Dalai Lama says he will relinquish political role to democratically elected leader

The Dalai Lama says he'll give up his political role in the Tibetan government-in-exile, and will propose constitutional amendments to do that during the upcoming parliament session. But China has dismissed his announcement. (March 10)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2011; 12:32 AM

DHARMSALA, INDIA - The Dalai Lama said Thursday that he plans to relinquish his political role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile to a new prime minister, who will be chosen in elections March 20.

The move, announced on the 52nd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, reflects the Tibetan leader's long-stated desire to move the Tibetan refugee community away from theocratic rule and toward democracy and to prepare the exile movement, based in this northern Indian hill town, for his eventual death.

But the 76-year-old will remain the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and will continue to wield huge influence both inside and outside Tibet, particularly on relations with China and his desire for "genuine autonomy." He will also remain the movement's figurehead and by far its most prominent advocate.

The Dalai Lama had previously expressed a desire to delegate political power, but Wednesday's announcement was his most insistent and formal statement of that intention.

The idea has been greeted with dismay by many Tibetans, who have been petitioning him to stay on, although others have welcomed a more modern, democratic form of government.

"My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a desire to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run," the Dalai Lama told hundreds of Tibetans and Western tourists gathered in his main temple Thursday to commemorate the 1959 uprising that resulted in his fleeing to India over the Himalayas on horseback.

"It is not because I feel disheartened," he said. "I am committed to playing my part in the just cause of Tibet."

The Dalai Lama said he would ask the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, which meets next week, to change its constitution, to reflect his desire to hand over authority to an elected leader.

Samdhong Rinpoche, an elderly monk who serves as the current Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, said the parliament was unlikely to go along with that request willingly, given its desire to see the Dalai Lama remain as political head of the community. But he said there is little hope of the Dalai Lama changing his mind.

"His response is very clear," Rinpoche said. "Thousands of requests have been coming in, but he has not accepted them."

Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan scholar at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, said the Dalai Lama's move comes in part in response to criticism from China that the notion of rule by a reincarnated monk was anachronistic. But the change seems unlikely to alter much for many Tibetans.

"The Dalai Lama will remain very powerful," Shakya said. "In Tibet, he is a god, and he is their leader. It is not possible to just change centuries of traditional practice."

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