Tibetan leader visits Twin Cities: Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay spoke to about 200 students at the University of Minnesota Law School Friday

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When Chinese Minister of Health Dr. Chen Zhu visited the University of Minnesota last Monday, Zhen Wang wanted to attend. But the Chinese doctoral student was told she couldn’t hear the leader speak because she hadn’t been invited.

So when she discovered Tibetan political leader Dr. Lobsang Sangay would be part of an open discussion at the University days later— his first visit to the state since coming to power in August 2011 — she made sure to be there.

It was telling that this event was open while the other was closed, she said to Sangay.

“You put yourself on a higher moral ground than the Chinese Minister of Health,” she said.

Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, arrived at the University of Minnesota Law School Friday to discuss an increase in violent protest by Tibetans and his hopes for fruitful dialogue on the Chinese-Tibetan conflict in coming years.

Tibet has been under Chinese rule since 1951, resulting in what the 14th Dalai Lama called “a calculated and systematic strategy aimed at the destruction of their national and cultural identities.” Tensions in Tibet have seen a recent escalation, with 55 cases of protest by self-immolation since February 2009.

“We all know life is precious, but now 54 Tibetans have burned themselves,” Sangay said before another case was reported Saturday. “That is the level of frustration.”

Sangay, a Harvard University graduate, has worked extensively to create dialogue on the conflict through meetings with representatives from both China and Tibet.

Friday’s event, sponsored by the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, was meant to create this type of dialogue, said Tenzin Pelkyi, a first year law student who helped organize the event.

It was also important to show the Tibetan perspective, she said — something Sangay said is not readily available through Chinese media.

“We wanted to show Chinese students that the Tibetan government is transparent and accountable,” she said.

The crowd of around 200 included many Chinese students.

One repeatedly questioned Sangay’s credibility on the situation in Tibet, given that his exiled government is based in India.

Sangay responded that it is the Chinese government that will not allow him to enter Tibet, despite his requests to do so. Even when he asked to return and light a candle for his recently deceased father, he said, he was told there would not be enough people there to receive him.

Despite this, there are “plenty of sources” who provide information on Tibet, Sangay said, ranging from the hundreds of Chinese students and scholars he met during his time at Harvard to Tibetans who fled their native country for India.

“I was impressed by the style of discussion,” said Antonia Poller, a junior psychology student from Germany. “It was so open, and he stuck to the facts.”

Andrea Belgrade, also a psychology junior, said that by answering questions with facts, Sangay showed respect for the audience — unlike U.S. politicians, she said, who often stick to talking points.

“I think the U.S. government is not very transparent,” Wang said, adding that she wishes for more opportunities for dialogue between the U.S., Tibet and China.

Dialogue, Sangay said, is the only way to resolve the conflict. But while he is hopeful for the future, he is not necessarily optimistic.

In response to a question about how he manages the stress of his work, Sangay said it is his karma, his destiny and an honor given to him by the Tibetan people.

“When I go to sleep,” he said, “I think, ‘at least I tried something.’”