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April 18, 2011

Stanford scholar Tenzin Tethong could be the next prime minister of Tibet

The Lhasa native, who is the chair of Stanford's Tibetan Studies Initiative, awaits the results of the exiled government of Tibet's March 20 election. Results will be announced on April 27.

By Cynthia Haven

Tenzin Tethong, a distinguished fellow of Stanford's Tibetan Studies Initiative, is also president of the Dalai Lama Foundation. (Photo by Linda A. Cicero)

Stanford scholar Tenzin Namgyal Tethong's voice could barely be heard from his cellphone – the recent conversation, about his candidacy for the third prime minister of the exiled government of Tibet, occurred while he was at a noisy San Francisco demonstration for Tibetan freedom.

It was a typical moment for the lifelong advocate for Tibet, nicknamed "TNT," a candidate for prime minister of the exiled government. Elections were held March 20. Results will not be announced until April 27.

"The explanation is that many of the votes have to be physically brought in from remote parts of India and Nepal – and then, I guess, they want to count them carefully," Tethong said later, relaxing over coffee at Stanford.

The election occurs at a critical time for Tibetans: The Dalai Lama announced last month he would step down as head of state and administrative chief while remaining in his position as spiritual leader.

Leads the Dalai Lama Foundation

Tethong, a distinguished fellow of Stanford's Tibetan Studies Initiative, is also president of the Dalai Lama Foundation. He is the former chairman of the Tibetan cabinet and a U.S. representative of the Dalai Lama. He teaches about Tibet in Stanford's Continuing Studies Program.

The 63-year-old Lhasa native is chair of Stanford's Tibetan Studies Initiative and is also on the executive committee of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), an effort supported by the Dalai Lama.

The other candidates in the international campaign are Lobsang Sangay, a research fellow in the East Asian Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, and Tashi Wangdi, a Tibetan official based in Brussels.

There are about 150,000 Tibetans outside Tibet – a number that is dwarfed by the 6 million in the People's Republic of China. Does the election matter, given the intractable situation? Tethong says it does, "because people in Tibet know about the 150,000 in exile, how communities are set up, how schools are set up, how monasteries function, how we operate in a democratic manner, how we interact with people and institutions and cultures all over the world."

"These are all matters which they would like to be part of, too. They don't want to be stuck in some remote corner, as they have been in the past. They want to be part of a changing world."

In recent years, the Chinese government has encouraged ethnic Chinese to settle in Tibet, effectively diluting the Tibetan population. Tethong thinks the tactic won't work: "Tibet is not the most hospitable environment," he said. "It took Tibetans 20,000 years to get used to the Tibetan plateau. I don't think the Chinese will feel comfortable in 50 years.

"The main task of the Tibetan government and Tibetans in exile is to seek a solution to the Tibetan problem, to see that Tibetan people and the Tibetan nation restored to some rightful position. Exactly how that happens we don't know. There's a definite need for some solution."

Understands younger generation's frustration

A younger generation of Tibetans has expressed impatience with the Dalai Lama's commitment to nonviolence, and Tethong said he understands. "I think they have legitimate reasons to be frustrated about the situation. More than 50 years have gone by, with very little real progress about political status or rights of Tibetans. People obviously want changes to come faster."

He defended the Dalai Lama against the charges of some that he has failed: "I would say I don't think he has failed; I think Chinese leadership has failed terribly. They took a huge gamble in 'liberating Tibet' in the 1950s. Since then they have continued to make mistake after mistake. The failure is theirs, really. The Dalai Lama has played a positive role in trying to find a solution."

The Dalai Lama has refused to reconsider his decision to step down, despite pleas from the Tibetan government. Tethong said, "The matter of His Holiness stepping down impacts the role of the next prime minister a great deal and he will have to assume much greater political responsibility for the Tibetan struggle without the privilege of using any 'official' ties to the Dalai Lama."

The newly elected prime minister – the third to be elected by registered voters, rather than by parliament – is largely expected to take on the political functions relinquished by the Dalai Lama.

Tethong's involvement with the exiled government began as a child, after his own emigration from Tibet following the Chinese invasion. The Dalai Lama had started a school for the young men who had accompanied him out of Tibet in 1959.

Tethong's father, a teacher, was recruited to teach English and Tibetan history to the other refugees. "My older brother and I – I was about 10 at the time – had gone to school for a year or two in Darjeeling," Tethong said. The brothers began helping out by teaching basic arithmetic and English at the Tibetan refugee school in Mussoorie, India, in 1960.

In 1967, Tethong joined the exiled government's education office as a secretary and translator.

Tethong relocated to New York in 1973 to serve as a representative of the Dalai Lama. He worked to draft an appeal to the U.N. General Assembly for the Tibetan people. But the timing was bad in the years following Nixon's famous rapprochement with China.

"When I was there it was just to keep the doors open – to keep the office open, to see if something could be done. We were quite abandoned," he recalled. "No one wanted anything to do with us."

Tethong served as Kalon Tripa, prime minister of the Tibetan cabinet, from 1994 to 1995 in Dharamsala. He moved to California in 1997. Professors Mark Mancall and Carl Bielefeldt invited him to Stanford to lecture on Tibetan history, and he has remained affiliated with Stanford ever since.

According to Geoffrey Lewis, president of the Committee of 100 for Tibet, "Tenzin is skilled at bringing people together – and keeping them together. He is a long-term visionary, continuously thinking about how to best advance the Tibetan people's cause."

If elected, Tethong would likely move to Dharamsala. His election also will present the world with an unexpected twist: Tethong is a naturalized American citizen, as well as a Tibetan citizen.

"We are global citizens," he said wryly.



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Tenzin Tethong, Buddhist Studies: (650) 804-0700,

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