The Dalai Lama announced Thursday he would step down from the political leadership of Tibetans in exile, saying he would hand his temporal authority over Tibetan affairs to an elected leader.
While the decision reflects his longstanding desire to retire from politics, some observers wondered how meaningful such a move would be. It also casts new doubt about the future of stalled talks between Beijing and the Tibetan exile government.
“The Dalai Lama is just too towering a figure to retire from a political role,” says Tim Johnson, a journalist and author who specializes in Tibet. “The struggle for greater freedom for Tibetans is embodied in his persona.”
In a statement marking the 52-year anniversary of an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that led to the Dalai Lama’s flight to India 1959, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said his “desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility.”
Rather, he explained, “Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run.”
The move, which will not change the Dalai Lama’s role as Tibetan spiritual leader, “is aimed at empowering whomever Tibetans in exile elect later this month as their prime minister,” says Mr. Johnson, who recently published a book about the Dalai Lama titled “Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle With China.”
Who will lead next?
The next prime minister, however, will not only be unknown to the outside world, he will likely be unknown beyond the 150,000 strong community of Tibetan exiles who will have the right to vote in the elections.
“It will be hard to convince the world that someone chosen by a minuscule proportion of Tibetans is leader of his whole people, when 5.5 million Tibetans living in China did not take part” in the elections, Johnson predicts.
The Chinese government dismissed the Dalai Lama’s statement as a “trick.”
“He has often talked about retirement,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. “We think these are his tricks to deceive the international community.” The Tibetan government-in-exile based in the Indian town of Dharamsala, which the Dalai Lama is seeking to strengthen by relinquishing authority, is “an illegal political organization,” Ms. Jiang said.
Where Beijing fits in
She would not comment on how the Tibetan leader’s move might affect the prospect for fresh talks between Beijing and his envoys. A series of such negotiations in recent years have made no headway toward the Dalai Lama’s vision of an autonomous Tibet under Chinese national sovereignty.
The Chinese authorities appear unwilling to make any concessions, and have recently turned increasingly harsh in their statements about the Dalai Lama, with one official earlier this week calling him “a wolf in monk’s robes.”
Beijing is anxious to influence, if not control, the religious transition that will follow the Dalai Lama’s eventual death. He has said that his spiritual successor might be elected, rather than reincarnated, and might not come from traditional Tibetan homelands.
“I don’t think this is appropriate” the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, told reporters on Monday. “We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. I am afraid it is not up to anyone whether to abolish the reincarnation institution or not.”
The Chinese government, nominally atheist and Communist, formulated “Management Rules for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas” four years ago. The rules give the government the authority to approve or disapprove reincarnations of senior Buddhist figures, including the Dalai Lama.