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Tibetans in exile re-elect Harvard Law grad as leader

NEW DELHI -- Lobsang Sangay has been re-elected as prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile amid hopes that the Harvard-educated lawyer will vigorously pursue the cause of Tibetan autonomy.

Sangay was first elected in 2011, after the Dalai Lama gave up his political role.

A total of 150,000 Tibetan refugees live across the world, a majority of them in India. Of more than 90,000 registered voters, 59,353 cast ballots on March 20, election officials said on April 27 in declaring that Sangay had been re-elected as sikyong, or prime minister. Election officials also announced that a 45-member Tibetan parliament-in-exile has been elected.

Sangay, 47, was born and brought up in India. He won 57% of the vote to defeat his only rival, parliament speaker Penpa Tsering, according to officials in the northern Indian city of Dharamshala, where the self-styled Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA, is headquartered.

Both Sangay and Tsering have taken up the "middle way" approach advocated by the Dalai Lama, 80, that seeks "genuine autonomy" for Tibetans rather than independence from China.

Beijing does not recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile and accuses the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 following a failed uprising, of trying to split his motherland.

China and representatives of the Tibetan spiritual leader held nine rounds of formal autonomy talks from 2002 to 2010, when the Chinese walked away.

Beijing accused the Dalai Lama of engaging in "splittist" activities, saying his demand for "greater autonomy" has independence as its ultimate goal.

An independent Tibet is unacceptable to China.

Although the Dalai Lama has repeatedly insisted that he merely seeks autonomy within China, the negotiations have never resumed.

During his first term, which began in 2011, Sangay failed to break the ice with the Chinese government, though he remains hopeful of making headway in the future.

P.K. Gautam, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, noted Tibetan refugees' calls for "true autonomy" and said Sangay's re-election is "a good thing" for their cause.

"By now he has gained [enough] experience on how to proceed with his goal," Gautam said, while cautioning that the road ahead remains difficult.

The sikyong election process, which began in October, was marred by controversy and acrimonious exchanges between supporters of rival candidates. The Dalai Lama grew despondent.

The exercise also showed that not all Tibetan refugees favor the "middle way" approach. Lukar Jam, a candidate who failed to make it past the preliminaries, used slogans that called for Tibetan independence.

Jam finished third among five candidates in the initial voting, then criticized election officials for limiting the final race to two candidates.

Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from the state of California who co-chairs a caucus on Tibet, in February stepped into the matter by saying he was troubled by the runoff procedure.

"These rules appear to have the effect of anti-democratically restricting free speech and free association, at a time when the current CTA incumbents are seeking re-election," he said in a letter addressed to John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state, and to Gayle Smith, the administrator of the Agency for International Development.

On April 7, Sangay and Tsering held a joint press conference and apologized to the Dalai Lama for the "negative activities" that took place during the election campaign. They also expressed their commitment to ensure unity and harmony among Tibetans.

There is a "strong need" for unity and guarantee of faith in the community, Sangay said, promising to do his best to "fulfill the aspirations and vision" of the Dalai Lama. By then it had become clear he had won the polls.

China's ruling Communist Party has governed Tibet, the world's highest plateau, since 1951, when the resource-rich highland was incorporated into the People's Republic of China in what Beijing describes as "peaceful liberation."

China claims to have brought autonomy and development to the remote region, an argument that Tibetan refugees refuse to buy, accusing China of crushing their culture and religious life.

China, which has a long-standing border dispute with India, does not like the continued support India extends to the Dalai Lama. It has also urged other countries not to engage with the Tibetan spiritual leader. China has often requested that the U.S. not offer the Dalai Lama platforms for "anti-China activities."

In marking the 57th anniversary of the abortive uprising against Chinese rule, Sangay on March 10 said the longstanding differences can be resolved through dialogue between envoys of the Dalai Lama and representatives of the Chinese government.

"We remain fully committed to the middle way," he said, hoping leaders in Beijing will step forward to engage in dialogue. He also expressed gratitude to the Indian people and government for helping Tibetan refugees preserve and promote their religion and culture.

However, the prospect for any degree of detente between Tibetans in exile and Beijing remains dim. Chinese President Xi Jinping is further squelching political dissent across the country, and his government is stepping up its oppression of religious expression and activities in Tibet.

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