March 14, 2011
AFTER six decades as the living emblem of Tibetans in exile from Chinese-ruled Tibet, the Dalai Lama prepared on March 14th to present his resignation from all “formal authority”. The understanding is that he will cede his role as the community’s political leader while retaining his place at the apogee of Tibetan Buddhism. He announced plans for his departure from political life just last week; many of his countrymen were caught off guard and have yet to regain their footing.
Every year on March 10th the Dalai Lama gives a speech commemorating Tibet’s national day of “uprising”. He did so last week per usual, from Dharamsala, his abode in northern India, on the 52nd anniversary of Tibet’s failed attempt to resist China’s takeover. His Holiness spoke at a podium, holding a thin sheaf of stapled pages in one hand and gesticulating with the other, before a packed audience at the main Buddhist temple in Dharamsala. His speech, nearly 20 minutes long, lauded Tibetan resilience and urged China to end repression in Tibet. So much was expected. It was near the end when the Dalai Lama created a stir.
The spiritual leader of Tibet reminded his audience that ever since the 1960s he has “stressed 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.” He formally proposed amending the Charter for Tibetans in Exile, a constitution drafted by high-ranking exiles in 1991, to devolve his formal authority when the Tibetan parliament-in-exile started its next session, the morning of March 14th. In the past, the Dalai Lama has played down his formal political role in the Tibetan movement. Nevertheless the executive power of the Tibetan exile administration has all the while been vested in him, according to the terms of the charter.
This is not the first time that the Dalai Lama has proposed retiring from the spotlight as leader of the Tibetan movement. But last week’s was his most serious declaration yet about transferring political responsibilities to an elected leadership. Whether his resignation is accepted or not, he means to make plain that he can no longer be relied upon as the movement’s supremo.
This might seem untimely, given Tibet political predicament. Talks between the Chinese government and the Tibetan exiles are badly stalled. The Dalai Lama himself, though in good health, is now 75 years old. The question of his succession is perennial, and thorny, when it comes between China and the exile government. Last week, Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet, made the dumbfounding assertion that the Dalai Lama must follow the tradition of reincarnation and cannot choose his successor. Strange as it is to see the Communist Party dictating the terms of a Buddhist reincarnation, it wouldn’t be the first time China has intervened with succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders. After the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, died in 1989, the Dalai Lama recognised a young boy living in Tibet as his reincarnation: the “next” Panchen Lama—or the same one, as it were. China however preferred a different Tibetan boy, whom it installed as Panchen Lama on its own. The Dalai Lama’s appointee was placed under indefinite house arrest; his whereabouts remain unknown.
Yet the Dalai Lama insists that devolution would “benefit Tibetans in the long run”. He emphasised the importance of a democratic, secular government, one that can function independent of his guidance. “We have been able to implement democracy-in-exile that is in keeping with the standards of an open society,” he claimed. Another step in that process is scheduled for March 20th, when Tibetans living in different 30 countries will have the chance to vote for a new prime minister of the exile government. They will choose from a field of three candidates, all of them Tibetan men of secular credential.
A high-ranking monk has been serving as prime minister for the past decade. But the new, elected leader will be expected play a more prominent role in the Tibetan movement. The March 20th election will mark the culmination of a year-long campaign by Tibetan NGOs and bodies within the exile government to raise awareness among Tibetans about the democratic process. They have staged mock elections along the way. The results of the actual election are expected to be finalised by May.
The Dalai Lama insists that he will not be abandoning the Tibetan people nor shirking his responsibility to them. He says he has planned the devolution “not because I feel disheartened”. “Tibetans have placed such faith and trust in me that as one among them I am committed to playing my part in the just cause of Tibet.”
However determined he may be to cede his political role, the Dalai Lama will not find it easy to relinquish some of his responsibilities. Many Tibetans, along with the exile government itself, already opposes his new move. The Kashag, or cabinet of the exile government, responded to the Dalai Lama’s proposal in a plaintive voice. “A great number of Tibetans in exile…collectively and individually have been ardently supplicating His Holiness the Dalai Lama not to take such a step,” said the Kashag’s statement. “We, the Kashag, would like to make the same request in the strongest terms.”
The Dalai Lama expected resistance and he addressed that too. “I trust that gradually people will come to understand my intention, will support my decision and accordingly let it take effect,” he entreated. Even if he the Dalai Lama is ready for this move, most Tibetans are not. The Kashag may well reject his formal resignation. But he has made his intention clear.