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Tibetan Freedom Fighter Recounts Role Leading Independence Movement at Tsai Lecture

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Former Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration Lobsang Sangay recounted his experience as the prominent political leader of a Tibetan exile organization amid political turmoil between Tibet and China at the 17th annual Tsai Lecture Wednesday.

A visiting fellow in Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Program, Sangay gave his talk as part of the Tsai Lecture series, which is co-sponsored by the University’s Tsai Lecture Fund, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute.

James Robson, director of the Asia Center and a professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, opened the event, describing Sangay as “honorable.”

During the talk, Sangay shared photographs of his time as Sikyong and described his efforts to help Tibet achieve full independence from China.

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Sangay said his decision to run for a spot in the Tibetan government was largely motivated by his deep Buddhist faith.

“For Buddhists, we are told you’re born and you’re bound to die,” Sangay said. “Now you’re going to die anyways, so what will you do when you leave?”

“I will do something where I can leave something behind and immediately it’d be your family, your community, your cause,” he added. “So as a Tibetan I have a choice here for Tibetan causes.”

Though Sangay said he has been criticized for his lack of experience and for “bringing the American system of election to the Tibetan society”, he “gave a smile anyways” and captured 55 percent of the vote for the position of Sikyong in 2011.

As the Tibetan independence movement’s progress stalled and Sangay’s attempts at dialogue with the Chinese government failed, Tibetans began performing self-immolation in protest, according to Sangay. 2012 alone saw 85 acts of self-immolation, he added.

“As a human being, life is precious,” Sangay said. “But as a Tibetan, I understand your aspirations — your aspirations are that you want to see the return of His Holiness Dalai Lama Tibet and freedom for Tibetans. I support that.”

“That is my aspiration too, so as a human being, please don’t do it,” he added.

Sangay also said he sought support from the United States government, meeting with officials in public places — including coffee shops, cafeterias, and hotels — because he said he was not permitted to enter the Department of State or the White House.

Though talks with the U.S. were initially unsuccessful, Sangay said he campaigned for Tibetan autonomy on CNN and BBC while engaging with other countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, and South Africa.

“Finally, after 10 years of being a nomad, wandering around, where I was rejected by anybody, I entered the State Department,” he said.

In part due to his efforts, Sangay said Congress passed the Tibetan Policy Support Act — which dictated that the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders would be left up to Tibetan Buddhists to decide without Chinese interference — in 2020.

Sangay concluded his talk by reiterating his commitment to the Tibetan movement.

“I’m born a freedom fighter, I’ll die a freedom fighter,” Sangay said. “So I will be part of the Tibetan movement for a long time.”

Correction: March 11, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lobsang Sangay referenced 85,000 acts of self-immolation in support of Tibetan independence in 2012. In fact, Sangay said there were 85 of these acts.

—Staff writer Audrey Zhang can be reached at audrey.zhang@thecrimson.com.

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