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    Greater China
     Mar 17, 2011

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.

While 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 representatives.

"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 10.

"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 Dharamsala.

"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 Lama's speech.

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 attain liberation."

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 forever".

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.

"If we 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."

Some 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 newspaper.

"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 it."

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.

Beijing 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 reincarnation.

"We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism," said Padma Choling.

The 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 to maneuver.

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.

United 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 counterproductive."

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 Dalai Lama.

"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 Outlook magazine.

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 current

"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."

The 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.

Swaran Singh 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.

Tibetans 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.

Perhaps the 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.

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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