Tibetan Vermonter Hopes To Bring His Country Independence Through Parliamentary Bid

Mar 25, 2016

The Himalayan country of Tibet came under Chinese control in 1959. And since then, many Tibetans have lived outside their country.

Last weekend, tens of thousands of Tibetans throughout the world voted for their prime minister and parliament for their government in exile.

Out of those votes, 88 were cast in Burlington High School and on the ballot was a Vermonter running for Parliament.

Kalsang Gangjong Gesar Tsang isn't the most conventional Parliamentary candidate. He's a motel owner by trade, and he's never worked directly for the government in exile.

So before his first political debate in Washington D.C., he was nervous. His face felt hot as cameras flashed all around him. He didn't have notes prepared.

"Everyone knows [the other candidates] famous. But me not really," he recalls.

But after his first few debates, he received calls from Europe, India, and Canada. He didn't know who they were. And they told him - You did a good job. Keep going. And he has.

Since he joined the campaign this January (he waited until 2016, since this would be the 16th Parliament), he's crammed in four debates and pushed for an online campaign. He realizes now that his working experience gives him a practical edge.

"I'm not a politician, I'm just working. What we has. [We do] what ... we need to do. What's possible now," he says.

The ballot lists the six candidates running to represent North America in the exiled Tibetan Parliament.
Credit Yu Sun Chin / VPR

On settling down in Burlington

Gangjong Gesar Tsang, who goes by GGT, first came to the U.S. in 1993 as a refugee. He became one of the first Tibetans in Burlington. In his first few years, he made hats for teddy bears in the morning and scrubbed dishes by night. It was a relentless seven-to-midnight schedule, six days a week.

So when he opened his motel - GGT Tibet Inn - 16 years ago, he drew some relief.

"I'm the owner, I'm the boss. If you want to take a break, it's more free," he says. "That's why I'm feeling more happy."

Opening his motel has given him more money and time to focus his attention on his passion - the Tibetan cause for independence.

His platform is simple. If he wins, he plans to visit states with sizeable Tibetan populations, and ask them about their main concerns.

He sums it up like this: "How do we keep culture, how do we make freedom, how do we go back?"

How to preserve Tibetan culture in the U.S. - that's something he's thought through already. He opened a language school for Tibetan children on Sundays during his time serving with the Tibetan Association of Vermont.

But going back to Tibet is a more complicated question for him, and for thousands of Tibetans around the world. The country has been under Chinese control since 1959. The government and the Dalai Lama have been in exile in India ever since.

"I [lived] in Tibet. I don't really know what freedom means. What does it mean?" - Kalsang Gangjong Gesar Tsang

It's a reality that GGT finds hard to forget.  

"I [lived] in Tibet. I don't really know what freedom means. What does it mean? I know the word but what it really means," he says.

Election day

On election day, an assembly line of volunteers awaits the voters at a long table. Many shuffle in with family members, some wearing traditional Tibetan robes and shirts.

In each of the voter's hands is a small Green Book. It's an identification card issued to Tibetans living outside of Tibet and one of the few legal documents that links them to the government in exile. It's what allows them to vote, even though those inside Tibet cannot.

Tibetan Vermonters register to vote in the Burlington High School cafeteria for parliamentary elections. Votes were cast, March 20, and results from North America will be available March 27.
Credit Yu Sun Chin / VPR

"Being in America gives us that kind of platform to voice out our opinion," says 20-year-old Tenzin Dolma.   

For many there, the vote isn't defined by hugely divisive issues. It's defined instead by the same existential questions that GGT has grappled with - how will they preserve their culture in the U.S.? And how will they campaign for independence?

With his vote, 50-year-old Tenzin Chophel has a simple wish.

"I've never been Tibet ... I'm dreaming about going to see Tibet someday."

Results for the North American votes come out Sunday, March 27.