Hill boy who fetched firewood is Tibet 'PM' Harvard lawyer to lead exiles

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  • Published 28.04.11

April 27: A Tibetan from Darjeeling who lugged wood to light kitchen fire at home as a youngster and was briefly jailed in Tihar over anti-Chinese protests before becoming a Harvard academic has been elected Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Lobsang Sangay will assume the political role played by the Dalai Lama, who had announced his retirement last month but said he would remain the community’s religious head.

The 42-year-old research fellow at the Harvard Law School pipped the two other contenders— one of who studied in Darjeeling — in an election that saw non-religious figures in the fray for the first time. Over 83,000 Tibetans in exile in 30 countries, including India, the US, Europe, Bhutan, Nepal, Russia and Japan, voted.

Announcing the results of the March 20 polls today in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamsala, where the government-in-exile is based, election chief Jampal Chosang said Sangay bagged 55 per cent of the votes.

Sangay’s nearest rival was the much older Tethong Tenzin Namgyal, a 62-year-old Stanford scholar who went to school in Darjeeling. The third contender was Tashi Wangdi, 64, the Dalai Lama’s representative in the European Union.

Sangay’s five-year tenure as Prime Minister (kalon tripa) — he is expected to take charge on August 15 — assumes significance following the Dalai Lama’s move to shed his political powers. Sangay is likely to campaign for release of political leaders in China and strengthen the middle-path policy of the Dalai Lama, the highlight of which is a proposal to grant greater autonomy to the Tibetans in China.

Sangay was born at Lamhatta near Darjeeling town and went to the Central School for Tibetans in nearby Sonada. He did his Plus Two at St Joseph’s College (North Point) in Darjeeling before graduating from Delhi University, where he also completed his LL.B, and moving to the US.

There, he won the Fulbright Fellowship and earned his LL.M and doctorate from the Harvard Law School. In April 2008, he testified as an expert before the US Senate Foreign Relations Sub- committee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

Sonam Chokey Norbhu, one of Sangay’s friends in Darjeeling, was delighted. “I think his victory is a great thing and the community is looking forward to a younger generation taking over the struggle,” she said.

But Sangay’s supporters said there would be no celebration, in keeping with a request from their leader who has cited the recent Chinese crackdown in Tibet.

“The result of this election is not an individual loss or victory but rather a mandate to shoulder the aspirations of six million Tibetans. We are already facing immense challenges with Tibetans being killed and arrested by the Chinese government,” Sangay appealed in an Internet message from Boston where he stays with his wife, mother and three-year-old daughter.

Tibetans in Darjeeling agreed. “We are happy with the results but we are more concerned with the trouble in Tibet. We are trying to hold rallies and hunger strike (against the Chinese action) in Darjeeling but because of the elections in Bengal we are awaiting permission from the authorities,” said Tashi Tendup, a supporter.

Sangay himself has been part of such movements and was locked up in Tihar jail for a few days in the late 1990s after being picked up during a Chinese government demonstration while he was a student in Delhi.