Earlier this year, the self-immolation of one Tunisian fruit vendor sparked a region-wide series of revolutions that upended autocrats around the Middle East. Meanwhile, no less than 10 Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire this year to protest Chinese repression in their homeland, but the international community has yet to take notice.
Lobsang Sangay, the newly-elected prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, is in Washington this week to raise awareness of the dire human rights situation in Tibet and to call for U.S. support. He'll be meeting with senators, congressmen, and NGO leaders to educate them on the deteriorating situation in Tibet, but he has not been granted any meetings with senior Obama administration officials -- presumably due to their fear of creating friction in the relationship with China. He sat down Monday for a long, exclusive interview with The Cable.
"The urgent message is the ongoing self-immolations," Sangay said. "That reflects the desperate state that Tibetans are in. They are forced to take such drastic action, which is really sad. The motivation is that they want to highlight the oppressive policies of the Chinese government.... It's tragic."
He met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a long time supporter of the Tibetan cause, and plans to meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and others. He will also speak on Wednesday at the National Press Club and testify before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).
Sangay is hoping Congress will pass a resolution expressing solidarity with the Tibetan people and criticizing the repressive Chinese policies. He is also building support for his effort to provide funding that will help young Tibetans in exile receive an education in India and Nepal. Overall, he is simply hoping to highlight to Washington the worsening plight of Tibetans inside China.
"Many people are giving up their lives thinking the international community will come and hear their voices and support them," he said. "A resolution from Congress will send a message to Tibetans that their sacrifice is not in vain."
He also wants the Obama administration to put pressure on the Chinese government to improve the situation in Tibet. Sangay said the administration has raised the issue "in general" with Chinese leaders, but that he's not aware of any formal, concrete action by the administration on this issue.
The list of Chinese aggressive policies in Tibet is long, Sangay said, including economic marginalization, cultural assimilation, environmental destruction, and political repression. The crackdown on dissent has been increased, particularly in monastic communities, since the Tibetan uprising of 2008.
"Inside Tibet, they are giving up their lives and saying ‘Hear us. We are in a terrible situation and it's not worth living. We want you to acknowledge that you see us and you hear us,'" Sangay said. "So to acknowledge their suffering and to raise their aspirations and concerns, also to the Chinese government, that would go a long way."
We pressed Sangay to comment on the perception that the Obama administration has mistreated the Tibetan government-in-exile -- for example, by downgrading the location and publicity of Obama's meetings with the Dalai Lama and, in one case in Feb. 2010, making the Dalai Lama leave through a back door of the White House and walk past garbage in order to avoid the press.
"If we could have a result-oriented action, that would be most welcome. But a public display of support [by the Obama administration] has a symbolic meaning because that would encourage other countries to follow suit," he said. "We welcome both public and private gestures and public gestures have added significance."
He said the Chinese government is moving thousands of ethnically Han Chinese into Tibet to change the demographics of the region, and is installing party apparatchiks inside Tibetan monasteries under the rubric of "democratic management committees." He also said that an undeclared martial law has resulted in scores of Tibetans being arbitrarily arrested under trumped-up charges and then often disappeared altogether.
"When you read accounts of Chinese action in Africa, it looks like a replication of what is happening in Tibet," Sangay said, alleging that Tibet's water and other natural resources are being diverted out of the region. "Ten major rivers of Asia, which feed about one-third or more of the world's population, flow through Tibet.... You can call water the ‘white gold of the 21st century' and the Chinese are controlling that. It's affecting millions of people in Asia and creating a lot of tension."
So why hasn't the Tibetan crisis gotten as much world attention as the Arab Spring? In short, Sangay said that Chinese censorship and the isolation of the Tibetan community has impaired its ability to broadcast news of its plight.
"That's why I'm here, to make sure that these sacrifices do not go in vain," Sangay said, emphasizing that his government does not encourage self-immolation but feels a duty to speak up for protesters once they have acted.
The Chinese government doesn't recognize Sangay's government and often accuses him of promoting "anti-China splittist activities."
The Chinese government has sought to nominate the next Dalai Lama, a selection that Tibet's spiritual leaders said on Sept. 24 belongs to the current Dalai Lama alone. Sangay denounced China's position as ironic, given its denunciation of the Dalai Lama.
"It's a declared communist party, which believes that religion is poison.... They call the Dalai Lama the devil and they ban his photograph. So they want to choose the devil's incarnate?" Sangay said.
Sangay is not your typical prime minister-in-exile because, following the Dalai Lama's decision to transfer all political authority to the prime minister, he won the first really competitive race for the post. Before that, he spent 15 years in the United States, including time as a fellow at Harvard Law School, where he organized several meetings between Tibetan and Chinese scholars.
Sangay is committed to what's known as the "Middle Way," which refers to a call for Tibet's political autonomy and religious freedom but not independence from China. He sees a model in the example of Hong Kong, which is part of China but operates in its own way.
"I have a track record of someone who invests and believes in dialogue and I've met with hundreds of Chinese scholars," he said. "Many Chinese scholars do believe the Tibet issue is solvable because our demands are quite reasonable. It's the hard liners at the leadership level that are yet to come around."
He also said that the Tibetan issue is a matter of ethnic tolerance in China.
"They are willing to grant autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau because they are Han Chinese ... why they are not granting Tibetans autonomy is because they are Tibetans," he said. "Unless the leadership believes in diversity, they will never understand democracy.... Once they grant autonomy to Tibet, they will come around to embrace diversity, which will be the beginning of the real democratization of China."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.