Harvard law scholar Lobsang Sangay was elected the new prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile on Wednesday and immediately vowed to play an effective role when he takes over political leadership from the Dalai Lama.
Sangay, 43, garnered 55 percent of the votes cast, beating two other candidates, in the final round of polling held on March 20, according to a statement by the Central Tibetan Administration based in India's hill town of Dharamsala, the seat of the exile government.
“The Dalai Lama … has decided to transfer political power to the Tibetan people by entrusting [the person] whom they have magnanimously chosen as the head of their exile government,” Sangay told RFA in his first interview since being named prime minister-elect.
“We must respect the wishes and wisdom of His Holiness and find ways to implement his decision,” Sangay said.
The 75-year-old Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed 1959 national uprising against Chinese occupation, has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan struggle for more than five decades.
The Nobel laureate announced on March 10 that he would hand over political power to a newly elected leader and rejected a plea by a majority of parliamentarians to reconsider his decision. He will retain the more significant role of spiritual leader.
"In the Middle East and Northern Africa, the people are struggling for political rights and blood is being shed, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama has graciously decided to pass his authority over to those who were directly elected by the people," Sangay told RFA.
"In China, the citizens enjoy economic wealth, but lack political freedom, but the Tibetans in Tibet suffer from a lack of economic progress and an absence of political freedom and human rights."
"We must work hard to alleviate their suffering," he said, adding that Tibet's government-in-exile should make "all-around efforts" to reach out to foreign governments, parliaments, legislatures, and intellectuals to win "broad-based support" for the struggle for greater freedom in Tibet.
Speaking to reporters at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, Sangay said that he would follow the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach to negotiations with Beijing.
"I will be following the stated view of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and ... that is to follow the Middle Way policy, which means to seek genuine autonomy within China. As the elected Kalon Tripa [prime minister], I have to implement the policy of the Tibetan government-in-exile," he said.
Sangay also called on China to review its "hard-line policies" in Tibet, citing political repression, cultural assimilation, economic marginalization, and environmental destruction in the region.
"As it stands today, there is a bit of a stalemate because the Chinese government is yet to change its hard-line policies, which is unfortunate. We hope that they will review their Tibet policy and take a more moderate and nimble approach and grant genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people," he said.
More than 49,000 exiled Tibetans in India and overseas voted in the election, and Sangay easily beat the two other candidates.
He garnered 27,051 votes while the other candidates—Kalon Trisur Tenzin Namgyal Tethong and Kasur Tashi Wangdi—received 18,405 votes and 3,173 votes respectively.
In calls to RFA, Tibetans inside Tibet hailed the democratic election process and expressed their satisfaction with the results.
"[Sangay's] election has shown to the world that the Tibetan democracy is a mature, standard process by which we can elect our own leadership. The joy and satisfaction within me is inexpressible," said one caller.
Another caller said that incense was being burned in Tibet's capital Lhasa in celebration.
And in Tibet's Amdo region, a caller said that she had composed a song—"Bright Hope and Aspiration"—in honor of Lobsang Sangay's election.
"The Tibetans here are paying close attention to his victory, and we are happy," she said.
Sangay said he was honored to accept the position of prime minister and to be given the opportunity to work for the Tibetan people.
"I want to express my sincere appreciation and extend my deepest support to the people in Tibet, who continue to show tremendous courage even in the most difficult of situations. Our hearts and minds are steadfastly with them," he said.
"I urge every Tibetan and friends of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness to his rightful place in [Tibet's] Potala Palace," he added.
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 has been living in the United States since, and is now a senior fellow at the school. As prime minister, he will move to Dharamsala.
The incumbent, Samdhong Rinpoche, is stepping down after serving the two five-year terms allowed to him under the exile community’s election law.
China occupied Tibet in 1950 and claims the region has been part of its territory for centuries, although many Tibetans, who are linguistically and ethnically distinct, say they were effectively independent.
Tibetans fear they are being marginalized economically by Chinese and that their religion—the core of Tibetan culture—is under threat from restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government
Many of the six million Tibetans inside Chinese-ruled Tibet, as well as those outside, are concerned that their struggle for greater autonomy for the Himalayan region will suffer without the Dalai Lama's political leadership.
“Whoever becomes Kalon Tripa and whoever the deputies, a huge responsibility falls on their shoulders; many people are seriously concerned,” activist Tenzin Tsondue in Dharamsala said during the elections last month.
China regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist responsible for stirring unrest in Tibet.
Reported by RFA's Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney and Joshua Lipes.