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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."

Dalai Lama Retirement Accepted, So Now What? (Wall Street Journal)

April 14, 2011


The Dalai Lama’s proposal to retire from his political role — formally ending a 370-year-old tradition — has finally been accepted by the Tibetan parliament-in-exile after 10 days of emotional debate in the north Indian town of Dharamsala.

The queston now for his followers, and for China’s atheist leaders: What happens after he dies?

The exiled parliament passed four unanimous resolutions Friday agreeing to constitutional changes that would allow the Dalai Lama to give up his role as head of the government-in-exile, which he established after fleeing his homeland in 1959. Under the changes, to be formalized in May, his political powers will be formally transferred to a new Prime Minister, known as the Kalon Tripa, who will take power after the final results of an election held last Sunday are announced in April.

The parliament-in-exile initially opposed his retirement, but the 1989 Nobel Peace laureate insisted it was necessary to establish a more democratic, and sustainable, system for leading the 150,000 Tibetans who live in exile and for pushing the non-violent campaign aimed at gaining greater autonomy for Tibet.

“If we have to remain in exile for several more decades, a time will inevitably come when I will no longer be able to provide leadership,” the Dalai Lama said in a message to the parliament. “Therefore, it is necessary that we establish a sound system of governance while I remain able and healthy.”

China has dismissed the Dalai Lama’s retirement as a “trick” designed to impress the international community. On Monday, the Chinese government marked “Serfs’ Emancipation Day” — the date when it dismissed the Dalai Lama as head of the Tibetan government in 1959.

Padma Choling, the Beijing-appointed head of the current Tibetan regional government, made a televised speech on Sunday in which he insisted the Dalai Lama’s efforts to revive the “reactionary rule of theocratic feudal serfdom” were doomed to fail.

In reality, both sides have reason to worry about the future of a region that Beijing says has been part of its territory since the 13th Century, but which the Dalai Lama says was de facto independent before Chinese Communist troops took control in 1951.

The Dalai Lama’s chief concern, according to people close to him, is that the Chinese government –- which sees him as a dangerous separatist and says it has the right to approve all lamas’ reincarnations — will try to appoint his successor after his death. He says he will continue to act as a spiritual leader, much as previous Dalai Lamas did before 1642, when the Fifth Dalai Lama was enthroned both spritual and political leader following Tibet’s unification under the Mongol prince Gushri Khan.

So far the 10-day parliament meeting has offered no further clues as to whether the current Dalai Lama’s own successor will be selected in the traditional manner, with senior lamas identifying a young boy as his re-incarnation after his death.

The Dalai Lama has previously suggested a range of options, including having a referendum among his followers to decide whether he should be reincarnated at all. He has also suggested appointing his own successor while he is still alive.

One option could be off the table, however.

The favorite to be the next Prime Minister, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School called Lobsang Sangay, had suggested that the Karmapa Lama, the third highest in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, act as a “regent” to lead after the Dalai Lama’s death until his reincarnation is old enough to take over.

The constitutional changes agreed upon Friday entail the abolition of the regency, which traditionally handled Tibet’s government in the period between the death of one Dalai Lama and the completion of his successor’s education.

Bejing, meanwhile, is concerned that the Dalai Lama’s retirement undermines both its ability to appoint a credible successor and its criticism of his government-in-exile as an undemocratic relic of Tibet’s old theocracy.

Ironically, as Columbia University Tibetologist Robert Barnett has noted, those concerns mean the Chinese government is now pushing openly for the Dalai Lama to stick to the traditional succession model, even as it continues to denounce the system it says he represents.

The contradiction was on full display last week as a press conference with three local experts from the China Tibetology Research Center organized by the state-backed All-China Journalists’ Association.

Tsering Yangdzom, the only ethnic Tibetan among the experts, said the next Dalai Lama should be selected according to a religious tradition that she said dated back to the Sixth Dalai Lama, who reigned 1682-1706. The Sixth Dalai Lama is a significant reference in the succession debate as he was appointed by the Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi, which the Chinese government maintains as a precedent.

The government-in-exile argues Emperor Kangxi only sent representatives to the Sixth Dalai Lama’s inauguration and was not involved in his selection.

Zhou Wei, another of the experts, rejected the Dalai Lama’s suggestions that he could appoint his own successor. “If he wants to win the hearts of the Tibetan people, he must respect traditions,” he said.

The third expert, Du Yongbin, said the Dalai Lama’s retirement plan showed that exile government’s prime minister had no real power until now and that therefore religious leader and his followers adhered to “the old theocratic way despite claimed efforts to transform their group into a secular and democratic one.”

Mr. Du went on to insist on three cardinal rules for the next Dalai Lama’s selection: observe historical precedent, respect religious requirements, and comply with the Chinese government’s “managing measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas.”

– Jeremy Page
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