McLEOD GANJ, India, 28 May 2021
Omens were not good when Lobsang Sangay took charge as Sikyong – the Tibetan political leader in 2011. Controversy dominated from the very start of his first tenure. On all official documents in Tibetan and English mentions Sangay, which in Tibetan means Buddha, but he argued that it was a mistake and that Senge, which means Lion in Tibetan, was his right name. For any Buddhist, like himself, to be on the path of Buddhahood and to have anything that has to do with the practice and philosophy would be considered auspicious. But for Sangay, the quest for a name that’s of an animal was important for him. He insisted he was to be called by his second name as Senge – the king of the jungle.
He came in to the Tibetan political scene rather abruptly, almost out of the blue. People knew how that happened, and it has also been reported, but for those who doesn’t know, and to set the record straight, it was me who first mentioned Sangay’s name in June 2009. During a conversation with him on a night in February 2009, I suggested him to be the next political leader, but those conversations are now gone, for reasons you would probably guess. I did so for his Harvard education, interactions with Chinese scholars, a resource for news agencies, international travels, India born and raised, and a presentable personality.
These qualities had a ready market, and his excellent oratory and aggressive campaign across India paved the path for him to become the Kalon Tripa (as it was known before it became Sikyong) in 2011, the year the Dalai Lama relinquished all his political powers. During the inauguration, it was evident that the Dalai Lama was elated when he famously said the long-cherished dream finally came true, as he was giving up his powers and a young man that was born and brought up under the modest infrastructure he has created has become the Kalon Tripa. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetans hoped that a modern and western-educated youth at the helm of Tibetan politics will usher in a new era.
Alas! It was not the case. What followed was 10-long-years of boisterous slogans and self-promotional campaigns. The hype, the enthusiasm, and the excitement all began to wane when it all became “I, me and myself” and “first-ever this or that” affair. This behaviour questions the very fabric of Tibetan identity – humility and honesty, that the Dalai Lama regularly reminds us as the true Tibetan character. This trend could have negative influence on the younger generation of Tibetans. Fortunately, Sangay has completed his term and left Dharamshala today (28 May 2021). This leadership style must not be emulated.
There was so much arrogance, that there was no way China would hold any dialogue with a person driven by so much egoism, and no substance. In setting his agenda as the new political leader, Sangay said, “I am ready to talk to my “counterpart” anytime, anywhere” in his inaugural speech. The question was who would be his counterpart? The Tibetan public didn’t catch this one, but obviously, it wouldn’t have gone well with the Chinese authorities. And obviously, there wasn’t any talk with the Chinese government in the last ten years during his tenure. The dialogue with Beijing was further complicated in 2011 when CTA became a separate political entity after the Dalai Lama relinquished his political leadership. Sangay failed to grasp the ABCs of engagement with Beijing, despite spending 16 years at Harvard researching on China and the Sino-Tibetan dialogue! Since 1979 Beijing has met only with the Dalai Lama’s Representatives.
“I can say with full confidence with my ten years of experience. If China met with the representatives of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), it indirectly recognises the CTA. Therefore, the Chinese government will never meet with the CTA’s representatives. This is crystal clear.” Sangay acknowledged his failure to resume dialogue with Beijing on 26 March 2021 while addressing the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.
During the campaign for the second term, I asked him what was his achievement in the first five years. His answer was “stability”. Really? Wasn’t there stability before, that you created stability? Soon after that stability surely was destroyed. The campaign took a negative turn, and it became a tribal fight for the election. The community is suffering even to this day. There was no issue of Tibetan regional politics during the 2011 election. Faced with a formidable opponent in 2016, regional politics was in full swing. Even after winning the election, Sangay buried his head in the sand and did nothing to create harmony and unity on the regional politics.
His second term was dominated by “5/50” conferences. Lots of funds were spent (wasted, I would read) organising conferences. Just a book came out in the end! During one of the press conferences about two more such conferences to be held, I asked Sangay if he had data of Tibetans who are living below the poverty line, and that why people from such background and unemployed youth were not represented in these conferences. He even didn’t have such data.
There are still people living below the poverty line in the Tibetan community. When a group of Tibetans living in the West came together to help providing funds for poverty-stricken people, everyone involved – the beneficiary and the benefactor – are condemned by the CTA saying that’s what will make the Chinese government happy, implying that the CTA and the Dalai Lama will be blamed by China for seeing poverty-stricken Tibetans. The beneficiaries were even warned of being expelled from the settlements.
There was a “Thank You India” event, which got extended to “Thank to this or that country”, whereby he travelled around the world to be part of the “Thank You” event. A year later, it was “Thank You Dalai Lama.” The pandemic struck, and no more events waiting for him to travel. It was all about travelling and to be seen.
The US Congress and the Senate passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act 2020, the upgrade on the Tibet Policy Act of 2002. All the ground work were done by some Congressman, and the International Campaign for Tibet lobbied on it for years, and then Sangay shows up in the end and took all the credit. And don’t forget, that he went to the State Department, and advertised it as visiting the White House!
One may wonder if I am saying he didn’t do any good. Of course, he did many good things, the moving of the Office of Tibet from NYC to Washington DC was a good idea, the creation of Tibet Policy Institute was another good one, and providing funds to start-up businesses was also good, and the way he encouraged scholarship was commendable. The new buildings were good too, but not when the buildings were built at certain locations, such as the one at a basketball court in McLeod Ganj, and the infamous T-Building congesting the small Gangkyi premises. And not really good when they are of poor quality. Go and find out how small and bad designed the little flats accommodating the ex-political prisoners in the building that was built on the basketball court, for example. The new hall for The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) was a big disaster. It needs to be redone, for sure.
If you compare all the good things mentioned above with what was not so good, the story will be different. There were no dialogue with China, nor did the Dalai Lama was able to visit Tibet as he promised Tibetans in the election manifesto, Tibet hardly got any mention in the international press in the last few years, and the worst is the division of the little Tibetan community beyond repair. The ruckus in the parliament that expelled the Chief Justice and the two other justice commissioners in the parliament right before his own eyes evidently made him an accomplice in the conspiracy when he didn’t utter a single word when whole scene was unfolding. And the repercussions will be felt for much longer in the parliament. His campaign slogans: The return of the Dalai Lama to Lhasa and Fly the Tibetan flag over the Potala Palace emotionally resonated with the Tibetans. Sadly, as we see now, these were not only unrealistic but hollow promises.
When the curtain was about to come down and when he had to enumerate his achievements, it was about funds and buildings he built. If funds and buildings are the benchmark of development and progress, we could probably say Donald Trump did a tremendous job for the walls he built. But these are not the benchmarks of development and progress. It’s about the welfare of the people. Go to old people’s homes, and you can witness the amount of development and progress that have been achieved, and no data of those living below the poverty line. Not that there’s a huge poverty problem, it could be only on a few thousand, which could be tracked and tackled easily with programmes, if he really cared.
Sangay said he doubled the funds in the CTA coffers as compared to what was handed over to him. And the narrative, “I have done more than what they (the Dalai Lama) haven’t done in the last 50 years.” Are you sure? No Tibetan would be able to say it even if they were feeling that within. Having the audacity to make such a false statement is beyond any Tibetan. That’s like a typical tribal leader making a statement, and the tribal leader you are. By the way, the Dalai Lama laid down all the infrastructure that we enjoy today in the last 50 years. In that there are settlements, schools, monasteries, hospitals, workshops, handicraft centres, Offices of Tibet, to give an idea. Did Sangay build any settlement or a school? And the funds Sangay has collected today would be not more if you convert the value of the funds then. A dollar was 4.76 rupees in 1960, and 46.67 in 2011. It’s 72.48 today. In 2011, a cup of tea in McLeod was Rs 5. Today it is Rs 10.
My assessment of Lobsang Sangay’s ten years as Sikyong in a nutshell – a disaster, wasted ten precious years for Tibet and the Tibetan people, and the Tibetan unity was fractured. Even the CTA lost its sheen. His mantra of “Unity, Innovation and Self-Reliance” stayed a mere slogan. Unfortunately, Sangay failed to rise to the occasion and his own challenge. Now when I look back I feel that the people were right when they argued back then that he lacked experience. During the March 2021 Parliamentary session, Sangay admitted his failed leadership. He said, “When I assumed the responsibility here, most things I did were administrative works, which I don’t have experience. Fundraising is another area which I don’t have much experience. And then looking after the constructions. I didn’t get the opportunity to use my knowledge and experience in the areas where I have studied.” These are his own words, admitting his leadership’s failure, clearly showing spending the last 10 years of our struggle on wrong priorities.
It’s nothing personal, it’s just politics, and I am sure everyone will agree it’s good for all of us to learn and unlearn. Here’s wishing all the best for Sangay’s future endeavours.