Challenges and opportunities for Tibet in US: Interview with Representative Penpa Tsering

Representative of the Dalai Lama to North America Mr Penpa Tsering with Ms Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and the Special Coordinator for Tibet, at the US State Department on 21 October 2016.

Representative of the Dalai Lama to North America Mr Penpa Tsering with Ms Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and the Special Coordinator for Tibet, at the US State Department on 21 October 2016. Office of Tibet, Washington DC

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 22 December 2016

Penpa Tsering assumed the post of Representative of the Dalai Lama to North America on 26 August 2016. His priorities are to mobilise US support for the Tibetan cause, and to oversee the issues of the Tibetans in North America.

He worked as the Executive Director at the Tibetan Parliamentary and Research Centre (TPPRC) in New Delhi from 2001-2008. He was elected to the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth Tibetan Parliament-in-exile in Dharamshala, and was twice elected Speaker.

As it happened, Tsering, a Dharamshala insider and an experienced politician, saw his position as a diplomat beginning at a time when Washington DC is awash with political intrigues.

An interview request from Tibet Sun to Penpa Tsering was immediately accepted. Our questions sent by email were answered within a couple of days.

How are you adjusting to the new position and new environment in Washington DC?

It is a huge shift from being a member of the legislature for 20 years to being a member of the executive. Nevertheless, I personally have been more attuned towards the work of an executive. Whatever job I have been elected or assigned to, adjustment has never been a problem. All one has to do is absorb the new situation and take it from there. As a former Speaker, I have travelled quite a bit and am familiar with different situations. However, there are always lots of new things to learn every single day. More importantly, old friends contribute and we have a very dedicated team in the office that makes my job much easier.

How many Tibetans are there in the US today, and what challenges do you find in meeting your responsibilities?

There are about 25,000 Tibetans in more than 30 different places in North America. That constitutes about 17% of the 150,000 Tibetans in exile. And it is going to grow in the years to come. We are only 5 people in the office with a huge responsibility to reach out to governments and parliaments, think tanks and experts, Tibetan communities and Buddhist Centres, in both Canada and US.

We have already started working on the challenges. Our effort is to pool our energies together. Working with other entities on political actions, maintaining closer and committed relationships with Tibetan communities and the Buddhist Centres of all denominations for future collaborative work on preserving and promoting our unique Tibetan identity. One main focus is to reach out to the younger generations of Tibetans who were born and brought up in North America.

Donald Trump has surprised all the pollsters and most likely will occupy the White House for the next four years starting on 20 January. He is a businessman, not a Washington DC insider. In the recent bitterly-fought US elections Tibet was not even mentioned once. Considering these facts, how would the Tibetan issue fare during his presidency?

President-elect Donald Trump is an enigma to many, and often times the situation is seen as unpredictable. Tibet was not mentioned, but among the lists of books that he had read he mentioned at least two books on Tibet. Trump’s views on China are hotly debated. My understanding is that he will not kowtow to China, as China would like to see. That includes the matter of Tibet. These are some indications of things to come. We are working with International Campaign for Tibet to reach out to people at various levels in the government and the Hill to make sure that the new administration has the Tibet issue on top of the radar while dealing with China.

I am positive that the new administration will keep the tradition of the President meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and also implement the provisions of the US Tibet Policy of 2002. Besides, we have strong bipartisan and bicameral support in the congress, mainly because of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the indomitable spirit of the Tibetans in Tibet.

Trump has said that the US doesn’t have to be bound by the ‘one-China policy’, to the big annoyance of China. This statement was made in the context of the Taiwan issue, not Tibet. Would he adopt a similar stand for Tibet?

Whatever the context, the statement is sweeping. Let us see how things shape up. Lots of policy matters will be shaped by interests and circumstances.

The Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Donald Trump for winning the election in a phone conversation, which invited criticism from China. The Dalai Lama has met with many previous US presidents, who also expressed support for the Tibetan call for autonomy within China. Would Trump also go out of his way and meet with the Dalai Lama as the US president?

Donald Trump need not go out of his way to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness is one of the most well-known personalities in this world. Presidents from Bush Senior to Barack Obama have met with His Holiness a number of times. It would be but natural for Donald Trump to meet with His Holiness, following precedent and tradition. Statements from the Presidents, the White House, and the State Department have been consistent over the years. I see no reason why there should be any departure from the past, if not even stronger indications of support.

Successive US administrations have been supporting exile Tibetans financially to fulfil various projects. The most prominent of these has been the recent $23 million aid to Tibetans. Funds have also been provided to the Radio Free Asia and Voice of America Tibetan services. Trump’s record shows he is not that keen on minorities and the weak. Do you think Tibetans would see continued financial support from the new president?

I think we need to read the small print in the President-elect’s speeches. It should not be seen as US not engaging with other countries or peoples in this world. The references are subtle but visible. I personally do not believe that the new Administration will take such drastic steps.

One of the agenda items during the campaign was to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and in that Tibetans also figure. If he sticks to it, about how many Tibetans would be affected? And what would happen to Sikyong Sangay’s request to the US government to bring 5,000 Tibetans to the US?

I do not have a number on the undocumented Tibetans in the US. In the last three and half months that I have been travelling around US to different Tibetan communities, not a single person broached this subject. Therefore I would assume there are no major issues. If and when the bill to legalize undocumented immigrants is adopted into an Act by the US Congress, that will also allow more Tibetans to move to US. It is part of the package deal.

What is your plan to educate Trump about the Tibetan situation so that the Tibetan issue gets his attention and support?

As I mentioned before, our office and ICT are jointly working together to reach out to as many bipartisan, bicameral members of Congress as we can. The Tibetan Refugee Assistance Act being put forward by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal) to provide visas to displaced Tibetans is a case in point. We are also in the process of reaching out to the Transition Team to push the issue of Tibet.

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