DHARMSALA, India (AP) — The prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile called Sunday for China to engage in dialogue on autonomy for his people's homeland, as tens of thousands of Tibetans around the world voted for new leaders of a government that Beijing does not recognize.
Buddhist monks in crimson robes lined up along with hundreds of Tibetan men and women in schools, government buildings and the courtyard of the Tsuglakhang Temple in India's northern city of Dharmsala, where the exiled government is based, to cast their votes for prime minister and parliament.
They started to line up early Sunday, carrying their "Green Books" — passport-size booklets that record their paid taxes and are mandatory for Tibetans to be eligible to vote.
The voters stood patiently, at times for more than an hour, as they waited for their turn to mark their choices on ballot papers printed with the images of the two prime minister candidates. Elderly Tibetans carrying walking sticks and rosaries were assisted by government officials in voting.
The ballot boxes were fashioned out of painted tin boxes with hinged lids. Separate boxes were marked in Tibetan for the election of the prime minister and for parliament.
It was the second election since the Dalai Lama stepped down as head of the government-in-exile in 2011 to focus on his role as the Tibetans' spiritual leader. Some 80,000 voters were registered, and results are expected next month.
Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent prime minister, arrived with his young daughter to cast his vote at a polling booth in a government building.
"The dialogue (with China) will be the main initiative," Lobsang, who is running for re-election against parliamentary speaker Penpa Tsering, told reporters.
"I hope Chinese President Xi Jinping in his second term in 2017 will look at the Tibetan issue and take the initiative" to hold talks with Tibetan exiles, he said.
Lobsang added, however, that the reality on the ground "is repression."
China doesn't recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile, and hasn't held any dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama since 2010.
"We never recognize this so-called government-in-exile," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular news conference Thursday in Beijing. "We hope that all countries in this world, especially those that want to maintain friendly relations with China, will not provide facilities or venues for any anti-China, separatist activities by the so-called Tibet independence forces."
China says Tibet has historically been part of its territory since the mid-13th century, and the Communist Party has governed the Himalayan region since 1951. But many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of their history, and that the Chinese government wants to exploit their resource-rich region while crushing their cultural identity.
The Dalai Lama and his followers have been living in exile in Dharmsala since they fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.
Both prime minister candidates support the "middle way" approach advocated by the Dalai Lama, which calls for seeking regional autonomy under Chinese rule.
Some Tibetan groups advocate independence for Tibet, since little progress has been made in dialogue with China. But their representatives couldn't win enough support in the first round of voting last year to be in the running for the prime minister's post.
"There has been little discussion about the future of Tibet," said Bhuchung D. Sonam, a Tibetan writer. "For example, how the two candidates would approach the issue of Tibet in terms of talking to China."
Lobsang said he wants India's government to recognize Tibet as a core issue of its policy. New Delhi considers Tibet as part of China, though it is hosting the Tibetan exiles.
He said that Tibet has become more of an issue for India, and mentioned New Delhi's concerns over the falling water levels of the Brahmputra River, which flows from Tibet into India, as well as plans for a railway link.
"In that sense, I think Tibet is becoming an important issue not just simply for human rights, but also from a geopolitical point of view, an environment point of view and from a climate change point of view," he said.
Exiled Tibetan officials say at least 114 monks and laypeople have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule over their homeland in the past five years, with most of them dying. U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia puts the number of self-immolations at 144 since 2009.
Beijing blames the Dalai Lama and others for inciting the immolations and says it has made vast investments to develop Tibet's economy and improve quality of life.