has the third-highest presence of ice. The difference is, with the Arctic and Antarctic, when the ice melts, the water goes to the ocean. When the ice from the 46,000 Tibetan glaciers melts, it melts into fresh water, into rivers that flow through a whole region, and affects 1.4 billion people directly. All of the major rivers of Asia are affected.
Now, because of globalization, industrialization, urbanization, deforestation, the glaciers of Tibet are melting very fast. In the last 100 years, 50 percent of Tibetan glaciers have disappeared. The 46,000 glaciers that we have now, 50 percent of those will disappear by 2050. By 2100, 82 percent will disappear.
Kelly: Those are sobering facts. What are the implications?
Sangay: China has 19 percent of the world population, but only 12 percent of fresh water, and maybe 400 million Chinese are facing a scarcity of fresh water already. India has 18 percent of the world population, but less than 10 percent of fresh water. Then there’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, all of these highly populated neighboring countries with the same issue.
Tibet is vital from an environmental and climate point of view. It’s like the air conditioner for the rest of the world, because of the ice that is there. It cools the earth. Because of global warming, the glaciers are melting faster. The glaciers melt, Tibet is warmer, which makes the earth warmer. You can see the vicious cycle.
Geopolitically, also, Tibet is vital. When Tibet was free, it acted as the buffer between China and India. Once Tibet was removed as the buffer, now you have China and India facing each other, and they have a 2,000-kilometer border dispute. Any small incident along that border could trigger into major things. Here are these two countries facing each other, and China is interfering in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh. And India is forming alliances with Japan and Mongolia. So you can clearly see these two giants facing each other, and the biggest arms race that is going on in the world today is in Asia. Some experts say the preparation for the Third World War is happening there, not in the Middle East.
Kelly: What about the implications from a religious standpoint?
Sangay: What Communist China is trying to do is destroy Tibetan civilization. Between 1956 and 1963, 98 percent of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, reduced to rubble, and 99.9 percent of monks and nuns were disrobed. The Communist Party wanted to destroy the source and foundation of Tibetan identity.
There was some opening in the early 1980s, and the first thing the Tibetans did was begin to rebuild the monasteries. Tibetans are a deeply rooted, spiritual people. One hundred and forty-two Tibetans have burned themselves, committed self-immolation, to protest this treatment by China. They are desperate, and they are determined. They are sending a message around the world: This is how much we are suffering. Even though we explicitly and consistently discourage self-immolation, they are still doing it.
That is why it’s very important for the rest of the world to know the Tibetan narrative, so they can fully understand China. Magazines and newspapers and television show you the growing economy of China. And it is a success story, an important story. But unless you know the Tibetan narrative, you will never know China. That’s what I have come to remind people.
Kelly: In that effort, what does success look like for you?
Sangay: His Holiness the Dalai Lama envisioned a very moderate and realistic solution. That is to seek genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within China’s constitution, so that we can preserve our culture and language, our own education and local governance. As far as sovereignty is concerned, we will not challenge China. We refer to that solution as “the Middle Way,” because it is a win-win proposition. Again, like the Civil Rights Movement, when you are nonviolent, you always look for a moderate solution. That is what we have put on the table.
Kelly: Do you see any flexibility on the part of the Chinese government?
Sangay: Not at the moment. The ground reality is still the same. Repression is going on. Nothing has changed.
We also want to see a realization of the wisdom and the leadership of China. That’s how solutions are found. Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite American presidents, realized that slavery ought to end, and he did the things that were necessary to make that a reality. It took a strong, visionary leader, and we are hoping to see that happen in China.
Kelly: What you are talking about and attempting to do really seems to illustrate that change is something that happens over the long haul — that change is not an event, but a process.
Sangay: Yes, you have to have the mindset of the long haul — which is very difficult, because you have people pressing you, saying, “Hey, get a quick fix. We need attention, we need support, we need to find a solution very quickly.” You have to teach your own people patience, which is the most difficult thing to do for a leader. But you keep doing it, and when you succeed, and you do it nonviolently, it will be a success for humanity.
We are trying to set an example, be a model. There are thousands of conflicts around the world — tribal conflicts, community conflicts, racial conflicts, conflicts between countries and between states. If we succeed, we are telling the rest of the world that here is the model to follow. In that sense, we are not just looking for freedom and justice for six million Tibetans, but also trying to leave a bigger mark on world history.
The Berlin Wall, Northern Ireland, Nelson Mandela, Civil Rights — you can go down the list. There are many success stories, and I think to myself, Yes. It should happen in Tibet, and it will happen. So I’d better be there. It takes time, but it will come to pass.