In early January, a quarter million believers gathered at the sacred northern Indian site of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2,500 years ago, to mark one of the most important events on the Buddhist calendar. Among the crowd were more than 8,000 Tibetans who had defied threats from the Chinese authorities to attend the Kalachakra ceremony, which would be conducted by the Dalai Lama. Spread over 10 days beginning on the first day of the year, the ceremony involved elaborate purification rituals, meditation, and special prayers for peace both within oneself and in the world. Among those attending was Lobsang Sangay, the first secular, democratically elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, which is based in the Indian town of Dharamsala. It was his first appearance before such a large gathering since the Dalai Lama passed on his political authority to him in August last year.
Sangay, who is supposed to be a secular leader, is not especially religious. In some ways that is ironic, for these days he is finding that his options for action are limited mostly to prayers for peace. Over the past three years, distraught Tibetans inside China, many of them monks and nuns, have unleashed a desperate protest by setting themselves on fire to express their discontent with increasingly harsh Chinese rule. (To date 25 of them have succeeded in ending their lives in this way.) Sangay, for his part, has never set foot on Tibetan soil; he has seen his homeland only in pictures. So the Kalachakra ceremony gave him a unique opportunity to mingle with his compatriots, many of whom had risked their personal safety to get there, and who were sure to be detained by the suspicious Chinese security forces at several new checkpoints on their long way back home.
On a cold, rainy day, brushing aside warnings by his aides that Chinese spies had infiltrated the pilgrims, Sangay plunged into the crowd. He was mobbed. Hordes rushed forward to greet him, some reaching for his hand while others broke down and cried. Elderly people prayed for him and blessed him, asking him to deliver them from Chinese rule. "It was a deeply emotional experience for me," says Sangay. "I feel fortunate to have their blessings." He will need all the goodwill that he can get, and more, if he is to keep the hope of freedom alive for his people.
For now, that goal appears to be a long way off. Beijing's unrelenting stance toward dissent in Tibet remains firmly in place. The spate of self-immolations and other protests in Tibet and its neighboring provinces has triggered a predictably harsh response, as the government has flooded many parts of the region with armored vehicles and heavily armed troops (many equipped with fire extinguishers to be deployed against would-be human torches). The whole area is under a virtual lockdown in the run-up to March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetans' 1959 uprising against the Chinese authorities. China's increasing economic might has forced crisis-ridden Western nations to fall in line with Beijing. Even the United States, which has traditionally advocated a negotiated settlement in Tibet and often called upon China to respect Tibetans' rights, did its best to humor Xi Jinping, soon to be the next Chinese president, on his recent visit to America. China's crackdown on Tibet was hardly mentioned as U.S. politicians and business leaders rolled out the red carpet for Xi in Washington.
Compare the Chinese leader's stature with that of Sangay. He is a prime minister without a country. He commands no military. He runs his administration on a shoestring budget, most of which comes from donations. No country recognizes his government. His main opponent, the Chinese communist leadership, dismisses him as illegal and unrepresentative. And yet his confidence appears undented. Last year the 43-year-old former Harvard scholar was elected Kalon Tripa (prime minister) by Tibetan exiles scattered in some 30 countries around the world. "This position gives me a megaphone and louder volume," Sangay said recently in Dharamsala. "I use it for Tibet and the Tibetan people as much as I can."
There are hardly any other options at present. As grim tidings of new self-immolations reach his modest office in the Himalayan foothills in Dharamsala, Sangay finds himself with little means for defending his people other than his voice. But even it is failing to stir up governments around the world against the Chinese crackdown.