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Harvard Law School Grad Runs For Tibetan Office

February 18, 2011

Published: Wednesday, February 16, 2011

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

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

“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

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

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
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