Tibet’s Tenzin Seldon and the slow “silencing of our cause.”


Tenzin Seldon is now in Bangkok, working with the U.N.

Tenzin Seldon was Stanford’s first undergraduate from Dharmsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The recent Ozy article that calls her the Dalai Lama’s righthand woman overstates the case (she’s met him “more than 10 times”), but I knew when I met her that she would be a powerful spokeswoman for Tibet and the decades-long “silencing of our cause.” After a stint at Oxford, the 26-year-old is now in Bangkok, working with the U.N.

I didn’t know much about her backstory, however. Like so many Tibetans, it’s a somewhat chopped-up history:

From her apartment in Bangkok, Seldon tells me about her refugee-kid days. An Indian-born child, she first attended boarding schools on the subcontinent before finding herself in the U.S. as a preteen. Here, she encountered her mother, who’d left her in India a decade earlier. Seldon says she “never quite fit in” anywhere and “always felt confused.” …

Seldon’s father — who remained in India as the minister of education — took her to vigils and protests as a 5-year-old, before she could even spell “nonviolence.” She attended a small public school in Minnesota, moved to California in high school and then headed to a local community college for two years before starting at Stanford. Seldon has “the sensibilities of the West, of America,” says Tenzin Tethong, the president of the Dalai Lama Foundation and former prime minister of Tibet.

Chinese hackers have infiltrated her computer and intercepted her emails – that’s to be expected – but they aren’t slowing her down. That’s to be expected, too:

You can find Seldon’s version of the nation in dignified protest around the world: She’s gathered 100-plus Tibetan and Chinese students to debate censorship and suppression under the moderating hand of His Holiness himself; she speaks out at multilateral delegations. She appears as the young, fresh face of Tibet in documentaries. And, of course, at the endless protests in the U.S. and the U.K., which find her quietly presiding — no megaphones or pickets here.

Seldon’s is perhaps the most high-profile political marketing job in the world, grander than the work of an average press secretary — when you don’t have a physical country with borders to protect and defend, your job becomes defining those borders. For decades, the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government’s strategy has been a kind of public evangelism for the Tibetan cause. Their success depends on world leaders acceding to their pressure. And if you’re not self-immolating, the next most important task is to present a face of peace and tranquility as an unofficial diplomat of sorts.


“Resolution, resolution!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met Tenzin during the visit of the Dalai Lama to Stanford back in 2010. She was organizing a private meeting with the Dalai Lama and Bay Area Chinese students and leaders. Here’s what I wrote then:

During his official Stanford events on Thursday, the Dalai Lama constantly stressed the importance of dialogue in resolving conflict – and he meant what he said.

At a late-afternoon private gathering at the Stanford Park Hotel, he spoke to nearly 100 Chinese university students from Stanford and Berkeley, as well as faculty, artists and a dozen Tibetan students from around the Bay Area.

Unlike his public talk at Maples Pavilion or the address to students in Memorial Church, this event was not sponsored by Stanford. The private event was organized by Tenzin Seldon, president of Stanford Friends of Tibet and the university’s first student from Dharamsala, where the spiritual leader’s government-in-exile is based. Seldon said of the Chinese students gathered in the courtyard, “These are the change-makers of the future.”

Perhaps the most moving query was by Fang Zheng, a wheelchair-bound young man who lost both his legs when he was crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square. In a Chinese exchange that evoked applause and laughter, he asked the Tibetan leader where he anticipated meeting this year’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, the writer Liu Xiaobo. Tibet’s Nobel Peace laureate answered, to more laughter, that it was hard to anticipate the future, but the likeliest spot was Beijing.

His advice to those fighting for more freedom in China showed less levity and more steel: “Resolution, resolution – persist to the end.”

Read the article about Tenzin here.

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