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Tibetan Prime Minister Brought Audience to Its Feet

Prime Minister of Tibet in exile both amused and educated an audience at Western Connecticut State University Tuesday.

Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, starts out what will become an extremely serious talk by discussing how he had to wait 30 minutes for one of the family's 12 chickens to lay an egg, because it is impossible to sell 11 eggs.

He talks about his Tibetan Refugee School, where the dumpling in the lunch dumpling curry was the only object in the world that defied Newton's Third law. It would, in fact, bounce higher than was possible. The school served cabbage curry for three months, followed by potato curry for three months, followed by radish curry for three months.

This, he tells the audience, from a man who ran for office without any political experience, who upon winning the office earns a monthly salary of $362, and no cook. This from a man who doesn't know the date of his birth, who grew up in a small village, who had no wealth, no prestigious name and had no campaign funds.

Some of the 550 people attending the lecture were students, including Sean Keenan, a sophomore History major, who is taking a Tibetan history class, which WCSU is offering in anticipation of the Dalai Lama's October visit to the university.

"I'm interested in the whole liberation movement," said Keenan.

Keenan's classmate Brianna Anania, likewise a history major, said she expected Sangay's talk to look at the moral issues involved in the political situation between Tibet and China.

"I'm interested to learn about a government in exile, how they work to advance the situation," Anania said.

Sangay's political career wasn't his idea at all. It all started when one of his friends posted an old photo of him in a T-shirt and his outdated biography on the Tibetan election website. He needed 25 endorsements to start the campaign. Getting 25 names took weeks.

"It was so embarassing. I was horrified," said Sangay. His friend endorsed him, then the friend's father-in-law and mother-in-law. A few days later, the man's father endorsed him and his mother endorsed him. Sangay still wasn't committed. He'd been living in the United States for 16 years and he earned his PH.D. at Harvard.

He called one of his good friends for advice. The man said, "The first thing you need is a good exit strategy."

He called a second friend, who said, "Give me two days. When he called his friend back in two days, the man said he called all of his friends in Washington D.C. and in India. "None of them are voting for you."

Armed with that information, he went to a third friend. He told him what the others said, and the man's advice was go for it. "What have you got to lose?"

The election was run in a Budhist fashion, meaning Lobsang Sangay couldn't ask for votes. He had to help the people running against him, and he said, "You can't be assertive or aggressive. You can't be 'Me, Me, I, I.'"

At one point Lobsang Sangay and his two competitors shared a 12-hour taxi ride. They gave each other campaign tips. Sangay told the other two how to visit a certain Tibetan refugee camp on a path that would cut five hours off the trip.

Once elected, Sangay said his goal is to end repression in Tibet with peaceful diplomacy, and that includes ending the self-immolations being done by Buddhist monks in Tibet to protest the repression by the Chinese government.

China took over Tibet in 1959, which is when the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama fled into exile.

Sangay told the audience no one believes Tibet can be free, just like no one believed Nelson Mandella would be freed, or the Soviet Union would collapse or the Berlin Wall would fall. Who believed in the Arab Spring? He said the English empire negotiated with Gandhi because his movement was nonviolent, and that is why the Chinese government will someday negotiate a deal with Tibet in the same way it has a deal with Hong Kong. Hong Kong remains part of China but it has its own unique standing inside the Chinese constitution.

"I am given this extraordinary opportunity," Sangay said. "I'm an ordinary guy."

Carrie Marie February 28, 2012 at 12:25 PM
What a wonderful article! You could learn quite a bit about the candidates as you watched them assist each other in a campaign. It would cast 'leadership' in a completely different light.

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