Student Works to Bridge the Divide Between China and Tibet
By Ruth E.C. Prince
Lobsang Sangay first took to the streets to demonstrate against Chinese occupation of his family's native Tibet at the age of 14. In a conversation with some older Tibetans, Sangay heard one of them say, "Look at the way that the Chinese are treating us. What we Tibetans need is a lawyer to defend us." Sangay graduated from the University of Delhi Law Center in 1994 and then won a Fulbright scholarship to attend the LL.M. program at HLS.
Since arriving at HLS, Sangay has worked to temper his approach, if not his views.
"When I first came to Harvard, I saw everything in black and white. When I discussed issues with Chinese students, in particular, I was always banging the tables," says Sangay. "It didn't lead anywhere. I could sense that, but it was my background as an activist. I don't think I have compromised my principles or values since coming to HLS, but what I have learned is the most effective way to talk and to make an argument."
His father, a monk in Lithang monastery in Tibet in 1956 when the People's Liberation Army stormed the area, nurtured Sangay's passion for the Tibetan cause. Many of the tribespeople took refuge in the monastery and defended themselves before the buildings were finally reduced to rubble and many of the inhabitants were killed. His father managed to escape to Lhasa, where he became a central figure, in charge of arms and munitions, for the Chushigangdruk, the Tibetan resistance group that helped the Dalai Lama escape from Tibet to India.
Although both of Sangay's parents fled to safety in India in 1959, many members of their family were not so lucky. Five of Sangay's father's siblings were killed fighting against the Chinese. One of his aunts jumped in the river and drowned herself and her small child rather than endure the weekly public humiliation for widows perpetrated by the Chinese troops. In total, more than 1 million Tibetans died fighting the Chinese occupation during this period.
After Sangay completed his LL.M. in 1996, he stayed on at HLS as a visiting fellow. Now he is an S.J.D. candidate researching the Chinese-Tibetan conflict and the internal democracy of the Tibetan government-in-exile. "At the East Asian Legal Studies program I have learned so much about Chinese history and Chinese law," he says. "I have learned how the Chinese argue, how they think, and what perspective they are coming from. I might not agree, but I can respond and discuss with Chinese scholars in a way they can understand. Now I can put Tibet in a Chinese perspective."
Since Sangay's arrival in the United States in 1995, he has constantly worked to create awareness and further discussion of Tibetan issues. He presents a weekly radio program for Radio Free Asia, teaches classes on Tibet to the New England China Network summer school for high school teachers, and has been featured on NPR and in magazines and newspapers including the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. He gives regular lectures at Harvard on the Chinese-Tibetan conflict and has spoken at other colleges and universities, including Columbia, Dartmouth and Stanford.
Some of Sangay's work is beginning to pay off. In the last year, he was one of the chief organizers of two conferences on Tibet held at Harvard in January and April. He and the other organizers of the January conference--sponsored jointly by Harvard's Fairbank Center and the East Asian Legal Studies program--decided to invite not only scholars from China, but also Chinese officials. "Good luck, but it won't happen," a senior official of the Tibetan government-in-exile told Sangay when he informed him of their plan. It had been almost 10 years since any Chinese officials had agreed to talk with representatives from Tibet. However, in an unprecedented move and under a strict agreement that participants were not allowed to speak with the press, top Chinese official and expert on Tibet Zhu Xiaoming attended the conference.
According to Sangay, the conference was marked by "intensive but civil discussion." And while some might call it coincidence, recently there has been what some observers are cautiously describing as a thaw in Chinese-Tibetan relations. Last January, Tibetan music scholar Ngawang Choephel, arrested in Tibet in 1995 while making a film on traditional music and dance, was released. In October, Tibetan nun Ngawang Sandrol, who was serving the longest sentence of any female political prisoner, was also released. And in September, two special envoys of the Dalai Lama, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, visited Beijing and Lhasa, the first time senior representatives of the Dalai Lama had publicly traveled to China since 1984.
Sangay hopes to facilitate at least one or two conferences a year in the near future. "It's doubletrack diplomacy," he explains. "While you have the official dialogue, you also need a parallel forum where Chinese officials and scholars can meet with Tibetans to test out ideas and have a fair discussion. It's essential to keep the dialogue going."
After completing his S.J.D., Sangay hopes to continue his work as a scholar wherever he can also best serve the interests of Tibet. Although he travels to India each year and misses the informality of Indian culture and the sense of peace in his home in a small Indian village, he also acknowledges elements of life in America that suit him. "Most Tibetans are shy and reserved people. They are more philosophers than lawyers," he says. "But by nature I tend to be quite frank and assertive, and I think I have become more like that since being here. In that way, America has suited me."