Photos by Joshua Eaton unless otherwise noted


‘I’m just trying to voice my support for all the 6 million [Tibetans inside Tibet] who can’t speak up for their basic human rights’


Lhadolma Sherpa wasn’t bothered by the rain on Boston Common as she led fellow Tibetans in chants of “China lies, Tibetans die” and “China lies, the UN listens.”

It was March 10 — Tibetan Uprising Day, the anniversary of a 1959 revolt against Chinese rule. Around 200 Tibetans and their supporters were marching in laps around the Common, holding signs and chanting slogans to raise awareness about the dire situation in Tibet.

“I’m just trying to voice my support for all the 6 million [Tibetans inside Tibet] who can’t speak up for their basic human rights,” Sherpa said. “Even holding a Tibetan flag, you can land in prison for that.”

In Boston and across the country, Tibetan Americans are queueing up to vote in presidential primaries and looking ahead to November. But on March 20, they also cast ballots in an election for the Tibetan government in exile, based in India. It was a way of asserting their Tibetan identity and maintaining their culture, many said. The two elections also prove that nationality isn’t a choice — that Tibetan and American can exist fully, side by side.

Chanting at 3/10/16 Tibetan Uprising Day rally at the Mass State House

“I feel like it’s our duty as a Tibetan. Not just being in Tibet. Anywhere in the world. Just the fact that you have the right to vote, you have to,” Sherpa says.

At the same time, both elections have posed a challenge to the political establishment, and both have exposed divides between the older and younger generations.

Tibetans from around Greater Boston gathered at Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies in Medford on Sunday, March 20, to cast their ballots. The three-story yellow-and-gold house is an important cultural center for the local Tibetan community, with members often coming to pray and light candles or to attend community events.

They were voting for two open positions in the exile government: the prime minister and a representative from the Americas. The current prime minister of the exile Tibetan government, Lobsang Sangye, graduated from Harvard Law School and lived in Boston for many years. He ran for re-election against Penpa Tsering, the current speaker of the exile Tibetan parliament.

Thinley Ghopantsang of Somerville walked alone in the rainy Tibetan Uprising Day march. Speaking over the protest chants, he said it’s important for Tibetans living in exile to exercise democratic rights that don’t exist in their homeland.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“As Tibetans, we want to be able to freely express our opinions and thoughts in directing our country toward what we want to achieve,” said Ghopantsang, a 45-year-old construction company owner. “I believe holding a free form of election is very important to do that.”

The Dalai Lama set up the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, after he fled Tibet in 1959. It provides social services for Tibetan refugees and lobbies the international community. But China refuses to negotiate with the CTA, speaking only with the Dalai Lama’s direct representatives.

More chanting at 3/10/16 Tibetan Uprising Day rally at the Mass State House

Still, many Tibetans feel that the CTA represents them, according to Kaydor Aukatsang, the Dalai Lama’s representative to the Americas. “It’s the closest thing we have to a government in exile,” Aukatsang says. “So it represents the aspirations and the hopes of not just the 150,000 Tibetans in exile, but also the people inside Tibet, where the majority are.”

After the March 10 rally, high school friends Tenzin Phunkhang, Tenzin Thoulutsang, and Wangden Nangpa huddled in a circle. They were excited about this year’s presidential primary, when they’re voting for the first time. Asked who they support, all three said “Bernie” enthusiastically. That’s Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s built his campaign for the Democratic nomination on appealing to young voters.

“He’s really progressive, and he doesn’t take money from companies like Wall Street,” Nangpa, an 18-year-old senior at Medford High School, said of Sanders. “He’s just honest and he gives off that good vibe. He’s always trying to help the poor, just like Martin Luther King.”

“Not just for the poor and for other races, but also for Tibetans,” Phunkhang, also a senior at Medford High School, added. “He’s trying to progress this Tibetan movement and work towards our freedom.”

The friends were less enthusiastic about the upcoming Tibetan election.

“I’m not really familiar with Tibetan politics,” Nangpa said, bluntly.

Kalachakra Stupa for World Peace at Kurukulla Center in Medford, Mass | Image via YouTube

There’s a generational divide, said Phunkhang, and older Tibetans are more focused on exile politics. “I think our younger generation, we’re more cognizant and aware of the American politics than the Tibetan.”

Phunkhang turned 18 in January, cast her first vote in March, and plans to vote again in November. As for voting in the Tibetan election? “I would,” she said, “except I don’t think I registered.”

Elections are still relatively new in Tibetan society. Tibetans in exile elected a parliament for the first time in 1960, but the Dalai Lama still appointed the prime minister until 2001. He didn’t step down as head of state until 2011, when he transferred his political authority to the prime minister.

That slow progression was part of the Dalai Lama’s plan to ease Tibetans into democracy, at times against their will, according to Aukatsang.

“[T]here was a lot of anxiety within the community, because this was something which was really unprecedented,” he said. “People were reluctant to accept that responsibility. They were pleading with His Holiness not to do this.”

Despite his official retirement from political life, the Dalai Lama still casts a long shadow over Tibetan politics. His image hangs above parliamentarians as they debate in Dharamsala, and his birthday is an official CTA holiday. Most importantly, his “Middle Way” approach of seeking autonomy for Tibet within China, rather than full independence, has defined exile Tibetan politics for decades now.

It’s a polarizing debate. In 2012, long-time Tibet supporter Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) charged Lobsang Sangay, the current CTA prime minister, with forcing out the head of Radio Free Asia’s Tibet Section because he allowed pro-independence views. And just last year, many Tibetans say organizers pushed pro-independence views out of New York City’s Tibetan Uprising Day events.

Lukar Jam Atsok

Lukar Jam Atsok wanted to change that. In the first round of voting last October, Atsok ran for prime minister on a pro-independence platform. However, many Tibetans accused Atsok of disrespecting the Dalai Lama after he made comments strongly opposing the religious leader’s political positions. Penpa Tsering, the leading opposition candidate, even refused to debate Atsok.

“It is my right,” he told the Tibetan news site, “to not associate with a person who has made derogatory remarks towards the Dalai Lama.”

The exile government’s election commision did not let Atsok proceed to the final round of voting because, although he came in third in the preliminary round, he was more than 20 points behind the second-place candidate, Penpa Tsering. That caused many to claim Atsok was forced out for his pro-independence views.

Concerned about discrepancies with election rules, Rohrabacher wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Feb. 3 asking him to look into whether the CTA leadership was complying with democratic standards. “These developments are especially concerning,” Rohrabacher wrote, “given the substantial support and development assistance the United States Government has provided the Tibetan refugee community over the years.”

Back on Boston Common after the March 10 rally, Phunkhang, Wangden, and Thoulutsang chalked the controversy over Lukar Jam Atsok’s candidacy up to a generational divide. Older Tibetans aren’t used to Atsok’s ideas, according to Phunkhang, and so they didn’t get behind his campaign.

Attendees of 3/10/16 Tibetan Uprising Day rally sing the Star Spangled Banner

“We’re not saying that we support him, but he has some beliefs that are kind of radical and that the older generation can’t handle,” said Nangpa, who admitted that he doesn’t know much about the candidate.

“He’s introducing all these new ideas that these older generations haven’t heard, and they’re like, ‘Oh, how could you say such a thing?’”

That could also be said of Bernie Sanders, Phunkhang and Nangpa’s other favorite. Like Atsok, Sanders has been criticized as unrealistic and inexperienced — despite his overwhelming support among young voters. Still, Phunkhang is undeterred.

“Even if it seems unattainable, if you work hard and have the right person leading you, it’s attainable,” she said.

This article is part of ‘A Higher Allegiance: The Rise of a Transnational Identity in Boston’s Immigrant Communities,’ a series by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. ‘A Higher Allegiance’ was funded with a $10,000 crowdfunding campaign by BINJ on Beacon Reader.

Copyright 2016 Joshua Eaton. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.