Testing times for Tibetans

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.