The Once and Future Tibet

As Tibetans in exile elect their latest political leader, will he be enough to unite a stateless, scattered community — especially after the 14th Dalai Lama is gone?

Lewis Page

May 13, 2021

The Once and Future Tibet
The 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in 2012 (Artemas Liu)

In 2011, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, then both the spiritual and political leader of the global Tibetan community-in-exile, announced that he would be relinquishing political leadership. Though some Westerners don’t know exactly what the Dalai Lama does, he serves as a critical figurehead for Tibetans who hope to reclaim their home, which has been under Chinese occupation since 1950. Ever since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, international attention on the plight of Tibet has come and gone, from the 1960s counterculture fixation on Tibetan Buddhism to the 1990s campus craze over “Free Tibet.” But through all these years, one constant has remained: the 14th Dalai Lama himself, the 10th most admired man in America. 

And so it wasn’t a surprise that the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the democratically elected government-in-exile that presides over Tibetans — an organization that the Dalai Lama had established in 1959 to help Tibetans transition to a self-sustaining government — made the rare move of contradicting the Dalai Lama’s wishes, urging him to reconsider his request to step down from political leadership. Ultimately, the CTA acquiesced. What followed was the Tibetan community-in-exile’s first democratic election for president, who is called Sikyong in Tibetan.

A decade later, the two-term tenure of Lobsang Sangay, the Indian-born first president of the Tibetan community-in-exile, has come to an end. Three months after a primary round saw eight candidates jockeying for the role, the CTA held the final phase of elections on April 11. The Dalai Lama stays out of political matters and has even said he might be the last Dalai Lama. But as the dust of the election settles and the CTA announces the winner this week, the old question still looms: how can support for the Tibetan cause be sustained, especially after the 14th Dalai Lama, now 85, dies?