The Dalai Lama's Right-Hand Woman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Tibet’s future hinges on its exiled next-generation politicians.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Tenzin Seldon has the fire of a Tibetan warrior. Her presence is quiet yet commanding, and her words haunting — especially when she speaks about her much embattled motherland and the slow “silencing of our cause.” With flowing dark tresses and an ever serene vibe, she’s got some Angelina Jolie in her: burning gaze, humanitarian devotion. But instead of raiding tombs in Siberia and Cambodia, Seldon’s main battlefront lies in the isolated, mountainous hinterlands of southwestern China.
Although Tibet became embroiled in conflict long before Seldon was born, the 26-year-old consultant at the United Nations in Bangkok is helping broker peace between China and Tibet. She’s part of a generation of young Tibetan leaders who are both estranged from their motherland and intimately connected to its future. And though Seldon, the headstrong daughter of refugees, has yet to actually set foot in Tibet, she’s already brushed shoulders with the Dalai Lama, whom she’s met more than 10 times. In fact, Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, says that Seldon — a Rhodes scholar and the first-ever Tibetan to receive the Truman scholarship — is well on the course to extinguishing one of the world’s longest-blazing conflicts. “She is not only highly educated, but her heart is at the right place for Tibet,” says Sangay, the political successor to the Dalai Lama.
Politics for the Tibetan diaspora is never quite business as usual. China and Tibet have crossed swords for more than half a century over a huge tract of land that’s roughly the size of Peru. While the numbers depend on which side you ask, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed and hundreds more continue to flee every year, according to the Central Tibetan Administration. So much of the country lives far from its physical home: in Dharamsala in northeast India — where the Dalai Lama (whose office did not reply to request for comment) is in exile — and in the southern part of India, in Mysore, a town studded with monasteries, where monks may not even speak the local language. 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.
She has a hint of flower child to her, preaching faith, compassion and peace wherever she goes.
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.” She has a hint of flower child to her, preaching faith, compassion and peace wherever she goes. Buddhism touched her early — she grew up hearing her grandmother recite prayers at 5 or 6 a.m. every day — and she attends an annual silent meditation retreat.
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.
Naturally, Seldon hasn’t gone unnoticed: Chinese hackers have infiltrated her computer and emails, hampering her ability to champion the Tibetan cause from anywhere in the world. Moreover, that outsider status might work against her, Tethong muses: It could be a “challenge to go into a community that has different life experiences from what you have.” Seldon replies that there’s “dignity in refusing to enter a country where you don’t have autonomy or human rights, until we get all of our freedoms.” After all, that’s the cold reality for young Tibetans like Seldon. “We don’t have a choice,” she says.
For the most part, the future of Tibet hinges on these next-generation politicians who are born and bred in exile. “Even if one is enlightened,” Seldon says, “it would be difficult to know what will happen.” So, what is Seldon certain of? Her life’s work will always be underpinned by her dream to finally visit a Tibet with “more autonomy” one day. As she explains, “I’m just laying the bricks to the house that I want to build.”