An Unsung Hero’s Mission for Tibet: An Interview with Thubten Samdup

Thubten Samdup

Thubten Samdup, the Outgoing Dalai Lama’s Representative for Northern Europe based at The Office of Tibet, London speaks about his lifelong commitment for Tibet and the Tibetan people’s non-violent freedom struggle and their challenges. He is a recipient of the 2005 ‘Unsung Heroes of Compassion’ award.

Early Years

Thubten Samdup (also known as ‘Sam’ among his western friends) was born in Lhasa in central Tibet; both his parents are from Kham. His father was a trader of tea, barley and wool, his mother a farmer. In 1959, Samdup fled the Chinese occupation when he was only 7 years old with his parents and younger brother. They escaped to India, where the family sought refuge in Kalimpong. Later, he was placed in a government reception centre for Tibetan refugee children (Bhuso Khang) in Dharamsala. A year later, he and sixteen other youths were selected and enrolled in the Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society, now known as the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), the first exile organisation established by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

At TIPA, Samdup studied traditional Tibetan music and dance, and later was awarded a John D. Rockefeller III Fund schola

TIPA Group Photo, 1963 (Photo courtesy: Thubten Samdup)
TIPA Group Photo, 1963 (Photo: Thubten Samdup)

rship, under which he studied ethnomusicology at Brown University in Rhode Island. A second JDR III scholarship enabled Samdup to document the oral traditions of Tibetan music.

After returning from America in 1976, Samdup was appointed as Director of TIPA. Whilst in Dharamsala, he became involved with the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress (RTYC) and later served as its President for three years from 1978.

In 1980, Samdup moved to Montreal, Canada where he settled with his Canadian wife and two children. In Montreal, he served in the local

Tibetan association and became its president and served for eight years. He was later elected as the first member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile representing Tibetans living in North America (1991–1996).

Samdup co-founded the Canada Tibet Committee and for seventeen years, he served as its National President (1987–2004). He also created Canadian Parliamentary Friends of Tibet in 1991 – a non-partisan group of Parliament members and Senators working in support of Tibet. In 1992, Samdup started the World Tibet Network News along with three other editors – an electronic news service that publishes daily news on Tibet to global audience to create awareness on the Tibetan situation. In the same year, he also started TSG Email List – an online communication tool which enables enhanced communication and better co-ordination amongst the core Tibet support groups around the world. For the non-English speaking support groups he created separate German, French & Spanish email group lists.

At Press Conference in Parliament Hill (Photo: Thubten Samdup)
At Press Conference in Parliament Hill
(Photo: Thubten Samdup)

In 2006, Samdup established Drelwa (Online China Outreach) – enabling virtual interactions between Tibetans in exile and Chinese Netizens. In addition to reaching out to the Chinese, the initiative also created employments to Tibetans. He assumed the Chairman’s role of the Dalai Lama Foundation in Canada in 2007.

In Canada, Samdup organised five visits by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as key meetings between His Holiness and leading Canadian political parties and religious leaders, including the then Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin. The 2004 meeting between His Holiness and Prime Minister Paul Martin was regarded as ‘strategic’ from the Tibetan side. This followed after securing almost two-thirds of the Canadian parliamentarians’ support, calling upon the Prime Minister to serve as an honest broker between the leaders of China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives.

Thubten Samdup’s prominence in the Tibetan community rose after launching his personal initiative – Kalon Tripa Candidate’s Campaign, which sparked an unprecedented level of interest from the Tibetan populace on the 2011 Kalon Tripa Election.

In 2009, Samdup was headhunted by Dharamsala (despite not being a CTA public servant) from Canada for his dedicated service and pioneering initiatives for Tibet and the Tibetan cause. He was appointed as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Representative for Northern Europe (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the UK). Samdup started his diplomatic mission exactly five years ago in August 2009 based at The Office of Tibet in London.


(Canada Tibet Committee)

Q1: Thubten la, you moved to Canada in 1980 with your Canadian wife, Carol Samdup. I hear that your wife is also a very dedicated Tibet supporter. I understand that with your wife, you founded the Canada Tibet Committee in 1987, and served as its President until 2004. Please share with us your roles – for example, how you started this major Canada-based Tibet NGO and its activities. This includes outreach with the Canadian Government and Parliament that has affected Tibetan people’s freedom struggle.

Thubten Samdup (TS): Yes my wife has played a very important role in everything I have done in my life. Without her unconditional support, I could not have carried on with all my crazy initiatives and ideas.

Thubten Samdup la with Tsering Passang (Photo: Rinzin Wangyal)
Thubten Samdup with Tsering Passang
(Photo: Rinzin Wangyal)

Canada Tibet Committee was established in 1987 right after the major uprising in Lhasa. Group of teen age Tibetans and some non-Tibetan friends from Montreal started a long March from Montreal to Canada’s national capital Ottawa. It took us five days to get there and we received national coverage since the Chinese soldiers firing on innocent and peaceful Tibetans became international news.

Many Canadian friends came forth and offered to do what they can to support our cause. I felt that we needed to establish a formal organisation and this is how CTC was created. Within two years, we had 11 branches across Canada and the interesting thing about CTC is that almost all branches were headed by Tibetans. I can say this with great pride that we were successful in our mission mainly because the Tibetan communities across Canada supported us.

Q2: I hear that the ongoing Tibetan Re-settlement Project (1000 Tibetan refugees from Tezu, Miao, Bomdilla and Tuting) from Arunachal Pradesh, north-east India to Canada was the result of a humble request made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to some Canadian authorities. I wonder whether there is any link or role that you and/or the Canada Tibet Committee might have played in facilitating this re-settlement project?(a project that will continue to change the lives of thousands of Tibetan refugees, who are from a poorer sections of our community in India). If so, will you please share with us the background?

TS: We had been discussing about the possibility of perhaps trying to bring in more Tibetans into Canada for some years but the final breakthrough came about during His Holiness’ visit to Montreal in September of 2009. Last day of His Holiness’ visit to Montreal, he met with the former Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and the Chair of the Canadian Parliamentary Friends of Tibet, Senator Con Di Nino, in a hotel near the airport. This is where His Holiness made the appeal to Minister Jason Kenney and to his credit, he saw it through.

Once the announcement was made, CTC’s former Director Mr. Dermod Travis and Mr. Nima Dorjee la from Calgary started Project Tibet Society and they have been doing amazing work so far.

(Democracy & Youth Engagement)

Q3: After the launch of the Kalon Tripa Candidate’s Campaign website, almost three years before the Tibetan General Election, this initiative eventually brought forward over 20 candidates (both men and women) to the Tibetan electorates. Many public and private discussions on the 2011 Kalon Tripa election were held in Tibetan communities around the world, along with the need for choosing a strong Kalon Tripa candidate to lead the Tibetan Movement forward. Finally, Harvard legal scholar Dr Lobsang Sangay was elected as the Kalon Tripa (now Sikyong). Did you ever anticipate this level of interest from the Tibetans in Exile particularly amongst the younger generation when you first came up with the notion of this campaign? Are you pleased with the way it rolled out eventually?

TS: I am extremely pleased and proud that I was able to make a small difference in our “Journey to Democracy”. My motivation from the start was to make sure that we find the best possible candidate who can lead us in these difficult times and the only way we will find such a person is if we all start searching for such a person. The way our current system goes, by the time a call for nomination in announcement from Dharamsala, it does not allow a new person who does not have the name recognition in the general public to become a serious contender. That is why I launched the initiative almost 3 years before the election on September 2nd of 2008. Even Sikyong himself today jokingly admits had it not been for the initiative, he may not have been the Sikyong today.

(International Tibet Support Network)

Q4: Whilst serving at the Canada Tibet Committee, I believe you co-founded the International Tibet Network (formerly known as International Tibet Support Network). Please tell us why you saw the need for this global network and how it all began? What are the challenges the Tibet Support Groups today face in their pursuit of supporting the Tibet Movement?

TS: Because I had started the listserv for Tibet Support Groups around the world, I used to receive many queries on Tibet and help for more information. Since I had a full time day job in a major Canadian engineering firm and all the work I did on Tibet are done from my basement on weekends and week night, I felt that we needed to establish an umbrella organisation that can oversee and coordinate the works of TSGs around the globe, I propose the establishment of International Tibet Network in Berlin, Germany and it received unanimous support from all delegation including former Kalon Tripa Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche.

(The Office of Tibet – Mission, Roles and Responsibilities)

Q5: Your official position is Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Northern Europe. Do you simply represent His Holiness the Dalai Lama and support with facilitating his visits to the countries of your jurisdiction? Or do you also represent the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in its pursuit of political, cultural and diplomatic relations with those countries? How many people are currently working at The Office of Tibet? There is also an affiliated charitable wing – the Tibet House Trust. Please explain what you as Representative and The Office of Tibet do for Tibet and Tibetan people?

TS: In this role, we do both. His Holiness’ overseas trips are very important part of our job and we all take this responsibility very seriously. We also represent CTA. We meet regularly with officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and members of parliament from the countries under our jurisdictions.

In London office, there are only three people working in the office including the Representative. With our limited resources, we have tried to be strategic and with innovative ideas to further the cause of Tibet. I have always felt as a Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, opportunities are limitless.

Q6: What level of recognition (diplomatic status) does the British Government (and also in other countries of your jurisdiction) give to the Central Tibetan Administration and The Office of Tibet? During His Holiness’ visit to the UK and other countries, what level of security protection and reception do the governments provide through your good offices?

TS: Of course no countries in the world recognize Tibet as an independent country and therefore the Office of Tibet and the Representative do not receive the diplomatic status. However, some of the smaller countries particularly the Baltics States treat us with more respect and they are more sympathetic.

I have found that most countries in Northern Europe provide reasonable security during His Holiness’ visit. For instance, Poland and some of Baltic States provide high level security. Whatever the reason the UK government’s security arrangement is minimal.

Q7: I learned that the Tibet House Trust has recently secured 1.5 million Euros for some capacity-building related programmes in the exiled Tibetan community. Can you please explain more about this grant and how it will be best utilised?

TS: Yes we have managed to raise 1.5 million Euros and it is being used for capacity building for human rights defenders.

Q8: In the past whenever His Holiness paid visits to the Houses of Parliament, The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet were involved to organise interaction with the British MPs, who are sympathetic to Tibet and the Tibetan people. However, in the case of the 2012 UK visit by His Holiness, I noted that, unlike your predecessors, you handled it differently. You involved The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Food & Security for His Holiness’s meeting with British MPs. This new approach has attracted the largest numbers of British MPs ever attending His Holiness’s event in parliament. Could you please share with us why you have done it this way?

TS: Yes this is true. It was handled differently in 2012 and the reason for this is simple. Most of the visits of His Holiness abroad, he meets politicians who are already supporters of Tibet and people knowledgeable about Tibet. I felt it is very important to be more strategic to invite and facilitate His Holiness to meet with new audience. For instance, many parliamentarians find it difficult to attend meeting with His Holiness when the invitation is extended from a Tibet friendly parliamentarian group like the APPG for Tibet for instance. That is why I decided to go with All Party Parliamentarian Group for Food & Security. There are 650 members of parliament in the British parliament, we must try and get those parliamentarians who may not necessarily have an interest in Tibet but interested in seeing His Holiness. This is the only opportunity when we can attract these politicians and diplomats alike.

Q9: In August 2009, you said that your London appointment was four-year term but you stayed on for five! What extra things have you achieved in the fifth year that you did not achieve during the original four-year mission?

TS: The reason we extended one more year is to finish off some of the work I had started for next year (2015) when His Holiness turns 80. I wanted to make sure all loose ends are tied and my successor can follow up.

Q10: I hear that after leaving The Office of Tibet next month, you have plans to work on a youth employment initiative in the Tibetan settlements. Is this true? If so, please tell us what is this all about? Do you have funds available to kick-off your initiative?

TS: Yes it is true. I find it very important that we must come up with a strategic plan to help those young Tibetans who may choose to live in the community and raise their children in the Tibetan culture and also look after their aged parents. We must provide them with an option. Of course I have no magical solution but I am positive we can come up with something interesting to provide decent paying employment opportunities.

I had visited all the major Tibetan settlements in Karnataka State in 2006. During the visit, I felt something had to be done. Unfortunately, I had no time to devote to this project in the last 5 years in London. Now with little more time on hand and with cooperation with CTA, I want to try something innovative and sustainable project to help achieve this stated goal.

(Sino-Tibetan Dialogue)

Q11: There has been no dialogue between Beijing and Dharamsala since 2010. What do you think should be done to convince the Chinese side that dialogue is necessary for mutually benefit? Dharamsala has yet to appoint new Tibetan Envoys, following the resignation of Special Envoy, Lodi Gyari, and Envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen, who were responsible for holding talks with the Chinese representatives. Would you be interested if Dharamsala appoints you as one of the interlocutors to conduct talks with the Chinese counterparts?

TS: It is true that there has been no official dialogue between Beijing and Dharamsala since 2010. However, His Holiness regularly meets with prominent Chinese business and intellectuals and during his foreign visits, His Holiness always make an effort to reach out to Chinese. Sikyong also believes China outreach is very important.

In private capacity, there is nothing stopping anyone of us from doing the outreach work. In fact, all Tibetans and supporters must do the outreach especially in the West. There are over 100,000 Chinese students studying in the UK alone and what an opportunity to do the outreach work. These students when they return, most of them will be holding very important positions in the government and corporate world.

Me as an interlocutor is laughable. I know my limits. This is something beyond me and I know I don’t have what it takes to be an effective envoy. Of course, I can always do China outreach myself and also assist in perhaps facilitating meetings between Dharamsala and people I come into contact with.

Q12: Is there anything else you would like to add in relation to your personal commitment for Tibet and the Tibetan people’s non-violent freedom struggle before I move onto the theme of arts & music?

TS: Well the time has come for me to slow down a bit but I still do have some things in the pipeline. I will never completely give up my work for Tibet. It has become very much part of my life and I believe we can all make contributions in our own private capacity.

(Tibetan Arts & Music)

Q13: You spent your early years at TIPA, learning Tibetan performing arts. Your debut song, ‘Rinzin Wangmo’ is probably the best solo Tibetan love-song to this day, which has been sung by so many Tibetan singers, not only in exile but even inside Tibet, including the well-known singer, Yadong. Even the native singers from the Himalayan region of Nepal (Raju Lama) and Ladakh (Phuntsok) have sung your song! Who composed the lyrics and the melody? Who was Rinzin Wangmo in the song? Was she yours sweet-heart at the time or just a dream girl?

TS: Yes this song was written many years ago and today more Tibetans know me from this song than anything else I have done in my life. I am very flattered and humbled by so many great singers to day have sung this song both inside and outside Tibet. To me, it seems like another lifetime!  No there was no sweet heart or a dream girl by that name.

Q14: It is said that music has no boundaries and it brings people together. In the case of the Tibetan situation, musicians and artistes from Tibet cannot visit Tibetan settlements in India and perform. Similarly, the exiled Tibetan musicians and artistes cannot visit and perform in Tibet. How do you feel about that? Do you have any advice and words of encouragement to share with Tibetan musicians and artists who could play important roles to bring Tibetans together through music?

TS: I have always believed that every single person can make a difference. I am thrilled that so many young Tibetans today are using the medium of music for advocacy and awareness raising. This is fantastic. One can never tell how this current gridlock can break.

(The interview was conducted by Tsering Passang for the LondonNey Productions –

Author: Tsering Passang (Tsamtruk)

NGO Professional | Activist | Author | Founder and Chairman, Global Alliance for Tibet & Persecuted Minorities (GATPM)

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