Harvard Law School Grad Runs For Tibetan Office

Harvard Law School graduate and research associate Lobsang Sangay is hoping to lead a government with no borders and no jurisdiction in the country it says it represents. After an eight-month campaign traveling to settlements across the world, Sangay hopes to become the next prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile.

Sangay, the first Tibetan graduate of Harvard Law School, came to Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship, where he earned both his J.D. and LL.M. While Sangay said that being the first Tibetan to graduate from the Law School is an honor, he added that the barrier could have been broken much earlier.

Sangay said that he hopes his success at Harvard will inspire young Tibetans to pursue higher education so that they can “continue to more effectively provide leadership in the Tibetan movement and community at large.”

He added that his education at Harvard helped equip him to serve the Tibetan community.

“Exposure to diverse views, ways of thinking, and how leaders conduct themselves have definitely helped me become both an individual and an academic, as well a leader,” he said.

Sangay said that conversing with Chinese students had been especially helpful.

“Meeting hundreds of Chinese students helped me understand their perspective and also equipped me in sharing the challenges in the present occupation of Tibet,” Sangay said.

Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Leonard W. J. van der Kuijp said he has known Sangay since Sangay came to Harvard more than a decade ago and that Sangay has “always been very active within the Tibetan community in Boston” as well as in the broader Tibetan movement.

“He used to be very hardline, [with a] pro-independence Tibet mindset,” van der Kuijp said about Sangay when he first arrived at Harvard. “But in the meantime he’s mellowed quite a bit.”

Van der Kuijp said that Sangay—like the Dalai Lama—now realizes that an independent Tibet probably isn’t going to happen in his lifetime, and that there are other more effective ways to push for improved life for Tibetans.

According to van der Kuijp, Sangay has been “very active” in trying to encourage discussion and debate on campus by gathering Tibetans to discuss the region’s future, and by bringing Tibetans together with Chinese officials to encourage mutual understanding in each group-’s positions. Sangay organized and participated in five such conferences on campus.

Although Sangay has been active on campus in facilitating conversations between Chinese officials and Tibetan activists, neither he nor the government he is campaigning to run is allowed to enter Tibet. Centered in Dharamsala, India, the government operates completely outside of Tibet, and has jurisdiction over and is elected by a voting population of refugees in Tibetan colonies around the world.

The government employs over 400 individuals at its headquarters, and over 700 staff members in Tibetan settlements across the world, according to Sangay. The government also sustains a parliament and a judiciary, which overhears civil and administrative cases within the Tibetan community.

Before the campaign, Sangay traveled to different Tibetan settlements to give lectures and hold workshops. He said that while Harvard paid for his academic trips, all trips related to his candidacy have been covered by the campaign. The Tibetan population, though scattered, is small, and Sangay said it only takes a month and a half to visit all the settlements across the world.

Since last August, Sangay has split his time between the campaign and Cambridge—his home since 1995. If Sangay wins the election, he will have to resign his position at the Law School and move permanently to India, a step Sangay called a “compromise one has to make.”

“It’s a duty for a cause, for a movement. I’ve always worked for Tibet and the Tibetan people, now I’d be physically moving to India,” Sangay said. “These are minor challenges compared to the sacrifices made by Tibetans in Tibet.”

—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at carolinemckay@college.harvard.edu.

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