CTA’s most learned and unassuming man retires: A brief conversation with director Thubten Samphel

November 3, 2018 By Tenzin Tseten*

Mr. Thubten Samphel was born in 1956 in Lhasa to a humble family who worked for Yabshe Taktse family. At the age of six he escaped Tibet to India with his elder brother. Following his arrival, he was admitted to Tibetan Children’s Village school. After six months, he was sent to Dr. Graham’s Homes school in Kalimpong with three girls. Back then he was a studious learner and left no stone unturned to pursue his interest in education.

From left to right: Thubten Samphel, Sonam, Sedhar and Kelsang with sister Cassidy, head nurse of Steele Memorial Hospital of Dr. Graham’s Homes School, Kalimpong

After completing his schooling, he got admission in St. Stephen’s college in Delhi where he studied history. The story of his relatively easy admission in the reputed college was linked to late Professor Dawa Norbu. At that time the late Professor was the editor of Tibetan Review and academically quite popular. His debut book Red Star over Tibet published during his college days. The only question he was asked by the principal was that did he knew Dawa Norbu? His affirmative answer worked for his admission favor. He has recalled during our private conversation that he envied and admired the late professor deeply.

During his master’s program, Mr. Samphel worked as an apprentice under Secretary Tenzin Geychey Tethong in the then office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for one year. There he was assigned to reply ordinary letters from well-wishers and devotees of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in English.

From first left: Thubten Samphel, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and Tenzin Phuntsok Atisha at Ngapo’s residence in Beijing

In July 1985 he was selected as a member in the Fourth Fact-Finding delegation comprised of six people led by Woeser Gyaltsen Kundeling which visited north-eastern Tibet and China. He was designated as an official photographer of the delegation. Since he has no formal experience in photography he was sent to learn the fundamentals for a few weeks. I asked him what he witnessed during the visit. I was overwhelmed by what he said. He said he witnessed the presence of rock solid Tibetan identity and Tibetan people’s undying faith for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

In 1988 he received a life time opportunity to study in the US through Tibetan Scholarship Program formerly known as Fulbright Scholarship. He was one of the first recipients of this prestigious scholarship. Other recipients are retired civil servants Jamphel Choesang, Sonam Tenzing and Lhundup Tsering. He has added another accolade in his academic account by studying journalism in the prestigious Columbia University for one year.

During his stay in the US he received a one month internship opportunity in Congressman Charlie Rose office. He was probably the first Tibetan to work as an apprentice in the US Congress.

After his return from the US, he continued his service in the Central Tibetan Administration in different capacities. Most notably, the information secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations from 2000 to 2012.

In 1991 he was delegated to work in the office of Tibet in New York. During his five-year (1991-1995) stint under the representative Rinchen Dharlo, he worked as the sole editor of News Tibet. In short, he has been the instrumental behind the success of the DIIR.

In 2012 he became the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research wing of the CTA. During his stint as the director, he worked tirelessly to build the TPI into a full-fledged research center and inked the Institute’s first memorandum of understanding with Chennai Centre for China Studies, a reputed think tank on China based in Chennai.

Apart from numerous articles and monographs on Tibet, he has authored two books. His first book falling through the roof published in 2008 by Rupa publications. His second and forthcoming book Tibet’s last time traveler will be published by speaking tiger.

Having served the CTA for nearly forty years, he finally decided to retire. On this special occasion we bid farewell to him with a sense of profound gratitude for his lifetime service for Tibet and the Tibetan people. We all wish him a good health and happiness for rest of his life.

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