Cardin, Sangay, Kaine

The Sikyong with Senator Ben Cardin on the left and Senator Tim Kaine on the right.

Sikyong (Tibetan leader) Lobsang Sangay visited Washington DC from May 6-10. It was his third visit to Washington as the Tibetan political leader (there was also a visit in 2011, during the Kalachakra, between the time of his election and his inauguration).

Like previous visits, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay’s itinerary was full of meetings and opportunities for photos with elected officials. A full wrap-up of the details of his visit can be found on the Central Tibetan’s Administration website,

Lobsang Sangay did three public speaking events, the webcasts of which are all available. The highlight was an event at the Council on Foreign Relations office in Washington. He was interviewed by Chinese law scholar Jerome Cohen and took questions from the audience. He also appeared on CPAN’s call in program, and was interviewed (in Tibetan) by the Voice of America’s Tibetan (Kunleng) and Chinese programs, as well as by Radio Free Asia Tibetan service.

As listed on, he met with several Members of Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Tim Kaine (D-VA), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Jim McGovern (D-CA), and with Congressional staff members. According to the report, he “discussed a range of issues related to Tibet” and “made a case for why Tibet is important and requested support from the Congress.”

In addition, the Sikyong met with representatives of human rights organizations at a meeting hosted by the International Campaign for Tibet, and with other NGOs.

A window on his substantive agenda in DC can be discerned in an opinion piece published in The Hill, one of the daily trade papers circulated in and around Congress. Lobsang Sangay wrote:

I look to Congress for your continued support in advancing a peaceful solution to the Tibet question. It would be extremely helpful if Congressional foreign policy committees could hold hearings on Tibet. Congress has established several financial assistance programs for Tibetans and continued funding is vital. Lastly, I urge the U.S. Congress to further strengthen its efforts to encourage the Chinese government to enter into a meaningful dialogue to resolve the Tibet issue peacefully.

These points have long been the baseline of requests for Tibet, as evidenced in the work of the International Campaign for Tibet over 25 years. Continued Congressional support is extremely important in preventing the Tibet issue from being smothered by the weight of the complex U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. Congress was the first parliamentary body (in 1987) to give the Dalai Lama a forum to advance his peace plan. The several Tibet aid programs were designed not only to tangibly assist Tibetans, but also to elevate the Dalai Lama’s standing vis-à-vis the Chinese in his quest for a negotiated solution. And Congress’ effort to codify support for the dialogue (through the Tibetan Policy Act, which did other things) has served to solidify the Tibet issue, centered on dialogue, as a constant within the policy-making apparatus of the State Department.

The challenge for Sikyong Lobsang Sangay and the Tibetan leadership is to identify and execute the next step in advancing the Tibet issue within the current political circumstances. Amidst the political transitions in Beijing and Dharamsala, the self-immolations in Tibet, Beijing’s new global and regional assertiveness, and the reactions to the popular revolutions in the Middle East, the CTA’s foreign policy must be more than just to raise awareness. The challenge is how to harness diplomatic capital that can be invested in initiatives that move the ball forward with the Chinese.

While the Chinese government has the responsibility for conditions inside Tibet and thus for allowing for change, their frustrating intransigence has left little reason for the international community to look to Beijing for the next move (although governments must continue to push). Thus, it is a reality that the challenge falls on the Tibetans to come up with an innovative new idea on how to break through the current impasse.

Over the last two years, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay has explained in public the CTA’s fealty to the Middle Way approach and desire to resume dialogue with the Chinese – that they are ready “anywhere, anytime” talk and that they put “substance over process.” But it will soon be a year since the two envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama resigned without prospects for a new round of dialogue since the last in January 2010. At some point, diplomats in the capitals Lobsang Sangay visits will want to hear ideas for how he intends to advance this position, and how to overcome China’s refusal to deal directly with the CTA. Of course, he may already be sharing this in closed door-meetings.

This of course is a challenge to the entire Tibet movement. All of us — TSGs, academics, policy-makers, individuals — owe the Tibetans our best efforts to think and strategize on ways that we can help address the core issue. We can provide our counsel to the CTA. But in the end, it is on Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, the elected leader of an institution that is the legitimate representative of six million Tibetans, that falls the burden of deciding on the next step to take.

As an elected leader of an emerging democracy, and one who has taken on the label of the “political successor to the Dalai Lama,” Lobsang Sangay must speak to many audiences: his voting constituency in the diaspora, his non-voting constituency in Tibet, international government and media, the Indian government and media, and, perhaps most importantly, the Chinese people and the Chinese leadership. Complicating matters further, he must balance the roles as leader of a movement, who emphasizes unity, and the leader of a democracy, who must navigate diversity and criticism – a challenge he has readily acknowledged.

This is no small challenge, as was evidenced in his Council on Foreign Relations speech. Responding to a question about implementation of autonomy, he said, “we don’t challenge or ask for an overthrow of the Communist Party. So we don’t question or challenge the present structure of the ruling party.” The remark is clearly designed for the Chinese leadership, and is consistent with what the Dalai Lama has said and the negotiating strategy of his envoys as laid out in the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy.

But it caused some heartburn among his Tibetan constituency, both inside and in exile, and the CTA issued a clarification.

Almost two years into his term, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay faces the overlapping tasks of advancing foreign and domestic policies with foreign and domestic audiences. Of course, this is a complexity that any head of government has to manage. His visits to Washington have shown that he has easily stepped into the cradle of Tibet support built up by those who came before him, and that he has the ears of policy-makers in Washington. The challenge now is to give these friends of Tibet an innovative initiative they can embrace and push forward to serve the fundamental goal of improving the lives of long-suffering Tibetans in Tibet.

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1 Response » to “Sikyong Lobsang Sangay’s visit to DC, and the challenges ahead”

  1. [...] Lobsang Sangay’s first two years in office have shown him to be readily able to communicate and engage with diverse audiences.  He has stepped into the cradle of support for [...]

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