Testing times for Tibetans

Dalai Lama's formal announcement to give up his political role unsettles his flock

The Dalai Lama has been the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan
government-in-exile since he was 15 years old. As he has now made
tangible his plans to step back, Tibetans both in and out of their home
country fear the growing challenges they face.

The Dalai Lama has long spoken about his wish to retire from his political career and delegate his political power (Asia Sentinel Dec. 13, 2010: Goodbye Dalai?) On March 10, he made it formal.

Now
his followers must not only confront the idea of finding a new
political leader when he formally proposes amendments that would end his
political role to the exile constitution before an unwilling
parliament's next session, which begins on March 14. They also must face
the fact that he has said the practice which made him Tibetan
Buddhism's 14th reincarnated god-king probably should end as well.

Although
the 75 year-old religious leader, born Tenzin Gyatso, believes his
decision to resign is intended to strengthen the Tibetan movement's
democratic structure, Tibetans in exile now find themselves in a
difficult situation. It is the Dalai Lama's global popularity that holds
the key for the Tibetan cause. Considering anyone other than their
temporal leader is not something the exiles have ever thought of.
Without his presence in his political role, Tibetans are already
questioning the legitimacy of the government in exile, which exists
largely on his name and is not recognized by any country in the world.

"As
early as the 1960s," he told a large crowd of monks, Tibetans and
supporters in his exile headquarters n Dharamsala, India, "I have
repeatedly 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…. My desire to devolve
authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is
to benefit Tibetans in the long run."

Many have greeted their
spiritual leader's idea with dismay and have requested him to stay.
Others have welcomed the decision, saying a more modern approach is
necessary to revitalize the democratic government in exile.

The
most worried reaction came from the current Kalon Tripa or prime
minister, Samdhong Rinpoche who told the press: "Legitimacy would be the
biggest issue before us if His Holiness's desires are fulfilled. He is
the face of the Tibetan government and after that we may have not any
legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Despite His Holiness's request,
Tibetans and the government-in-exile do not feel competent to lead
ourselves independently. It is a very long and difficult process. We
have to think in an innovative manner to solve the issue... We don't
have ready-made solutions,"

The Central Tibetan Administration
also in its statement, on March 10, the Tibetan People's National
Uprising Day said: "We beseech His Holiness to continue to lead us until
we attain liberation."

Tsering Namgyal an elderly exiled Tibetan
after hearing Dalai Lama's plan said "We know what he wants; he wants
us to prepare for our future. But if he skips his role now we all will
be in dark, without him we are nothing. I just wish he never leaves."

The
Dalai Lama himself has been open on the issue of his next successor and
would like Tibetans to choose their new Dalai Lama democratically after
his death, ending the reincarnation institution, giving Beijing no
choice than to watch and see.

Giving up the political role in
some respects constructs an opportunity and a challenge to China. The
decision opens new space allows world leaders to meet and host him
solely as a religious leader, whereas in the past it upset diplomatic
and trade links between Beijing and western nations.

The move
comes at a time when the Tibetan exiles vote for their new prime
minister on March 20. One of the three contenders for the post will
actually assume the political leadership, the political power the Dalai
Lama has.

The March 20 elections are of major significance with
about 200,000 exiles across the world to vote for the new leader, to
whom the Dalai Lama will pass his political power, making it the first
time that a lay person other than a monk will assume the role.

"This
election marks a generational shift for the Tibetan exiles," said
Michael David, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "The
Dalai Lama hopes to encourage a new leadership to take up a more
substantial role as the voice of the exile movement "

One of the
top contenders for the post is Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard Fellow who has
said the post-Dalai Lama era will be challenging. But, he also added,
"Democratic institutions and government will help sustain the Tibetan
movement."

However the crucial testing for Tibetans will be
whether the new prime minister can make any difference and whether his
influence in his own community will be as large and trustworthy as that
of the Dalai Lama.

A spokesman for the exiles' most radical
group, the Tibetan Youth Congress which opposes the Dalai Lama's ‘middle
way approach' and demands full independence for Tibet said "We have to
wait and see. The retirement issue is not simple." He added that the
monk would continue to guide the Tibetan exiles even after he retired.

There
are questions who will follow him. The second-highest figure in the
Tibetan religion and its spiritual leader, the 11th Panchen Lama, was
found after a six-year search and recognized by the Dalai Lama in May of
1995, only to be kidnapped by the Chinese government. He has never been
seen again. In December of that year, the Chinese announced they had
discovered their own incarnation of the Panchen Lama – the son of a
government security officer. He is expected to play a great role in
identifying the next Dalai Lama despite the current one's desire to end
the tradition of reincarnation.

Padma Choling, the
Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet, said that the Dalai Lama had no
right to abolish the institution of reincarnation, "I don't think this
is appropriate. It's impossible, that's what I think," he said on the
sidelines of the annual meeting of China's parliament, when asked about
the Dalai Lama's suggestion that his successor may not be his
reincarnation. "We must respect the historical institutions and
religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism," said Padma Choling, "I am afraid
it is not up to anyone whether to abolish the reincarnation institution
or not."

The third-highest figure is the 25-year-old 17th
Karmapa Lama. He is considered a dynamic figure who, like the Dalai Lama
escaped into exile in India. However, he suffers from a recent
controversy in which his administration offices in Dharamsala were
raided by Indian officials who seized a large amount of foreign
currency, much of it in Chinese yuan. Sensationalist Indian newspapers
accused him of being a Chinese stooge and spy although he was ultimately
exonerated after an investigation by the Indian government.

Although
he is an icon among Tibetan youth for his dramatic escape from China,
he has not been groomed by the Dalai Lama to be his political successor.
Most Tibetans still look up to him and he still has a role to play
after the Dalai Lama departs the scene. There is some controversy over
his lineage, with another wing of the religion claiming he is not the
real Karmapa Lama although he is recognized by the Dalai Lama. The
Indian government keeps close tabs on him, refusing to allow him to
travel, partly, some critics feel, because of pressure from the Chinese
government.

The dynamic shift of power will be the real test for
Tibetans, as the government-in-exile itself will have to build a name
of its own without the Dalai Lama and, in effect, without a religious
leader to defy Beijing as the current leadership does.

"The
Tibetan struggle shall have to continue as long as the Tibetan people
are there. In the absence of His Holiness' as political head, there will
be difficulties and setback. But the movement will neither end nor
disappear," said Samdhong Rinpoche, the Tibetan premier in exile.PM in
exile said.

Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India.

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