The cause of Tibetan independence is not hopeless, Lobsang Sangay, leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, said in an interview Thursday.
“There is hope, primarily because of the Tibetan spirit and their continuing assertion of identity, and the sense of unity and solidarity inside and outside of Tibet has never been stronger,” Mr. Sangay said.
Mr. Sangay likened the Tibetan struggle to those of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the Cold War. Soviet occupation of those countries seemed irreversible in the 1970s, he said, but the convulsive changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall eventually led to their independence.
“I remember talking to people from the Baltic States, and I asked them, ‘Did you really believe in the 1980s that you would get back your homeland?’” Mr. Sangay said. “And they said, ‘In our heads, no. In our hearts, yes.’”
Mr. Sangay was elected last year to be the Tibetan prime minister, or Sikyong, making him the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile following the Dalai Lama’s decision to surrender his governmental responsibilities to focus solely on his religious duties.
The government has about 1,000 employees and $22 million in annual revenues, which result from a voluntary tax on Tibetans as well as grants from governments and nongovernmental organizations. His government oversees 32 refugee schools located mostly in India and has recently launched a private health insurance scheme to protect Tibetan refugees from financial catastrophe following a family illness.
Mr. Sangay spoke while seated in a modest office building in New Delhi that serves as his government’s embassy to the Indian government, its most important patron. Some 90,000 Tibetan exiles live in India, the most in the world.
He has proposed to the Chinese government what he said was a modest plan that would make Tibet an autonomous region within China. The Chinese have rejected the plan outright, he said.
He said that China’s increasing economic and political might would help the Tibetan cause.
“Yes, China is gaining influence, but are they gaining respect?” he asked. “You gain respect by respecting your people first.”
He noted that most Tibetans who are protesting Chinese rule were born long after Tibet was annexed by China.
“So even after 60 years, the Chinese government has yet to convince the Tibetan people that they should be under them,” Mr. Sangay said.
Mr. Sangay lives in Dharamsala, with the rest of the Tibetan government-in-exile. He left his job as a senior fellow at Harvard to take up the post of prime minister, for which he is paid about $360 a month. His wife and 6-year-old daughter remain in Massachusetts.