When Lobsang Sangay took the stage at New York’s Asia Society this past Tuesday, he asked his interviewer and Harvard Law School classmate Jamie Metzl whether the discussion would be “in the Anderson Cooper format or the Oprah one?” Charming, extremely intelligent (a former Fulbright scholar), absolutely dedicated (he led the Tibetan Youth Congress) and a self-professed “hot-head” (he believes that more Tibetans should be!), Sangay was recently elected as the next Kalon Tripa or political leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile. This came after the Dalai Lama chose to retire from his political role and focus solely as the spiritual leader for his people.
The Asia Society, also known for its work and relations with China (a photo exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work is currently on display), began the evening with a statement that it welcomed such events with Tibetan leaders and scholars and wouldn’t take any sides regarding sparring political matters. While Metzl and Sangay joked about the similarities between Jews and Tibetans and how they had conspired to convert each other during their law school years (a combo is affectionately called JewBu), they touched upon the various strategies and the responsibility Sangay has to carry out and face during his term. “Our primary objective is freedom,” said Sangay, explaining his three goals: 1. Restoring freedom for the Tibetan people within Tibet and returning the Dalai Lama to Lhasa, 2. Creating awareness about Tibet and 3. Creating programs (educational, cultural, and so on) for the Tibetan diaspora scattered across India, Nepal, Bhutan and the rest of the world.
Sangay revealed some shocking information about the situation in Tibet: “Remember it as 70-50-40. In Tibet, 70% of the private sector is Chinese, 50% of the public sector is Chinese, and 40% of all Tibetan college graduates are unemployed.” This just supports the idea that in order for the Chinese government to be successful it requires such “cultural assimilation” and “makes Tibetans 2nd-class citizens in their own country.” Nonetheless, as Sangay then pointed out, the Tibetan spirit remains undeterred and strong, even though most of the 6 million Tibetans in Tibet haven’t seen or met the Dalai Lama.
As I listened to Sangay speaking, flanked on my right by Tibetan filmmaker and musicologist Ngawang Choephel, and on left by my good friend, student and activist Katrina Marstrand (whose father is Tibetan), I couldn’t help but reminisce about my time at boarding school in the Himalayas. I was 15 when I went to Woodstock School, a reputed international boarding school in a hill station called Mussoorie. There I had Tibetan classmates and teachers and gradually became active in the community. The school had (and still has) a weekly spring trip called Activity Week, and in 10th grade I went with a group to Dharamshala, the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. We connected with members of the government, scholars, activists, celebrities (Richard Gere and J.F.K, Jr.) and of course, we had the opportunity to meet and be blessed by the Dalai Lama. If there is an experience that defines absolute awesomeness, this has been it for me. Audrey Hepburn told her son that the only regret she ever had was not being able to meet the Dalai Lama as “[he] is probably the closest thing to God we have on this earth.”
During my senior year, I co-chaired Woodstock’s community service program, CARE, with my Tibetan classmate Kesang. We coordinated buses of students to go from our side of Mussoorie to Happy Valley, the other end of town where the Tibetan community lived. At the local school, we met children, some as young as four, who had recently escaped from Tibet. They had left their families behind, endured the bitter cold and harrowing journey, lost friends along the way, dealt with extreme physical discomforts – open sores and wounds, lost limbs – and now had found themselves as strangers in an even stranger land, nomads in exile. We were instructed not to talk to the students about their families so as to avoid upsetting them, and instead to address a bright future, what India was like, and what the English or Hindi words were for things they knew in Tibetan. Sangay talked about this same journey, one that many of his countrymen go through even today as they seek refuge from oppression. He too was raised in Darjeeling, another Indian hill station.
So what is the solution, Metzl asked his former classmate? Sangay said, “The Middle-Way Approach”. This peace and non-violence-focused option was crafted by the Dalai Lama and is a “non-partisan and moderate position that safeguards the vital interests of all concerned parties – For Tibetans: the protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity; for the Chinese: the security and territorial integrity of the motherland; and for neighbours and other third parties: peaceful borders and international relations.” Sangay likened this to Catalonia in Spain, Quebec in Canada and the relationship between Scotland and England. He added that the “success of the Middle-Way will be determined by the action or the inaction of the Chinese government ” to grant the Tibetan people an acceptable autonomy in a sovereign state.
When I visited the United Nations Headquarters some years ago for a conference, I stared at the world map by the General Assembly Hall, and was stunned to see no Tibet. In other world maps, at least there had been some delineation and mention. This broke my heart. But now after having had the opportunity to listen and support Lobsang Sangay, a tremendous scholar, leader and asset to the Tibetan community, I renewed my sense of hope and belief in a free Tibet. And like Lobsang Sangay said that evening: “Now New York, next year Lhasa.” It can happen.
Shruti Rya Ganguly is a filmmaker and co-founder of an advocacy group called EchoChamber which hosts curated screenings and discussions centered on human rights and political conflict.
Above photo: Sanjeev Sherchen, Asia Society