In a gambit reminiscent of the ancient Chinese game of ‘wei ji’, the Dalai Lama recently made yet another move in a bid to remind the Chinese authorities that they will probably be required to continue tough negotiations with the Tibetan people for a term beyond that of the present Dalai Lama.
In an astute and yet bold move 75-year- old, Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, announced his intention to retire from political leadership of the Tibetan movement. The statement, contained in his message traditionally issued on the occasion of the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa Uprising, said he would seek an amendment allowing him to resign his political office when the exiled ‘Tibetan parliament’ meets in Dharamsala next week. He added, however, that while he would step down as political head of Tibet's ‘government-in-exile’, he would continue to push the Tibetan cause in his key role as its spiritual figurehead.
The Chinese authorities reacted promptly and, recalling that he had made a similar suggestion last November, accused the Dalai Lama of playing “tricks” to deceive the international community. Earlier, on the sidelines of the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region had insisted that “the eventual death of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, will have no major impact on the stability of the Chinese-ruled region.” The officials repeated earlier criticisms describing him as a “wolf in monk’s robes” and said he had no right to decide how his successor would be chosen. “There will be little repercussions (when the Dalai Lama dies) due to religious factors, but we will take that into consideration and will surely guarantee long-term political stability in Tibet,” Qiangba Puncog, head of the region's parliamentary delegation, was quoted as saying by the state-owned Global Times. Responding also to the Dalai Lama’s earlier comments that there may not be another reincarnation, the current Governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, said it was not up to the Dalai Lama to make that decision. “What he says does not count ... we must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.”
The official Tibet Daily asserted that it would publish a series of editorials to ‘refute the Dalai Lama’s claims’ and simultaneously alleged that he had masterminded last year’s riots on March 14 in which eighteen civilians were killed. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman separately said: “The Dalai is a political exile under a religious cloak long engaged in activities aimed at splitting China….The government-in-exile is an illegal political organisation and no country in the world recognises it." Meanwhile, security has been stepped up in Tibet to prevent any outbreak of violence during this period and foreigners, including journalists, have been prohibited from entering Tibet in March.
The latest announcement on March 10, 2011, by the Dalai Lama reinforces the message conveyed earlier to the Chinese authorities, that the current Dalai Lama’s departure from the scene will not mean the end of the Tibetan people’s quest for independence. It simultaneously conveys multiple messages to the Tibetan people. It indicates that the Dalai Lama has been moving in accordance with a pre-determined time-table in mind and is now setting the stage for a prolonged struggle for ‘independence’, or ‘full autonomy’, between the Tibetan people and the Chinese authorities. By stating that he will step down as political head of the ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’, he is also effectively transferring decision-making to a larger and democratically elected body. Since this ‘government-in-exile’ functions under the supervision of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, the Dalai Lama has essentially empowered the Tibetan people in matters concerning their future. The arrangement ensures that the leadership of the Tibetan ‘government-in-exile’ is broad-based and will be sensitive and responsive to the sentiments of the majority of Tibetans.
The timing of the Dalai Lama’s disclosure, which has been promptly reported by news agencies across the globe, suggests that he is reasonably satisfied with the democratic experiment initiated by him in a substantive manner about two decades ago in 1990, when the 46-member Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies was given independent authority and authorised to appoint ‘ministers’, till then the prerogative of the Dalai Lama. The democratisation process was expanded in 2001, when it was for the first time decided that the ‘Kalon Tripa’, or ‘prime minister’, of the ‘government-in-exile’ would be directly elected by the Tibetan diaspora in exile. The 70-year-old monk, Professor Samdong Rimpoche, was elected by over 29,000 votes or 84 per cent of the votes cast. He is due to demit office at the meeting of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies scheduled for next week. His successor is likely to be Dr. Lobsang Sangay, a 40-year-old American Tibetan who was born in Nepal and grew up in Darjeeling. Sangay graduated from Delhi University. As a Fulbright scholar with a Doctorate of Law from Harvard, the Tibetan community expects that he will ably represent the Tibetan cause in international forums. That the Dalai Lama chose to make this announcement prior to the upcoming meeting of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies where a new, young and untested ‘Kalon Tripa’ is likely to be elected, additionally signals his confidence that the present system actually works. He said “as early as the 1960s, 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.”
The Tibetan community in exile has been growing noticeably restive in recent months. The Dalai Lama perhaps hopes that with enhanced democratisation they will feel more involved in the administration of their affairs. They would possibly also become less restive as the administration would comprise people elected by them and who would be implementing policies approved by the electorate. Importantly, the wording of the announcement allows the Dalai Lama to oversee the functioning of the new administration and preserves space for him to intervene where necessary. In his capacity as the spiritual head he will continue to remain a symbol for Tibetans inside China and elsewhere, and the issue of reincarnation has been kept open. He will, additionally, be able to guide interaction with foreign entities and the Chinese authorities. The latter, though progress over the nine rounds held so far has been slow and incremental, is an important aspect of the Dalai Lama’s agenda. Beijing’s response to the Dalai Lama’s move will perhaps be conveyed to the Tibetans at the next round of talks, though no invitation for that is yet known to have been received.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India