Stanford scholar vies to become next Tibetan Prime Minister

April 8, 2011, 2:34 a.m.
Stanford scholar vies to become next Tibetan Prime Minister
Stanford scholar Tenzin Tethong, who directs the Tibetan Studies Program, is a contender in the election for Tibet's next Prime Minister. Election results are expected April 27. (Courtesy of Tenzin Tethong)

Stanford scholar Tenzin Tethong, who chairs the Tibetan Studies Initiative, ran for ‘Kalon Tripa,’ or Prime Minister, of Tibet’s government-in-exile this March. Election results will be announced April 27.

Following the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement that he will leave politics, the Prime Minister’s leadership will likely be more important in the near future. Tethong’s opponents are Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay and government-in-exile official Tashi Wangdi.

According to Tethong, the Tibetan exile population numbers approximately 150,000 people, and 80,000 to 90,000 of them registered to vote. To be eligible, voters needed to show proof of financial contribution to the India-based government-in-exile. The ultimate turnout was about 70 percent.

Tethong, who previously held the role of prime minister from 1990 to 1995, said he would work to promote greater awareness among the Chinese about the status of the six million Tibetans living in China if elected.

Tethong said he sees it as his duty to speak out on behalf of Tibetans living in China.

“We want the Chinese people to understand the true history of what’s happened in Tibet,” Tethong said. “We want the world to know that this is not just a complicated political problem, but that this is basically an issue about right and wrong, an issue about justice.”

In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army of China invaded Tibet. Dissatisfaction with Chinese rule led to unrest, culminating in a 1959 uprising in Lhasa during which tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed.

Tethong argued that Chinese leaders must acknowledge this past and allow Tibetans the right to self-determination.

“Tibetan society should be an open, free and democratic society,” he said. “That’s a good beginning point so we don’t have to argue about history, but we move ahead and see how best to help the Tibetan community.”

He asserted that although the Chinese government views social and political liberalization in Tibetan areas as a source of instability, greater freedom would actually lead to peace.

Born in Lhasa and raised in India, Tethong has been a life-long activist for Tibet. In 1967 he joined the government-in-exile as a translator, and in 1968 he helped start a magazine in India. From 1973 to 1990, he was the Dalai Lama’s representative in the United States.

Finally, he came to Stanford in 1995 after the history department invited him to teach a course on Tibetan history. Since then, he has instructed a number of courses on Tibet.

Tethong’s other duties at Stanford have included work with the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies. He has also been involved in fundraising for a chair in Tibetan Studies.

CCARE Director and School of Medicine professor James Doty praised Tethong as an experienced and committed leader.

“The next several years will be profound in regard to Tibetans and the Tibetan Diaspora community as His Holiness steps away from active participation in politics,” Doty wrote in an email to The Daily. “In this regard, it would seem that an individual who has demonstrated his commitment to the Tibetan people over decades, has the deep respect of His Holiness the Dalai Lama [and has] worked in a leadership position in essentially every major Tibet organization would be an ideal prime minister at such a time of uncertainty and change.”

Paul Harrison, professor of religious studies and co-Director of the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies concurred.

“One of the things he has on his side is experience because he served in that capacity before and he has the trust of the Dalai Lama and of many people in the Tibetan establishment,” Harrison said.

Tethong said his desire to improve the world keeps him motivated.

“I’m one of those who believes that the world can and should be a better place for all, and that’s part of what keeps me involved doing what one might call ‘community work,’” he said. “I choose to do most of that within the Tibetan community because I’m most familiar with that community. I understand its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s an area in which maybe I can make my best contribution.”


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