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

By Simon Denyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2011; A10

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 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."

The Dalai Lama has been gradually delegating some political responsibility for at least a decade. But he still approves parliamentary legislation and executive appointments for the small government-in-exile, which runs health, education and employment programs for an estimated 100,000 refugees in India.

He has long argued for a "middle way" in negotiations with China, calling for autonomy rather than outright independence. Beijing calls him a "splittist" who is secretly seeking to separate Tibet from China, and years of talks with his representatives have gone nowhere. Beijing considers Tibet an integral part of China and says that Chinese troops, who entered Tibet in 1949, were liberating it from feudal rule.

Many Tibetans and supporters of the exile movement are worried about what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies. They are concerned that without him as their leader, the movement will lose international support. They also fear that China will appoint its own candidate as the Dalai Lama's next reincarnation.

"Without the Dalai Lama, it would be very difficult for Western governments or other governments to justify talks with the Tibetan exile movement," Shakya said.

India defends the Dalai Lama as a special guest and important religious leader. When he dies, Shakya said, India will come under significantly greater pressure from China to clamp down on political activities by Tibetan refugees on its soil.

"India will be placed in a very, very difficult political and diplomatic situation," he said.

The March 20 elections also are significant because they feature three lay candidates for prime minister, marking the first time that a lay person, rather than a monk, will assume the role.

Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard fellow who is among the candidates, said the post-Dalai Lama era will be challenging. But, he added, "democratic institutions and government will help sustain the Tibetan movement."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company