TIBET IS VITAL TO THE REST OF THE WORLD: LOBSANG SANGAY.


17 Sep, 2017


TA President Featured on the Cover of Newsweek Spanish Magazine

MEXICO: The President of Central Tibetan Administration Dr Lobsang Sangay has been featured on the cover of Newsweek En Espanol (Spanish). The September 15 issue of the Newsweek featuring the cover story titled 'Tibet Is Vital For the Rest of the World: Lobsang Sangay,' featured a 10 page in-depth interview conducted by Adriana Amezcua, the International editor for Newsweek Mexico.

This is the English translation of the interview.

The president of the Central Tibetan Administration in Exile visited Mexico for the first time, bringing with him urgent messages, some of which had to do with the fracturing of politics as an indispensable instrument for a good concert between nations, and others with environmental degradation: the way in which the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau are melting, presaging catastrophes that will impact Asia and the rest of the planet. China plays a crucial role as regards the Third Pole, which requires that we understand what China is capable of by reexamining the history of Tibet, the second least free nation in the world that continues its peaceful struggle to achieve genuine autonomy.

LOBSANG SANGAY grew up and was educated at a refugee school in Darjeeling, India. In this city nestled in the Shivalik Hills, in the state of Western Bengal, he and his family faced poverty on barely one acre of land, with two cows and a few chickens. For over a decade, their evening meal at refugee school consisted of rice and lentils. With this basic diet, traditional in Asian cuisine, they not only alleviated their hunger, but also the cold, the indescribable winter chill that strikes the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range and many of which they weathered with no shoes or warm clothing.

Did that lanky child with the big, almond-shaped eyes ever imagine that one day he would become the political leader of Tibet? No, never, although his wish to serve was always clear in his mind. His heart would pound every time he heard his parents speak of the exile of the Tibetan people, and he felt stunned each time they told the story of when they had to flee Tibet after the Chinese invasion. The invasion of the so-called "Roof of the World" began in 1950-eighteen years before Lobsang was born-and resulted in the death of over one million Tibetans, victims of execution, torture, forced labor or starvation. Lobsang Sangay is part of the first generations to be born in exile. As the years passed, a series of events led him to become the first democratically elected leader of the Tibetan people, as well as the political successor to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

Lobsang's father also never imagined, not even in his wildest dreams, that as an adult he would cast off his monk's robes to become a warrior, but his life took a radical turn in 1956 when his monastery was the first to be bombed and destroyed by the Chinese communist army. Renouncing his monastic vows, he joined the guerrilla movement fighting for Tibet's independence. "What a contradiction," says his son 61 years later. "He was put in charge of weapons and munitions." With his fellow guerrillas, Lobsang's father fought against the Chinese until finally he was able to escape. Together with thousands of Tibetans, he survived the perilous crossing through the Himalayas, and like most of them sought refuge within Indian territory, although some did so in Nepal and Bhutan. By 1959, the confrontations between the Chinese occupiers and the Tibetan population had resulted in 90,000 deaths in Lhasa, (capital city) alone. Clashes in the region have continued ever since, with periods of extreme violence.

Once in exile, Lobsang's father continued to be a very religious man, and the boy grew up seeing him recite his morning and evening prayers every day. Prayers were also part of Lobsang's school routine: at his school for refugees, a half hour was set aside for prayer at the start and end of each day, thus preserving this Buddhist tradition in the daily rituals of the generations in exile, a painful situation made slightly less difficult thanks to a pivotal figure: "His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom we venerated from childhood. We respected him because we always saw him working very hard for all of us," Lobsang Sangay says.

Newsweek en Español talked exclusively with the President of the Central Tibetan Administration-also referred to as the Tibetan Government in Exile-during his first visit to our country and Latin America. An S.J.D. (doctor of laws) from Harvard Law School, he arrived in Mexico just when President Enrique Peña Nieto arrived on Chinese soil for the 9th BRICS Summit, an association that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Our conversation took place in one of the main rooms of Casa Tíbet (Tibet House) in the Roma district of Mexico City. A few hours before, he visited with students at the School of Philosophy and Letters of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). And the day before that, President Sangay chatted with Monterrey Technological Institute high-school students, with whom he spoke about the present and future of Tibet and the obstacles his government in exile has had to overcome while carrying out a peaceful and non-violent struggle.

Wearing a simple navy blue suit with the Tibetan flag in the lapel, the open smile creasing Lobsang Sangay's amiable face disappears when he describes episodes in his life and situations which, as a statesman, he finds profoundly disturbing. His gaze then becomes abstracted and extremely concentrated, yet his brown eyes always remain serene and sure. It takes only a few minutes to realize that President Sangay believes, knows and is more than aware of everything he says. As politicians go, he's a genuine oddity. To give just one example, his monthly salary is USD $450. What's more, he's a politician whose speech and actions are supported by their coherence. And the course of his life, his career and public practice prove the physicist Albert Einstein's assertion: "By example is not the primary way of influencing others; it is the only way."

Adriana Amezcua: Did you dream of becoming the Sikyong (President) of Tibet when you were a child?

Lobsang Sangay: "Not really.although I always wanted to be of service. At school, which was part of Tibet's educational system in exile, all our teachers encouraged us to give of our time and talent in service to the cause. In that respect, I always wanted to serve, but I never imagined being the President. Actually, this is the first time I've been asked that question.

"Had I in fact thought about pointing my life in that direction, I would have taken a few of the seminars on politics and leadership at the Kennedy School of Government while I was at Harvard, but I didn't. And when I started campaigning to be elected president of the Central Tibetan Administration, I only audited a few of those seminars. That's why some people call me the accidental president."

AA: What factors converged for you to make such an important decision?

LS: "I was a student of democracy; there was a program on Radio Free Asia to which I contributed once or twice a week. For years I criticized the political and Tibetan system in exile because our politicians never approached the Tibetans to lobby for their vote. I urged the people to spread the political cost of what that entailed. At the time, there were five very strong candidates running for the presidency of the Central Tibetan Administration, all formidable candidates, to the point where not even my mother believed I had a chance of winning. But I thought I should go to the people and start that democratic process. So I went to every settlement and school where I could, within the Tibetan system in exile, and this generated interest and recognition. I don't really know why because the other candidates in the running had very solid track records and a great deal of prestige."

In the first round, President Sangay won the greatest number of votes; and by the second, it was already plain to see who the strongest candidate was. That's when he decided to promote and drive forward the changes he wanted to make. Before being named an official candidate, a friend who had developed a website in order to register more Tibetans to run for the position of kalon tripa (prime minister of the Central Tibetan Administration in exile), input Lobsang's name as a dummy candidate in the electronic platform. It wasn't long before the dummy candidate turned into the most serious project in Lobsang's life: "As we say in the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual tradition, everything is the consequence of karma, causes and consequences. My career has been the result of those conditions, too."

Speaking of Buddhism and his relationship with the Dalai Lama, he described how this relationship became increasingly close as he grew older. He recalls that his first audience with the Dalai Lama occurred when he was a "genuine activist" in the true sense of the word: he was participating in demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy, police headquarters or on the streets, and in fact was elected president of the local Tibetan Youth Congress in New Delhi, an election that is designated every year. It was in this post that he became known as a man of political action.

In 1993, the Youth Congress held a meeting in Dharamsala to which he was called. Knowing he would be able to speak briefly with HH Tenzin Gyatso, he wrote on a piece of paper several items he wished to discuss with him. "I was an activist with very strongly held points of view," he says. On entering the room where the Dalai Lama was, he went into shock: "I can barely remember what I said. When I came out, I had forgotten everything I thought I would put forward. I think this sort of episode proves the sort of respect we Tibetans have for His Holiness."

Another encounter took place in 1995 when he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Traditionally, it is usual for graduates to have an audience with the Dalai Lama. "By that time I had changed," he says with a smile, "and instead of considering discussing several points with him, I simply paid him my respects." It was then that the Buddhist monk said to him, "Are you the young man who wrote an article in the Tibetan Review?" Lobsang was stunned into silence. He couldn't believe the Nobel Peace Prize winner knew about his article.

In the summer of 1996, Lobsang returned to Dharamsala after having completed his master's degree at Harvard in the United States. One morning he was standing on the sidewalk at a place where dozens of people congregated to listen to the Dalai Lama's teachings. His Holiness saw him and said: "When did you come back?" he asked, followed immediately by "Come see me."

Two days later, back in his office, he asked Lobsang about his time in the U.S. and his studies, but was particularly interested in finding out if he had met Chinese students. "He said it was very important to speak with them." At the time he had two or three Chinese classmates. When he went back to Harvard, he began engaging with every Chinese student that crossed his path. After receiving his doctorate, he once again returned to India and these sorts of meetings continued once a year or two. Lobsang then began organizing meetings between Tibetan and Chinese students, and then conferences and meetings between Chinese and exiled Tibetan academicians.

Remembering his time at Harvard, he says that "during my 16 years at Harvard, I devoted myself to deepening my understanding and studies of and about China. I was the one who coordinated the H.H. Dalai Lama's visit to Boston in 1998, and later, in 2002, to Harvard. This is how my relationship with him grew and it is now a longstanding one."

AA: Tell us how the Dharamsala-based Kashag that you preside operates.

LS: "My post is a democratically elected one like that of a president. I propose candidates for the posts of kalons (ministers) in my government (Kashag means council of ministers) and the Tibetan parliament confirms them."

The Kashag convenes an all-day meeting every Tuesday and Friday during which its members "work very transparently; there is no topic that is not discussed." Sometimes there are 18 items on the agenda to be discussed; at others there may be 40 or 100 different topics. It's a very rigorous process.

Since there is no official recognition of Tibet of any kind, all the relationships it establishes are informal-from Washington, D.C. to Brazil. Since no government formally recognizes the Central Tibetan Administration in Exile, "we find ourselves forced to build our relationships informally and must work one by one with legislators. Fund-raising is also an initiative we must coordinate on our own in that because we don't control our natural resources as such, we don't have government funds."

And to this a minor detail must be added: the omnipresent presence of and pressure by the People's Republic of China. A few months ago, for instance, while giving a lecture at the University of New Zealand, the Chinese embassy contacted the university's authorities directly to ask that they cancel Lobsang Sangay's lecture. "They didn't, of course, but they were asked to," he says. In addition to all this pressure, there are the frenetic itineraries and constant travelling all over the world to mobilize more people and continue fund-raising. Continuing with the attempt to free Tibet from the Chinese yoke is an arduous task.

AA: Presiding over a government in exile is a complex thing.

LS: One way to describe it is that it's a daily struggle for freedom, but because it is a struggle for freedom, the cause is worth everything.

AA: More than achieving Tibet's independence from China, you call for genuine autonomy, what you call "the middle way". What does this imply given the current situation when for seven years there has in fact been no official dialogue with China? When the Tibetan cause is going through one of the most difficult periods in its history?

LS: "We are Buddhists. The teachings of the Buddha begin with the Four Noble Truths, which state that suffering is an integral part of life. Therefore, in this struggle for freedom, the challenges, the difficulties, even tragedies, are an integral part of our struggle. In Buddhism we try to embrace suffering as a natural part of life and this is therefore liberating because everything we are able to get out of life enables us to transcend those limits. It becomes a bonus, a plus.

"What you say is true: for seven years there has been no continuity in our dialogue with the People's Republic of China. However, from 2002 to 2010 we had the chance to coordinate nine rounds of Dialogue between envoys of the Dalai Lama with representatives of China. You have to keep persisting, think that maybe next week, or next month, or next year dialogue will restart, and we must continue to work very hard towards that end."

It is common knowledge that the government of the United States simultaneously supports the one-China policy as well as the Dalai Lama's proposal of a "middle way". For this reason, the supreme political leader of Tibet insists that "We must go on, persist, and we ask Mexico and any other country to support dialogue, the middle way proposition."

President Sangay explains that such a proposition means reaching the midway point between two opposing stances. In light of the repression inflicted by Chinese government on the Tibetan people, "we asked them to stop this repression and grant us genuine autonomy as guaranteed by Chinese law. And if we achieve this goal, we will give up demand for independence from China." Given that the People's Republic of China asserts that its sovereignty and the integrity of its territory are non-negotiable, the Tibetans have put forward that they will accept those conditions provided they are granted genuine autonomy. The "middle way" refers to reaching a midway point between repression and secession.

AA: The U.S. State Department in its most recent Human Rights Report underscores that China continues repressing and violating the rights of the Tibetan population in a multitude of ways.

LS: "That's correct. The human rights of the Tibetan people continue to be affected; the right to freedom of worship in particular is described as being severely violated. Similarly, Freedom House, which publishes its annual index of freedom around the world, two years ago ranked Syria as the world's least free country, with Tibet second. Everyone knows about Syria, but no-one knows anything about Tibet. The organization Reporters Without Borders has also stated that it is more difficult for a journalist to be allowed into Tibet, for instance, than into North Korea. Everyone today knows what's going on in North Kora, but how many know that it is more difficult for a journalist to enter Tibet and be able to freely report about what's going on there?

"This is why the human rights situation in Tibet is extremely serious," he emphasized. "This terrible reality has contributed to the self-immolation of 149 Tibetans in the last seven years.

"We, the Central Tibetan Administration, HH the Dalai Lama himself, have urged Tibetans living in Tibet to avoid initiatives of this sort-as Buddhists, we think of human life as an exceptional treasure. Even so, four people have self-immolated so far this year. Why would someone harm him or herself? Self-immolate, in fact? This shows how desperate the Tibetans are and how repressive is the system under which they live. They can find no other way to draw attention other than self-immolation."

AA: And recently the envelope was pushed further with the occupation of a region close to Bhutan. China claims that Doklam, or so-called "Donglang", has belonged to it since olden times. Does this sound familiar?

LS: "Yes. In fact, that territory used to be part of Tibet. Now that Tibet is under Chinese occupation, China is claiming it as its own."

On this issue, President Sangay, an expert in his country's history, tells a very revealing story: "In the 1950s, Mao Zedong and later other Chinese leaders said that Tibet is 'the palm of the hand.' They've said that first they're going to take control of the palm of the hand, and then control of the five fingers. What you're seeing now is the manifestation of this strategy that began with the annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in 1950."

AA: And you've said that this incursion continues while [world] powers that could act as counterweights to China are engrossed in their own agendas.

LS: "That's true, because now Chinese expansionism began with the construction of these islands to the south of the China Sea.and almost all of China's neighboring countries have a problem with its expansionist incursions. Meanwhile, the United States is distracted by all those issues we're already aware of, just like the European countries. They [China] thought it was the best time to confront Asia's largest country, but India resisted that attack and now the Chinese army has retreated from Doklam. But I think they'll come back for the hand's remaining fingers. This is a decades old strategy that they're now implementing; it's part of their strategy to become a superpower."

AA: You maintain that Tibet has always been an independent country; China says the opposite. It might be a good idea to clear this up again.

LS: "To begin with, the Chinese government signed a document in which it recognized Tibet as an independent country. The Sino-Tibetan Treaty of 1821-23 established that Tibetans shall be happy in the great land of Tibet and the Chinese shall be happy in the great land of China. The envoys of the Chinese emperor at the time signed the treaty, as did the envoys of Tibetan emperors. The treaty was inscribed in stone pillar and to this day lies across from the palace in Tibet and the Jokhang cathedral. There are more examples: We never paid any taxes to China; we had our own postal system, our own legal system-in all our history, not one case went to China. We signed treaties with neighboring countries like Nepal, Mongolia without China's involvement; we used our own currency, language, and so on. So all the figures commonly considered indispensable for a sovereign state to be conceived are present in the history of Tibet."

On this issue, President Sangay also specified that "China has changed its history many times. First, they stated that in the 13th century Tibet became a part of China, but let's not forget that that was the time of the Mongol dynasty that invaded China, the Yuan dynasty. We would therefore have to say that if in fact Tibet belonged to anyone in those days, in view of Tibet's affiliation with the Mongol empire, then Tibet would have been part of Mongolia, not China."

AA: They're known as expert storytellers.

LS: "Yes, it's true. Because as Mao Zedong used to say, when you repeat a lie a hundred times, it becomes a truth."

AA: What can one expect from the United States with Donald Trump in charge, and from European countries where far-right movements are gathering strength?

LS: "In global terms, we're seeing a decline in internationalism and liberalism; and we're also seeing the rise of nationalism and extremism. And they're both fated to go up against each other, as we've already seen with the Islamic State in various countries. So what we're witnessing is something different from what occurred at the end of the 1980s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, when there was room for liberalism and internationalism, for dialogue and discussion, for diplomacy as a tool for solving conflicts. Our challenge is to see how we can again increase internationalism and liberalism so that the internal discourse in different countries is determined by these relationships.

"Regarding the presidency of the United States and the new Trump administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation hearing, in effect said that he would meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and that he supports human rights for the Tibetan people and strengthening conditions so that the dialogue between China and Tibet can resume. In addition, the United States' ambassador to China has expressed himself more forcefully regarding the need to work on the human rights of the Tibetan people. We're hopeful that President Trump will continue the tradition of every administration of meeting with the Dalai Lama. His predecessors, Obama as well as Bush, each met four times with the Dalai Lama."

AA: You mentioned the importance of other Latin American governments, such as Mexico's, taking up the cause in favor of Tibet. What would your specific request to our government be?

LS: "You're aware that the U.S. government supports the one-China policy, and also supports the middle way approach. Today there's no contradiction in supporting both. The Mexican government could do the same, just as other Latin American governments could do. They can all declare they support the one-China policy, but also that of the middle way, which simply centers on having dialogues between the Dalai Lama's envoys and the representatives of the Chinese government in order to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully. By supporting non-violence, peace and dialogue. In this sense it is also a challenge for Latin American governments and leaders."

AA: In the confrontation between North Korea and the U.S., we see that non-violent means and dialogue are not being called for.

LS: "We are witnessing an almost replica of the international conditions that prevailed in the world during the period prior to the First and Second World Wars because, in effect, the mechanisms and tools of liberalism, of internationalism were replaced by nationalisms. And the lessons we should have learned from both the First and Second World Wars are that war and violence are not the option; diplomacy and dialogue are. The First and Second World Wars broke out because of events that were minor, but framed by a climate permeated by war, violence and nationalism. Tibet's proposal is based on dialogue and non violence. I know we are small, but I also know we are right, even in terms of current international discussions. That's why I travel from capital to capital around the world, raising Tibet's flag in favor of non-violence and peace."

AA: What can Mexico learn from Tibet's experience with China?

LS: "You should know that the occupation of Tibet began with the construction of a road. At the time, the Chinese Communist Party pledged that the construction of that road would connect Tibet with China; it argued that the road would bring peace and prosperity to both. Tibetans were paid in gold and silver coins so that it would build this road with the Chinese army. The Tibetans were so happy they composed a famous song that said that China was like its father or mother, bathing it in gold and silver. In fact, the Chinese government built a mint so it could send the greatest amount of silver coins to Tibet; they knew that all that silver would soon return to China. Once the road was built, the nice and friendly Chinese personnel switched personalities overnight: they began pointing their guns at the Tibetans, they brought trucks, tanks and that's how we lost our country.

"So now, when China speaks of its new policy whose purpose is to build lines of communication between China and the rest of the world-maritime ports, airports, railway line and roads all over the world-it reminds Tibetans of how the Tibetan diaspora began. When later on the Chinese built the railroad from China to Tibet, in reality they built it according to military specifications, and now all our trees, gold and copper, uranium and our various metals are used and mined in Tibet because they can bring much more complex heavy machinery by rail and take away all our natural resources. When the Chinese occupied Tibet, some of our leaders were also corrupted by them-in modern parlance, they were paid 'consultants' fees'. After the occupation, however, most of them were arrested. This is the side of China we've seen: a smiling face today and an angry one tomorrow. And that road of peace and prosperity turned into a road of death and suffering for Tibetans."

"Today, when the world talks about the airports being built on these islands south and east of the China Sea, we Tibetans already have five major airfields. What we see, plain and simple, is the plan China has been replicating over the years in different parts of the world; and when Tibet was occupied in the fifties and sixties, all the neighboring countries around the world said, 'This is very sad, very tragic, and there's not much we can do, but it won't happen to us.' Sixty years later, it's happening all over the world. Today, all of China's neighboring countries, like India, are saying, 'What is going on?' And we Tibetans reply, 'For sixty years we've been warning you that this would happen.' Now more people want to understand. Now people in Taiwan and Hong Kong say, 'We don't want to end up like Tibet.' But I repeat: we're still greatly perplexed when we see how it is that many countries don't understand what's coming, what China is capable of, and the history of Tibet is relevant because if one genuinely wants to understand China, one has to understand the Tibetan experience."

AA: Tell us about the problems facing the Third Pole (the Tibetan plateau) and why the world needs to hear about what is happening there.

LS: "Climatologists commonly call Tibet the Third Pole because after the North and South Poles, the Arctic and Antarctic, the Tibetan plateau contains the largest ice reserves in the world. The difference is that when glacial ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctic, it melts into the ocean. And when the ice caps melt in Tibet, they spill down the mountains, the highest mountains in the world, and they create the greatest rivers in Asia. The ten largest rivers in Asia flow from Tibet. In fact, the name India comes from the Indus River, the source of which is in Tibet. As we know, the Yellow River is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, and its source is in Tibet. This explains how 1.4 billion people all over this area depend on the fresh water that flows in Tibet. There are two sides to this problem: China contains 19 percent of the world's population, yet has only 12 percent of its fresh water. Today, 400 million Chinese already face a water shortage in northern and northwestern China. The situation in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India is much worse as far as fresh water is concerned. Many neighboring countries are extremely concerned about China's intention to divert all these rivers towards China and not share them with the rest of Asia as has occurred throughout history. Nor has China signed the United Nations convention on sharing water, which requires the sharing of water from rivers that naturally flow beyond a country's borders. Even climatologists and scientists have said that wars that used to be fought over territory are now fought over energy resources. Hence the conflicts in the Middle East, and tomorrow those wars will be fought over the white gold that is water.

"The second problem is that over the last one hundred years, 50 percent of the Tibetan glaciers have melted and disappeared. According to NASA, by the year 2100, of the remaining 46,000 glaciers that now exist in Tibet, 60-70 percent will also melt and disappear due to urbanization and industrialization of Tibetan plateau. At the same time, the Chinese have built many, many dams in Tibetan rivers and continue to exploit mine the minerals of the Tibetan plateau with total disregard for the environment, polluting the rest of the water. In addition, so many Chinese people are being relocated to Tibet in order to colonize it that the building of urban infrastructure has become a necessity. This is why Tibet is the world's most rapidly warming region. For each degree of increase in temperature in the rest of the world, there is twice the increase on the Tibetan plateau. If 60 or 70 percent of the Tibetan glaciers disappear, what are these 1.4 billion people going to do?

"Tibet is called the 'Roof of the World'; it is the planet's highest plateau, with the highest mountains with snow acting as a refrigerator: the land that cools the air that circulates around and through the rest of the world. These air currents affect not only Tibet, but the entire world, Mexico and Latin America included. This is why scientists at the University of California maintain, for example, that if one truly wants to understand global warming, one must begin by understanding the warming of the Tibetan plateau. Chinese environmentalists themselves are warning the Chinese government that 'Tibet must be declared the Third Pole National Park and we have to protect it.' And like the rainforests of Latin America, the Tibetan environment is just as fragile. It's been said that if this very delicate natural area is not protected, China, Asia and the entire world will very soon pay the price. This is why Tibet is vital to the rest of the world." * * *

On his first visit to Mexico, President Sangay met with dozens of young university students, many of whom are part of the so-called "millennial" generation, and to them he gave a particular message. At the conclusion of our conversation, we asked him to share it with us.

The president of the Tibetan Government in Exile told them that after the difficulty of his childhood and adolescence, his life underwent a wonderful transformation:

"I graduated with a degree from the University of Delhi, did my master's and doctorate at Harvard, worked at that university.in short, my situation was a comfortable one. But I left all that and went back to India to work for the Tibetan government. My salary is $450 U.S. dollars because this is a labor of love, and it is physically and emotionally difficult work, in every sense and in every way."

Click here to read the original Spanish version of the full interview can be viewed here.

Special thanks to Office of Tibet Brazil, Casa Tibet Mexico and TíbetMx.

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