Tibetan leader Lobsang Sangay: Congress needs to hold China to account on Tibet

On April 24, 2013, two youths, Lobsang Dawa, 20, and Kunchok Woser, 23, lit themselves on fire near their monastery in eastern Tibet. The toll of Tibetans who have chosen to self-immolate has now reached 117, one of the highest in recent world history. The prime cause of this tragedy is the profound resentment of and resistance to China's continued occupation and repression in Tibet.

For more than 60 years under Chinese rule, Tibetans in Tibet have suffered a continual assault on their identity and dignity. Decisions about their land, their livelihoods and their faith are made without their consent. Chinese settlers stream into Tibet, taking the high-paying jobs. Tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads have been forcibly removed from their traditional grasslands, settled in concrete ghettos and reduced to poverty and alienation. Tibetans witness colonial-like development activities that loot Tibet's natural resources to a resource-hungry China. In addition, Tibetans deeply resent attacks on their Buddhist civilization, especially China's demonization of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its April 2013 annual report states that the “religious freedom conditions in Tibetan areas are worse now than at any time over the past decade.” Tibetans have every reason to believe that China wants Tibet but not the Tibetan people.

As a Tibetan, this is an extraordinarily difficult and sad time. Self-immolation manifests both the desperation and determination of the Tibetan people. The Central Tibetan Administration has consistently appealed and categorically discouraged Tibetans in Tibet from self-immolating as a form of protest. However, as Tibetans it is our sacred duty to support the aspirations of Tibetans in Tibet: the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet, and freedom for the Tibetan people.

Despite 54 years of occupation by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Tibetan spirit and identity inside Tibet remains unbroken. In the face of such oppression, Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile have strived to save their unique culture, religion and language, and anchored their struggle on the two core and unshakable principles of democracy and nonviolence.


With foresight and conviction, Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have legislated over the years to help Tibet. This has given political, moral and financial support to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision of a peaceful solution to the Tibet problem though the “Middle Way” approach that would provide for genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of Chinese constitution. Tibet is not a constitutional or an institutional problem for the government of the People’s Republic of China. As per Article 31 of the PRC Constitution, China has created a separate institutional mechanism of one country, two systems for Hong Kong and Macau. The Chinese leadership has also displayed the political will by forming a cabinet level committee to deal with Taiwan. However, when it comes to Tibet, the Chinese leadership has neither employed the available constitutional mechanism at its disposal, nor has it shown the political will to resolve the issue peacefully.

Under the enlightened leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetans in exile have built a vibrant model of democracy. The world witnessed a significant validation of this democracy when in March 2011, His Holiness the Dalai Lama fully devolved his political responsibilities to an elected Tibetan leadership led by the Sikyong. The Central Tibetan Administration, under the Sikyong’s leadership, is tasked with both pursuing a peaceful and negotiated settlement to the Tibet issue, as well as the development and welfare of more than 120,000 Tibetan refugees in South Asia. The exile community has become essential to preserving Tibetan culture, identity, liberty and dignity until they can flourish again in Tibet.

Tibetans are deeply grateful for the generosity of the U.S. government and the American people. Congress has enacted laws such as the Tibetan Policy Act to require reporting on human rights in Tibet, to ensure that Tibet is a priority in U.S.-China relations and to promote Tibetan-Chinese dialogue. 

As the elected leader of the Tibetan people, now charged with the political responsibilities formerly held by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 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.

Dr. Sangay is the sikyong, the democratically elected leader of the Tibetan people