Dalai Lama's retirement sparks
fear, hope By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - The Dalai Lama's
historic announcement that he is ceding political
leadership of the Tibetan government in exile, on
the eve of the 52nd anniversary of a failed
uprising against Chinese rule, has attracted wide
attention and sparked mix reactions.
Tibetan refugees and supporters of the Free Tibet
movement are concerned about their future without
the Dalai Lama's political involvement, others
welcome the move as democratic progress.
China quickly slammed the decision as "a
trick", but his retirement may worsen prospects of
dialogue with Beijing, which has never recognized
the Tibetan government in exile and refuses
to deal with its officials.
There have been several rounds of dialogue between
Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama's
"As early as the 1960s, I
began to repeatedly stress that Tibetans need a
leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to
whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly
reached the time to put this into effect," the
Dalai Lama told a massive crowd of Tibetans at the
Tsuglagkhang temple in Dharamsala, India on March
"During the forthcoming 11th session
of the 14th Tibetan parliament in exile, which
begins on March 14, I will formally propose that
the necessary amendments be made to the charter
for Tibetans in exile, reflecting my decision to
devolve my formal authority to the elected leader
... My desire to devolve authority has nothing to
do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to
benefit Tibetans in the long run," he said in the
de facto capital of the Tibetan exile community.
The decision has greatly concerned
sections of the Tibetan polity, with some fearing
the Dalai Lama's absence on the political front
will sap international support for its quest for
autonomy, in a major boost for Beijing. Tibetans
also worry the Dalai Lama's retirement will create
a political vacuum, and as future administration
may have no legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans.
"Not only will it affect the future of the
Tibet movement but also shatter the role of the
exile government, which most of us know is run in
his name. He is a shelter who wants us to make our
own shelter," said Tenzin Dolkar, a young Tibetan
woman holding a Tibetan flag said after listening
to the Dalai Lama address the massive crowd in
"Legitimacy would be the
biggest issue if His Holiness' desires are
fulfilled. He is the face and the Tibetan
government and after that we may not have any
legitimacy in the eyes of the people," said
Samdhong Rinpoche, the current Kalon Tripa (prime
minister) of the Central Tibetan Administration.
"Despite His Holiness' request, the
Tibetans and the government-in-exile do not feel
competent to lead ourselves independently without
him. It is a very long and difficult process. We
have to think in an innovative manner to solve the
issue ... We don't have readymade solutions to
this issue," he told reporters after the Dalai
The Kashag, or parliament,
released a statement the same day asking that the
Dalai Lama not consider retirement, "We beseech
His Holiness to continue to lead us until we
Namgyal Dorjee, an
elderly Tibetan refugee, said, "It is only the
Dalai Lama who is the global figurehead in our
fight against the Chinese regime and the sole
authority on important issues. It is interesting
in today's world that there is even a leader who
can live forever but does not wish to rule
Following his speech, the Dalai
Lama sent a letter on March 14 to the Kashag
asking that it vote on making his request an
amendment to the constitution. This would allow
him to step down and change his title of Ganden
Phodrang - the supreme head of the Tibetans - that
he has held since the past 67 years, limiting his
role to that of a religious leader.
have to remain in exile for several more decades,
a time will inevitably come when I will no longer
be able to provide leadership," the Dalai Lama
said in the letter, read in parliament.
"Therefore, it is necessary that we establish a
sound system of governance while I remain able and
healthy, in order that the exiled Tibetan
administration can become self-reliant rather than
being dependent on the Dalai Lama."
parliamentarians have welcomed the Dalai Lama's
decision, describing it as a modern approach that
will strengthen the exiled government.
Youdun Aukatsang, a member of parliament,
welcomed the Dalai Lama's transparency about his
motivations to step down from a political role. "I
don't think it has to do with age or unhappiness,"
Aukatsang was quoted as saying by The National
"In my opinion, he thinks that
in the eyes of the modern world, the Tibetan
community would benefit from a democratically
elected leader. He genuinely wants a leader
elected by the people." Even so, Aukatsang pointed
out that, democratically speaking, "it would still
be the people's will that he continue."
Support groups around the world have also
welcomed the Dalai Lama's move. "In contrast to
those long-serving autocrats who have been much in
the news, the Dalai Lama is the rare visionary who
is willingly divesting power to his people," said
London-based International Campaign for Tibet
(ICT) president Mary Beth Markey. "His decision,
based on the maturation of Tibetan democracy in
exile, deserves both accolades and support."
China, however, has denounced the Dalai
Lama's "retirement plan".
"He has talked
often about retirement in the past few years,"
said Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, at a press conference on March
10. "I think these are tricks to deceive the
international community. The Dalai Lama is a
political exile under a religious cloak, now
engaged in activities aimed at splitting China.
The government-in-exile is an illegal political
organization. No country in the world recognizes
China is more concerned over the
Dalai Lama's religious succession, aware that this
has greater significance inside Tibet. For this
reason Beijing has recently become aggressive on
the issue, which China believes is likely to
trigger disturbances inside Tibet.
said last week that the current Dalai Lama's
reincarnation will be a boy born inside Tibet
under Chinese control, contradicting the religious
leader's hints that his successor will be chosen
democratically, rather than divine birth.
Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed
governor of Tibet, said that the Dalai Lama has no
right to abolish the tradition of reincarnation,
"I don't think this is appropriate. It's
impossible," he said on the sidelines of the
annual session of the National People's Congress
[NPC], when asked about the Dalai Lama's
suggestion that his successor may not be his
"We must respect the
historical institutions and religious rituals of
Tibetan Buddhism," said Padma Choling.
Dalai Lama has been open on the issue of his
religious successor, even suggesting that Tibetans
democratically choose their new Dalai Lama, an
option that would leave Beijing with little room
Beijing appointed the 11th
Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-highest religious
figure, in 1995. While Beijing's choice of Panchen
Lama speaks the words of the Communist party, he
is seen as fake by most Tibetans. Nonetheless, he
could be a vital figure in choosing the 15th
reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
States congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, a supporter of
the Dalai Lama, has rebutted China's accusation
that the his retirement is a "trick". "The bond
between the Dalai Lama and Tibetans is
unbreakable, and attempts by the Chinese
government to dictate Tibetan Buddhist teachings
and drive a wedge between the Dalai Lama and the
Tibetan people will continue to be
India has watched by
cautiously, knowing it will need to deal with a
new generation of Tibetan leaders. While India is
often warned by China over its handling of Tibetan
affairs, it has pledged continued support for the
"His holiness the Dalai Lama
is an honored guest in India. And he is a
spiritual and religious leader," a Ministry of
External Affairs spokesperson said when asked if
India would accept the Tibetan leader staying in
the country even after his retirement, reported
The Dalai Lama's move
comes as Tibetan exiles are preparing to elect a
new prime minister on March 20, with one of three
contenders to gain both the premiership and the
new powers that the Dalai Lama is to devolve. The
"This election marks a
generational shift for the Tibetan exiles," said
Michael David, a professor at Chinese University
of Hong Kong. "The Dalai Lama hopes to encourage a
new leadership to take up a more substantial role
as the voice of the exile movement."
three contenders are Lobsang Sangay, a research
scholar at Harvard Law school, Tashi Wangdi, the
Dalai Lama's current representative to the
Americas, and Tenzin Tethong, a professor of
Tibetan studies and veteran of the exiled
administration. All have expressed continued
support for the "Middle Way" approach of the Dalai
Lama, which seeks gaining greater autonomy for
Tibet within the framework of the People's
Republic of China.
"The Dalai Lama's
decision to transfer authority to an elected
Tibetan leadership naturally comes to me with a
serious concern," said Lobsang Sangay. "I support
100% that a collective appeal must be made to ask
His Holiness to continue to hold leadership of the
Tibetan people," Sangay was quoted as saying by
Radio Free Asia on March 13.
Jaswal, professor of international politics at
Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the
Dalai Lama's relinquishing of political authority
is a "part of his effort to make sure the Tibetan
movement remains robust". "By pushing for
democratization, he is trying to gain visibility
and publicity to show to the world that he is not
supporting the theocracy that China alleges him to
have been doing."
"One Tibetan told me,
'Compared to the Dalai Lama, nobody can shine' -
and that's the problem," said Trine Brox, an
expert on Tibet from the University of
Copenhagen's Asian studies department, told the
Globe and Mail. "You could argue they have even
left it too long, that they have not made any plan
or public decision before now.
believe that the success of their struggle is
dependent on the Dalai Lama, the attention and the
sympathy they have received from the international
community as the result of his personal charisma.
They are aware that they owe him for their success
- and they are afraid."
Even hardliners in
the exile community seem confused about the
future, "We have to wait and see. The retirement
issue is not simple" said the Tibetan exiles most
radical group - the Tibetan Youth Congress that
opposes the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" and demands
full independence for Tibet.
most crucial reaction to the Dalai Lama's decision
would come from compatriots inside Tibet. But due
to Beijing's tight restriction, it's almost
impossible to be known.
Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala,
India, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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