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    South Asia
     Feb 20, 2009
Succession worries unsettle Tibetans
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - Living in exile for nearly half a century, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is now 73. Tibetans in exile are becoming increasingly concerned with the issue of his succession and their future after the passage of the spiritual leader.

Hospitalized recently, living in semi-retirement from the Tibetan movement to let the elected Tibetan government control daily affairs, the health and future of the Dalai Lama is fodder for speculation. Many, especially those from older generations, are afraid that once the Dalai Lama passes away the Tibetan movement will lose steam and gradually fade from the international spotlight.

The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile here since fleeing Tibet


after a failed armed rebellion against Chinese rule in March 1959, says he feels attached to the northern India state where he lives. "I have spent most of my life in this hill station. Now I feel like a citizen of Himachal Pradesh," the Dalai Lama said.

The spiritual leader of Tibetans in exile and at home who also leads the Tibetan government in exile is highly respected internationally. A Nobel Peace Laureate, the Dalai Lama was also listed as one of the 50 most powerful people in the world by Newsweek. During his recent tour of Europe, the Dalai Lama was presented with honorary citizenship in Rome and granted the German Media Prize.

The Dalai Lama's fame, charm and high-profile international activities have helped make the Tibetan movement known to the world and win wide international support. Many Tibetans in exile also believe that it is the Dalai Lama who spiritually sustains their dream of returning to their homeland one day.

Therefore, many Tibetans in exile are worried that without him, the Tibet movement may gradually become forgotten by the world as his successor, if there is one, might not be able to make the same strides.

Older generations believe that following tradition, the Dalai Lama's successor must be a boy, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. So it will take time for the next Dalai Lama to take up leadership and engage in international activities. But this is a topic too sacred for older Tibetans to talk about, and they are afraid of making any comment when asked.

Tibetan elders in exile simply believe that “His Holiness will make the right decision on choosing his successor which will benefit the future of Tibetans in exile and in Tibet".

But some young Tibetans in exile, who seek "full Tibet independence" and increasingly see the Dalai Lama's "middle way" as a constraint on their radical thinking and action, may feel freer to pursue their goal through more drastic means once the Dalai Lama passes away. These young radical Tibetans in exile, represented by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), have become increasingly discontent with the Dalai Lama's approach to seeking autonomy instead of independence for the Himalayan region, though spiritually they still hold the Dalai Lama in esteem.

Although the Chinese government has labeled the Dalai Lama a traitor intent on fomenting violent unrest in Tibet with the ambition of achieving independence, the Dalai Lama has not given up his middle-way approach and has made every attempt to hold a dialogue. Although he has admitted that his faith in the Chinese government is becoming thinner and thinner.

Compared with other active Tibetan organizations in exile, TYC has a clearcut goal - rangzen (full independence) - on its agenda. Thus it states that while its members will feel sad about the passage of the Dalai Lama, they will continue to fight for their freedom.

"No doubt, no one will be able to replace the Dalai Lama and we Tibetans won't be able to repay him. But we are struggling for an independent nation and our struggle will continue," said TYC president Twesang Rigzin.

Therefore some analysts are increasingly concerned that once their spiritual leader is gone, the Tibetan movement, now united under the Dalai Lama, is very likely to split, given the differing views on how to achieve its goals.

Many have questions on how the Tibetan movement will proceed. Some have deep worries that the current Tibetan religious and government structure will change after his holiness passes. Others say the Tibetan movement will lose its direction and steam, as there will be growing frustration among exiles with the loss of a leader to guide them and to help them gain international support.

This is despite some of the Dalai Lama's staunch followers who believe that international support for the Tibetan movement is growing even though the Dalai Lama has already taken up semi-retirement to secure the future for the Tibetan movement by allowing the democratically-elected government in exile to play a more active role in deciding the course of the Tibetan movement.

Tibetans in exile are also concerned with who will become the next Dalai Lama and how the successor will be chosen. The Dalai Lama himself has not avoided talking about the issue of his succession in recent years. He seems to leave the question open. He once said whether Tibetans need the next Dalai Lama is an issue to be "democratically" decided by them.

On another occasion he did not rule out the possibility of his successor being female if Tibetans agreed on the issue, though according to Tibetan tradition a Dalai Lama must be male. And recently, the Dalai Lama described himself as "a simple Buddhist monk - no more, no less" and spoke of his "retirement", though according to Tibetan tradition the Dalai Lama is a lifetime god-king.

"If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, then this will continue," he said. "There are various ways of [choosing a successor]. The point is whether to continue with the institution of the Dalai Lama or not. After my death, Tibetan religious leaders can debate whether to have a Dalai Lama or not."

But Tibetans in exile widely believe that when their spiritual leader is gone the Chinese government will step in to choose its own reincarnation, as it did in case of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest-ranking religious figure.

In 1995, the Chinese government forced Tibetan monks to appoint Gyancain Norbu rather than the Dalai Lama's chosen candidate - Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - in an attempt to further exert its authority over Tibet. And Tibetans in exile claim the Dalai Lama's designated candidate for the Panchen Lama is the youngest political prisoner in the world, held by the Chinese government.

Most Tibetans believe Beijing is not sincere in its desire to talk with the aging Dalai Lama on the Tibet issue, saying China is just buying time, which is not on the Dalai Lama's side as he is 73. Analysts believe that even if Beijing does not intervene in the Dalai Lama's reincarnation (which is very unlikely), once the Tibetan god-king is gone his successor will be a small boy and decades may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume religious and political leadership, making a much longer wait for Tibetans in exile. And during that long wait, anything can happen.

Yet it may be too early to depict any true image of a post-Dalai Lama era. As long as the Dalai Lama lives, he will continue to do his very best to try and lead his people back to their homeland. As the spiritual leader said, "It is my moral responsibility until my death to work for the Tibetan cause. My body and flesh is all Tibetan. I remain committed to the Tibetan cause."

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

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