The head of Tibet’s India-based exile government visited the White House last week for talks with administration officials in what is being called a ‘landmark’ development in U.S. policy regarding China’s rule in the politically sensitive Himalayan region.
The Nov. 20 visit by Lobsang Sangay, the elected head or Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), was the first by a Tibetan exile leader in over 60 years and angered China, which considers Tibet a “core national interest” and an inseparable part of China.
Sangay met for an hour with representatives from the office of President Trump and Vice President Michael Pence, the Harvard-educated Tibetan leader told RFA’s Tibetan Service in an interview after Friday’s meeting.
“I feel this was a real breakthrough for future CTA presidents after we had pressed on the door of U.S. administrations for the last nine years to gain this recognition,” said Sangay, now nearing the end of his second and final term in office as Tibet’s elected exile leader.
Sangay said that in his meetings with administration representatives he had discussed issues ranging from China’s human rights violations in Tibetan areas, including the forcing of Tibetans into forced-labor programs, to Beijing’s interference in the recognition of Tibetan spiritual leaders and the impact of Chinese development projects on Tibet’s environment.
“We also conveyed a greeting to the U.S. president through a close representative who was present at the meeting and thanked him for his policy of putting pressure on China,” Sangay said. “And we expressed our appreciation to the vice president and secretary of state for their support and for calling on China to respect human rights and religious freedom in Tibet.”
Sangay also expressed his thanks for the continued U.S. funding support for Tibetan exile programs overseas, noting that bipartisan support for Tibetan issues has remained strong over many years in the U.S. government and Congress.
“We believe this support will continue unchanged,” Sangay said.
In a new and unexpected signal of government support, Sangay said, a White House representative present at the meeting told him that the U.S. State Department had referred in a November report, The Elements of the China Challenge, to what it called China’s “military occupation of Tibet that dates to the 1950s.”
A formerly independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force nearly 70 years ago, following which the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled into exile in India and other countries around the world.
The United States has officially recognized Tibet as a part of the People’s Republic of China ever since, but presses in diplomatic exchanges with Beijing for greater autonomy and protections for Tibet’s culture, language, and religion in Tibetan regions of China.
Chinese authorities meanwhile maintain a tight grip on the region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of ethnic and religious identity, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.
Beijing reacts strongly to what it calls foreign meddling in Tibetan affairs and slams international gestures of support for Tibetan freedoms and rights or for top-level foreign meetings with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
On Saturday, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper said the Tibet question “concerns China’s core national interests” and called Washington’s Friday meeting with Sangay a “grave interference in China’s internal affairs.”
“The so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’ is a separatist political organization seeking to achieve ‘Tibetan independence,’” the Global Times said.
Reported and translated by Tashi Wangchuk for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.