DUBAI – A Harvard-trained legal scholar was sworn in Monday as new head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, taking over from the Dalai Lama as the official leader of his people's fight for freedom.
Lobsang Sangay immediately confronted a host of challenges.
Sangay is the first secular figure to ever lead the deeply religious Tibetan community. He was born in the eastern Indian town of Darjeeling and has never visited Tibet. China has rejected his legitimacy and refuses to negotiate with him. It would be almost unthinkable for him to veer from the policies set by the revered Dalai Lama, and because he was only chosen by the tiny fraction of Tibetans abroad during April elections, it is difficult for him to claim he represents all his people.
Sangay appeared unfazed.
"Tibetan leadership is far from fizzling out. ... We are here to stay," he said, adding that he would work to fulfill the Dalai Lama's vision to create a truly secular democratic society.
Tibetans playing traditional musical instruments and hundreds of children, men and women cheered as the Dalai Lama accompanied Sangay to the brief swearing-in ceremony at the Tsuglakhang temple in the northern Indian city of Dharmsala, where the exile administration is based.
Buddhist monks and nuns surrounded Sangay as he took his oath and assumed office as the Kalon Tripa, or prime minister of the Tibetan exile government. The Dalai Lama hugged and blessed the new leader after the ceremony.
Sangay has vowed to follow the Dalai Lama's approach of seeking increased autonomy for Tibet within China.
"We are also willing to negotiate with the Chinese government any time, anywhere," Sangay told the huge crowd that gathered for the ceremony.
The Dalai Lama, 76, announced in March he would be giving up his political role as leader of the Tibetan exile movement, though he would remain the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.
The Dalai Lama, the 14th in a line of men said to be the living incarnation of Chenrezig, a Buddhist god of compassion, says he needed to resign as political leader because he feared chaos would erupt after his eventual death, when the Chinese government and Buddhist monks are certain to argue over the identity of his successor.
"Now, that danger is no longer there," he said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press.
The Dalai Lama fled into exile in northern India in 1959. The Indian government allowed him to establish the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, setting up schools, hospitals and housing for the hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who fled China over the past five decades.
The Dalai Lama, one of the world's best-known leaders, and worshipped as a near-deity by most Tibetans, has said he will continue to advocate for the Tibetan people and will allow the exile government's envoys to act in his name.
China, which has vilified him for decades as a separatist troublemaker but dislikes the exile government even more, is also forcing him to remain involved. Chinese leaders have said they will only hold negotiations -- which have gone on for nine fruitless rounds already -- with his representatives.