WASHINGTON -- The prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, said a grand religious gathering starting today in Washington will allow expatriate Tibetans a chance to meet their spiritual leader, a right denied their brethren inside China.
The Dalai Lama arrived in Washington on Tuesday for an 11-day Buddhist ritual known as a kalachakra, which organizers expect will draw upward of 10,000 followers a day from America, Asia and Europe.
His visit begins today with celebrations to mark his 76th birthday. He also will meet with lawmakers during his stay, his longest in the U.S. capital. The White House has yet to announce whether he will meet with President Barack Obama.
Such a meeting would anger China, which accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking independence for Tibet, although he has said he wants only autonomy for his homeland within China.
In May, the Dalai Lama relinquished his leadership of Tibet's government-in-exile, giving up the political power that he and his predecessors have wielded over Tibetans for hundreds of years.
Although he remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, his decision to abdicate is one of the biggest upheavals in the community since the Chinese crackdown led him to flee in 1959 into exile in India.
The exile government will now to be led by a 43-year-old Harvard legal scholar, Sangay, who won an election in April. Sangay grew up in a refugee camp, the son of a Tibetan Buddhist monk who took up arms against China after his monastery was destroyed.
Sangay, who will take up his post next month, said Tuesday that continuing Chinese repression inside Tibet is a tragedy, and he urged continuing U.S. support for Tibetan autonomy.
In recent months, Chinese authorities have been accused of a crackdown at a prominent Tibetan monastery in Sichuan province, where in March a 21-year-old monk set himself on fire to protest Chinese rule.
Sangay said that while the kalachakra was not staged in Washington for political reasons, he said that the gathering was an expression of a desire shared by Tibetans inside China.
"We are here to be blessed by His Holiness. We are able to do so here, in the free world, but inside Tibet we are not able to do this," he said. "Tibetans inside Tibet have this same basic right."
"We are entitled to have our freedom, and we shall have our freedom," he said.
Sangay asserted that his election by Tibetan exiles grants him more recognition as Tibet's political leader than the communist party's secretary inside the Chinese-controlled territory.
But he acknowledged that it will take time for him to establish his credibility among Tibetans as he assumes responsibilities previously carried by the man worshipped by his people as a living deity, the Dalai Lama.
For their part, Chinese leaders, who for decades have reviled the Dalai Lama as a separatist, have promised to hold negotiations on Tibet only with representatives of the monk. The discussions have gone on for nine fruitless rounds already.
"Whether they want to talk to me or not is secondary," Sangay said. "The primary issue is to solve the issue of Tibet."