Democracy Lab

Hoping Against All Hope

Tibetans are setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. So is there anything the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile can do about it?

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.

That reality is depressing enough. But then, Sangay, like most Tibetan exiles, has been used to deprivation and loss from a very young age. He was born in a Tibetan refugee settlement, subsidized by the Indian government, near Darjeeling in the eastern Himalayas. His parents sold a cow to send him to school, where he showed keen interest in his studies. It was during his graduate work at Delhi University in the early 1990s that Sangay developed his interest in the Tibetan freedom struggle and started thinking of a life in public affairs. "We would finish our classes and then land up at Majnu ka Tilla [the Tibetan refugee settlement in north Delhi]," recalls Kaydor Aukatsang, his longtime friend and now his roommate in Dharamsala. "He was active in community affairs and would often join the protests at the Chinese Embassy [in New Delhi]." He became an executive committee member of the independence-demanding Tibetan Youth Congress, considered a terrorist organization by Beijing.

After earning a law degree from Delhi University, Sangay won a Fulbright scholarship in 1995 and landed at Harvard Law School. It was there that he became inspired by the Dalai Lama's attempts to democratize the government-in-exile. The 76-year-old Dalai Lama had begun laying the foundations of a democratic system for Tibetans as early as the 1960s. For nearly 350 years, the successive dalai lamas had led Tibet both spiritually and temporally. But the current, charismatic 14th Dalai Lama (named Tenzin Gyatso), who has lived in exile in India for over 50 years, wanted to separate the two roles and give up his political authority. In a move designed to outsmart the Chinese leaders who want to control his reincarnation, and with it the future of Tibet, the Dalai Lama last August handed over his political function to Sangay, who had earlier won a three-cornered, keenly contested election among some 50,000 Tibetan exiles.

That meant Sangay's physical move from a leafy suburb of Boston to the austere settings of Dharamsala and taking up a job that would fetch him a salary of about $300 a month. It also meant leaving behind his banker wife and their 5-year-old daughter.

Acutely aware of the Dalai Lama's immense popularity and lofty stature, Sangay realizes that to be effective he must come into his own and create a space for himself. He is careful not to be seen as trying to replace the Dalai Lama. "I am here not to fill his [the Dalai Lama's] shoes, because it's not possible," says Sangay. "I will try to make the movement stronger and sustain it after he is gone. We've to fulfill his vision of secular Tibetan democracy. We want to ensure the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet." He also does not fail to reiterate that he adheres to the Dalai Lama's "middle way" policy of seeking meaningful autonomy within China through nonviolent means.

That is a point he always underlines in his talks. And talking is a major activity in his nearly 18-hour workday when he is at his base in Dharamsala. He starts at 6:30, when he gets up and makes coffee for himself, which he relishes on his balcony overlooking the often misty valley below. A 30-minute stint on a treadmill and some stretching exercises keep his 6-foot frame in shape. He flies economy class and carries his own bags. He writes his own speeches.

A lone bodyguard follows him when he goes to his office and when he travels in Dharamsala. But though a direct attack by Chinese agents on Sangay seems unlikely, his government must be constantly on guard against attempts to undermine it in other ways. Last year, the Tibetan community was shaken after huge amounts of cash, including Chinese currency, were found in the monastery of the young Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual leader of growing popularity and stature, near Dharamsala. The discovery of the money, described as donations by devotees from around the world, prompted speculation of the Karmapa's being a Chinese spy, much to the distress of Tibetans and other Buddhists. Indian intelligence, however, never found any evidence to support those allegations. And now, senior Chinese leader Zhu Weiqun, in charge of Tibetan affairs, has ruled out talks, dubbing Sangay and his government "illegitimate."

Sangay's office is a simple room with a desk and a couple of sofas. A life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama adorns one wall of his office. He often joins other ministers to discuss official matters over lunch. The exile government runs over 40 schools and several hospitals and looks after settlements and monasteries spread across India. Sangay often poses with starry-eyed ordinary Tibetans for a photograph -- an obvious gesture to connect with the people from whom he has been away for nearly 16 years.

Some Tibetans think Sangay has been out of touch with ordinary Tibetans for far too long. "I didn't vote for him," says Palden, a young Tibetan refugee living in Delhi. (Like many Tibetans, he uses only one name.) "He does not seem to have any [administrative] experience." Some others find him aloof. "His stint in America has given him an edge," says a member of the Tibetan Parliament who requested anonymity. "And that can sometimes make him appear arrogant and pompous." Those are traits looked down upon by the generally courteous and deeply religious Tibetans.

Sangay admits that he is not very spiritual and does not have much of a daily religious practice. His knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan literature is rudimentary. But he is trying to improve upon that. It also remains a great challenge for him to inculcate secular values in a devoutly Buddhist Tibetan society. "He comes as a breath of fresh air," says Youdon Aukatsang, a member of the newly elected Tibetan Parliament. "He however has to prove himself and live up to the challenges facing him."

To his credit, Sangay does not underplay the challenges. Responding to the self-immolations entails a delicate balancing act. Like the Dalai Lama, he does not condone suicide -- and yet each new self-immolation generates powerful publicity for the Tibetan cause. He explains at great length how some Tibetans see no other way than immolating themselves to free their people. "I find him quite articulate and impressive," says author and Tibet expert Claude Arpi. "But I am not sure if the Chinese will take him seriously or open negotiations with him." Still, he has shown his readiness to hold talks with the Chinese, he says, "anytime, anywhere." He is also prepared to accept a status for Tibet like that of Hong Kong and Macau under China's "one country, two systems" policy.

There is no sign yet that that is going to happen anytime soon. But bleak prospects do not deter Sangay, who takes a long-term view of Tibet's difficult past and draws strength from the Buddhist understanding that change is inevitable everywhere. He says Tibetans are a sturdy people who have endured many upheavals without losing their optimism and fortitude. Though the 13th Dalai Lama had to flee to India when the Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1910, he was able to return three years later. It seems, for now, that Sangay will need a lot of praying to keep that hope alive for the 14th Dalai Lama.



What Happened to My Revolution

Five influential Egyptian protesters look back on a tumultuous year.

On Jan. 25, 2011, Egypt erupted into the now iconic uprising that raged for 18 days. The protests were the culmination of decades of frustration with the country's authoritarian regime, its stranglehold over political freedom, and growing economic inequality. The thousands, and ultimately millions, of bodies occupying downtown Cairo and city squares around the country represented every segment of society, uniting around the demand to topple the regime.

On Feb. 11, 2011, Egyptians made history: Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt's president, handing authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As Cairo's Tahrir Square emptied, however, divides emerged within the protest movement over the timing of elections, when Egypt should draft a new constitution, and whether continued street protests were necessary.

On the first anniversary of the uprising, five influential participants reflect on the last year, Egypt's future -- and how revolution is a lot more complicated than they thought.


In the run-up to the Jan. 25, 2011, protests, Gigi Ibrahim -- like everyone else in Cairo's activist community -- was walking on eggshells, expecting the worst from Hosni Mubarak's famously repressive security forces. The motley crew that made up Cairo's opposition movement was making its first attempt at simultaneous, coordinated protests throughout the country, and she had no idea whether it would succeed.

On Jan. 25, Ibrahim began protesting in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra and arrived in Tahrir Square around 4 p.m. -- when tear gas and street clashes already ruled the day. Over her upper-middle-class family's objections, Ibrahim became one of the revolutionary firebrands to regularly appear on Western media -- even making an appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show.

Ibrahim remains active in citizen journalism and is a grassroots coordinator for the Revolutionary Socialists, where she works with labor groups to hike the country's minimum wage -- a cause she sees as vital to the revolution's continued success. "For the movement to grow is do or die," she says. "If we're not able, as Revolutionary Socialists, to mobilize and organize labor and bring them into the revolution, if we're not able to expand our revolutionary ideas, not just we will be crushed -- the revolution will be crushed."

Ibrahim and the Revolutionary Socialists boycotted Egypt's latest parliamentary elections, arguing that the elected assembly has no real power. They will be out in full force this Jan. 25 to renew their call to strip away the vestiges of the Mubarak-era political system.

Egypt's political climate has transformed radically from last year, Ibrahim notes. The tight-knit activist community has split into larger politicized groups, but the main demands of the revolution remain the same.

"When you look at the list of demands and see what we achieved and what we didn't, of course we didn't achieve anything other than toppling Mubarak," she tells me. "But what we were able to achieve [is] to break that fear barrier, to put Mubarak in a cage."

Mosa'ab Elshamy


Zyad Elelaimy was a member of the 17-person "Revolutionary Youth Coalition" that organized the Jan. 25, 2011, protests, holding secret meetings and coordinating over social networking sites like Facebook to set the time and location of the small marches that would culminate in Tahrir Square.

Now, the 31-year-old lawyer is one of the youngest of the 498 elected representatives in Egypt's new parliament -- and he has already proved his determination to shake up the established order. On Jan. 23, during the chamber's opening session, Elelaimy threw proceedings into disarray by demanding to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Egyptian revolution, rather than to the state and constitution. He was sworn in wearing a yellow sash that read: "No to Military Trials."

Elelaimy's path to parliament was far from inevitable. Believing the new body would be a sham without a new constitution, many liberal activists called for a boycott. While Elelaimy agreed with his compatriots that the revolution was incomplete, he couldn't justify leaving parliament to supporters of the status quo. He ran as a liberal standard-bearer in the district of South Cairo. One of his campaign platforms was the irrelevance of the same chamber that he sought to join.

It was an uphill battle. Elelaimy appeared to be on the wrong side of the secular-religious divide that defined much of the election, which saw Islamist parties win two-thirds of the vote. "The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood were trying to say we are Christians, we are godless. They gave papers to the people and told them Zyad used to drink and all these kind of things," he remembers. "It was hard for me to tell people, 'I have a program. You have to look at my program; don't look at me.'"

After his first week of campaigning, deadly clashes broke out in November between protesters and security services near the Interior Ministry. Civilians once against faced off with security services, and scores were killed. Elelaimy suspended his campaign in protest and joined the activists in Tahrir Square. He still won.

Elelaimy plans to work inside the parliament to advance the demands of the revolution: lifting the country's draconian emergency law, abolishing military trials for civilians, and ending the rule of the military caretaker government. He also remains a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which is trying to mobilize masses of people on the Jan. 25 anniversary.

He's not convinced, however, that they will be able to pull it off. "Last year, I thought we would be in jail in the first 10 minutes. I can't expect anything. You work for something, but you can't tell the result," he says. As for the final revolution: "We'll start it on the 25th. I don't know when we'll end it."

Mosa'ab Elshamy


Mohammed Abbas, then a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, remembers being shocked by the sheer number of bodies in Tahrir Square on the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2011 -- estimated at 50,000. Abbas helped mobilize his group's members despite the Muslim Brotherhood's official ban on joining the early protests, and he fell to his knees to "thank God" for the turnout, he says.

These days, things have changed. Abbas is no longer in the Brotherhood Youth, nor is he impressed with just 50,000 people in the street. In June, influential members of the Brotherhood Youth broke with the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, over what they saw as a lack of internal democracy within the 84-year-old Islamist group. Thirty ex-Brotherhood Youth members founded the Egyptian Current Party, which works to mobilize youth in support of a civil state that protects individual civil liberties and embraces Islamic values, but does not enforce Islamic law.

The Brotherhood leadership promptly launched an investigation and booted the participating members. Abbas received the call that he had been kicked out when he was at a leadership conference in Malaysia.

Abbas ran for parliament as a member of the Current Party in Banha, the capital of the Qalyubiyah governorate, north of Cairo. His party was trounced, however -- contesting 10 seats but winning none. Despite losing, Abbas remains hopeful. "I think our party will be a leader in a few years," he says.

Although Abbas understands the importance of street mobilization and will be out again this year, he's unconvinced continued protests will bring about much-needed systemic changes. "It's also time to be realistic and pragmatic. The majority of us took part in the elections because we realized how important it was and how important the parliament is to achieve the demands of the revolution and to remove the power of the military rulers," he says.

While the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have decided to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution, Abbas is skeptical that there is much to celebrate. "We only achieved a step or two from our demands. We are still under military rule which applies emergency law, detains activists, and applies military trial for civilians," he says. "I think anyone who intends to go and celebrate on Jan. 25 needs to go and reconsider this choice because we still have a long way to go."

Mosa'ab Elshamy


Like Abbas, Ali Khafagy was a Muslim Brotherhood Youth member who went down to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, against the official position of the Islamist organization. "After hearing the chants for toppling Mubarak and the people demand the toppling of the regime, I knew it was a revolution that was going to achieve what it wanted," the 29-year-old activist says.

While Abbas split with the Brotherhood, however, Khafagy rose through the ranks over the past year to become one of the rising stars of the organization's youth wing. He joined its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as a deputy youth organizer in Cairo's sister city of Giza.

While liberals and leftists kept up a steady drumbeat of protests in Tahrir Square, Brotherhood members like Khafagy once again proved the edict that "all politics is local" -- campaigning in their electoral districts for the parliamentary elections, in which the FJP took 47 percent of the seats.

Like many of the young activists in the movement, though, Khafagy has misgivings about the slow reform process in the Brotherhood. His main goal is to work within the group to separate the political party from the social movement. "Honestly, up until now there has been no separation between the FJP [and the Brotherhood]; it's just cosmetic," Khafagy says. "All the activities or responsibilities must be coordinated between the guidance office [of the Muslim Brotherhood] and the elected parliamentarians."

Khafagy echoes the Brotherhood's stance that this Jan. 25 is a celebration -- not the beginning of a second revolution. "We will celebrate accomplishments, such as the parliamentary elections, dissolving the [deposed President Hosni Mubarak's] National Democratic Party (NDP), and toppling many of the corrupt figures."

Khafagy thinks that a three-day sit-in at Tahrir Square, between Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, should be enough. After that, he argues, it's time for Egypt to get back to the political process set down by the country's military rulers. "We think it's important to be patient with the road map that's been planned for now," he says.

Mosa'ab Elshamy 


One of Egypt's most subversive and prominent bloggers looks back on Jan. 25, 2011, as the culmination of years of frustrated political activism against the Mubarak regime -- and a moment to "play with the police." When the irreverent 30-year-old writer known to his readers as "Sandmonkey" found access to Tahrir Square blocked, he chartered a small speedboat to bring himself and a few friends across the Nile. When Mubarak stepped down 17 days later, Salem and his friends celebrated with two bottles of champagne and two boxes of beer in front of Starbucks.

As the revolution moved haltingly forward during the following months, Salem decided to run for parliament in the middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis. "I looked at the people who were supposedly running [as representatives of] the revolution, and I wanted to kill myself. I decided someone must run that actually wants to go in there and do something different, not be an idiot," he says in his trademark caustic style.

Salem, a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, ran as a representative of the secular Free Egyptians Party founded by prominent Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris. Salem says his intention was to stand as a bulwark against the growing power of Islamists, especially on issues of freedom of speech, including pornographic websites. He soon found, however, that activists' favorite hobbyhorses -- judicial reform, civilian oversight of the military, and police reform -- were divorced from the concerns of the Egyptian street. He finished in third place, winning 16,000 votes.

Salem wanted to see exactly how the system worked and found himself critiquing the mindset of his revolutionary clique. "Your biggest problem as a revolutionary is your access to information," he explains. "Revolution becomes a subculture; you don't hang out with people who disagree with you after a while. You speak of the people, in the name of the people, without actually knowing the people."

Salem blames the Islamist parties and the military caretaker government for preventing the progress of the revolution, and he gleefully predicts they will perish from their inability to halt the economy's downward spiral. "The people who stunted the revolution in order to maintain the status quo will reap what they sowed," he insists.

Salem will once again take to the streets on Jan. 25, 2012, as the coordinator of the Free Egyptians Youth Party. He is also working on opening two art centers for teaching graffiti artists to cultivate revolutionary culture, and he is in negotiations for his own television talk show aimed at the country's youth.

"Revolution is more than just an uprising. It's changing the way people act and behave," he says. "Change the values and you change the system. Top-down reform never actually works."

Mosa'ab Elshamy 

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