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Tibetans get new political leader

Exiled Tibetans worldwide will get a new political leader on Wednesday, after electing a prime minister who faces the daunting task of taking on a role embodied for decades by the Dalai Lama.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2011 10:36 IST

Exiled Tibetans worldwide will get a new political leader on Wednesday, after electing a prime minister who faces the daunting task of taking on a role embodied for decades by the Dalai Lama.

The election result was scheduled to be announced around 10:30 (0500 GMT), with Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard scholar and international law expert, widely tipped to beat the other two candidates for the post.

Born in a tea-growing area of northeast India, Sangay has never visited his homeland and marks a break with the past, which has seen older, religious figures dominate the politics of the exiled Tibetan movement.

The other candidates are Tenzin Tethong, a former representative of the Dalai Lama in New York and Washington, and Tashi Wangdi, who has run half a dozen departments of the government-in-exile over the years.

All three candidates are secular figures. In the first round of the election in 2010, Sangay triumphed with nearly 50% of the votes.

The first direct election of the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile took place in 2001, as part of the Dalai Lama's stated efforts to provide a durable, democratic foundation to the workings of the Tibetan movement.

Subsequent elections have largely been low-key affairs with the job seen as an administrative post with few policy-making responsibilities.

However, that all changed with the Dalai Lama's announcement in March that he wanted to retire as the Tibetan movement's political leader, transferring his powers to the newly-elected prime minister.

Although the Dalai Lama, 75, will retain the more significant role of Tibet's spiritual leader, the transition will make the new prime minister a far more prominent figure than his predecessors.

"His Holiness is 400-plus years of institution," Sangay said in March in an interview in Dharamshala, a town in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas where the Tibetan exile community has been based for more than 50 years.

"No one can replace or substitute him. The major challenge for anyone is to build up a reputation and credibility," he said.

The Harvard scholar, born in a Tibetan settlement in Darjeeling, insists however that there is hunger in the community to "see the younger generation taking over the leadership."

The Dalai Lama's idea to devolve power reflects concern about how to sustain a struggle for Tibetan rights that the Nobel laureate has single-handedly carried since fleeing his homeland to India in 1959.

The worry is that when the Dalai Lama dies the Tibetan cause, stripped of its totemic leader, will fade into obscurity. An elected figure is seen as a solution.

But this route is fraught with difficulties.

The government-in-exile is not recognised by any foreign governments, China refuses to acknowledge it, and its legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans in Tibet might be questioned without the Dalai Lama's patronage.