"Support for Tibet is support for peace, support for nonviolence and support for democracy,'' Sangay said. "If you believe in nonviolence, then the process has to be peaceful. This is what we believe.''
Born in a Tibetan refugee community in Darjeeling, India, Sangay studied in Delhi and at Harvard University before being elected in 2011 to head the secular government of Tibet, based in McLeodGanj, a village in Dharamshala in northern India. He was considered a political outsider, in his words, "just an ordinary guy who took over two years ago.''
He also is prominent among a generation of Tibetan leaders born since China's 1949 invasion of Tibet and raised in refugee enclaves across Nepal, India and the West. The lawyer is known for advocating for a so-called "Middle Way'' to Tibetan autonomy within China's constitutional framework, a "one country, two systems'' model similar to China's governance of Hong Kong and Macau.
His remarks at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law came near the end of a series of visits to six U.S. cities. His Salt Lake City itinerary also included exchanges with officials, including Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, and contacts with Utah's own Tibetan community, which has grown to nearly 200 people since members of the Chagzoetsang family settled here in 1983.
The visit also follows two highly tumultuous years in Tibet's history, beginning with the Dalai Lama's formal relinquishing of government power.
More than 100 Tibetans Buddhist monks and nuns as well as laypeople are known to have set themselves on fire in recent years in acts of protest against Chinese oppression. While sternly condemned by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, Sangay said, the self-immolations reflect realities of poverty, discrimination and religious oppression Tibetans face from an ethnic Han Chinese majority.
China maintains that Tibet has fallen within its traditional borders for seven centuries and was a backward, feudal and repressive theocracy before China's formal re-assertion of control. Yet in his speech to about 100 U. law students and visitors, the prime minister in exile delivered a point-by-point rebuttal of China's claims of historic sovereignty over Tibetan territories, extending back to legal documents of mutual recognition signed in the ninth century.
"Peaceful liberation and Tibetans welcoming of the communist rule, that is their narrative,'' said Sangay, who instead offered glimpses of a devastating social, cultural and environmental toll on the small mountainous nation under Beijing's grip.
"One million lives were lost. More than 98 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed,'' he said. "Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans had to flee and continue to flee even today.''
Despite China's apparent unwillingness to negotiate and its rising power on the world stage, Sangay urged hope and optimism that Tibet's dreams will come true.
"Tibetans have really rallied, worldwide,'' he said. "And that gives you strength.''