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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Why the Dalai Lama’s decision to step down was a wise one

March 18, 2011

The India site
By Patrick French

Patrick French is the author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land

Last week, the Dalai Lama stepped down as the political leader of the Tibetan people. Nobody could blame him for wishing to retire. He was chosen as Tibet’s leader by a system of reincarnation when he was just five years old, and it is understandable – seventy years later – that he might want to stand down. When he was 15, he was obliged to assume full temporal power during the Chinese communist invasion.

Tibetans and non-Tibetans have an emotional attachment to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, not only for his position but for his unique personal charisma. That is not going to change with his retirement from office. But it is important to detach our personal projections and feelings for the Dalai Lama from the fate of the Tibetan people – difficult though that might be. For those in search of spiritual guidance, he will always remain a beacon of compassion.

?Might it be possible, the Dalai Lama asked, for Tibet to gain freedom through Gandhian methods of non-violent resistance? Alternatively, could India help to bring about independence by some other means? Nehru was a sympathetic listener; he gave asylum to the Dalai Lama and 100,000 fleeing Tibetans. But he made it clear that India could never start a war for Tibetan independence, and that in his view, ‘the whole world cannot bring freedom to Tibet unless the whole fabric of the Chinese state is destroyed.’ Although the CIA was giving support to Tibetan rebels, Nehru – with his long experience of international politics – thought American and European support for the Tibetan cause was not sincere. In his view, ‘all they want is to exploit Tibet in their cold war with the Soviet Union.’ If the exiled leader went to the West in the hope of drumming up enthusiasm, said Nehru, he would be left looking ‘like a piece of merchandise.’

This was, over the decades, to become the Dalai Lama’s dilemma.

It was not until 1979 that he was even permitted to enter the United States. Cautiously at first, he tried to promote the cause of his country’s freedom and cultural identity abroad. It was only in the late 1980s – after protests and riots in Lhasa – that the Tibetan issue acquired a popular sheen in Western countries. Politicians, singers, movie stars and activists (myself included) became involved in a vociferous campaign to influence the Chinese government to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. This lobbying was not successful, and since the early 1990s Beijing has shown little sign of entering into serious or sincere negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s exiled administration.

In retrospect, it seems that the last window of opportunity for a constructive resolution of the Tibetan issue was during the Deng Xiaoping era in the 1980s. The Chinese leadership at this time made an active effort to secure a deal which would allow the exiles to return to Tibet. Since then, he has been personally vilified by Beijing. It has been apparent for more than a decade now that the chances of the Dalai Lama making further progress with the Chinese government were very remote. To pretend otherwise was a fiction promoted by pro-Tibet campaigners because they could not find an alternative way forward, such was the growing global economic power of China.

Inside Tibet, despite the practical and material advances, the Chinese government has failed signally to win the hearts and minds of the people. This impasse or deadlock flared up dangerously in 2008, when protests spread across many parts of China where Tibetans lived, and were brutally put down. Beijing’s strategy has been to wait it out, hoping that once the Dalai Lama passes away, the Tibetan issue will fade from international consciousness.

For this reason alone, the Dalai Lama’s decision to step down last week was a wise one. He has, in fact, been trying to retire for several decades. When he made an attempt in 2001, he did not get far. The Tibetan refugee community elected a Kalon Tripa or chief minister, who promptly suggested the Dalai Lama should retain all executive power. ‘I would now like to request His Holiness to rescind this decision,’ the Kalon Tripa said, ‘and continue to exercise his traditional administrative responsibilities.’

The problem is that as far as most Tibetans are concerned, the Dalai Lama is literally irreplaceable. No other culture has such reverence for its leader, who is usually referred to in Tibetan simply as ‘the Presence’. Roman Catholic respect for the Pope or Hindu reverence for sages and babas is simply not comparable. This devotion can be found equally among Tibetans inside Tibet and among those in exile. I remember while travelling in a remote part of western Tibet in 1999, meeting a young woman whose reverence for me was profound, simply because she heard I had been in the presence of the Presence. And the Dalai Lama had left Tibet before this woman was born.

If the future of the Tibetan people is to be secured – even in a messy and compromised form – it is vital the Dalai Lama does not renege on his decision to step down. He has already been pressed by Tibetans living in exile to reconsider. (It is harder to know what Tibetans inside Tibet are thinking, since the restrictions on them communicating with the outside world are severe, and they have no objective information about their own politicial situation.) The Dalai Lama has made the decision to step down in his lifetime because he knows it is in the long-term interest of the Tibetan people.

The exiles now have to elect a leader who can promote a more modern and pragmatic course of action. There needs to be a generational shift, and a new approach. They have to generate alternative sources of patronage and political impetus. They have to make sure that if, in the future, Beijing recognises or creates a new Dalai Lama, this ‘Chinese’ Dalai Lama is not seen as a plausible alternative. They have – crucially – to find original mechanisms to reach out to the Chinese people and to the Chinese government.

Ideally, the Tibetan exiles need to rally around a single person who can articulate their grievances and ambitions. The most plausible candidate for this elected role is Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard Law School graduate in his early forties. His selection would provide an opportunity for a fresh strategy. Like most exiled communities, the Tibetans have many internal splits – regional, personal, political and religious – which will need to be put aside in pursuit of a larger historical ambition. If this does not happen, the cause the Dalai Lama has long espoused will end up as a footnote to history.

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