The Dalai Lama formally asked Tibet’s exile parliament on Monday to allow him to retire from political leadership and hand over power to a prime minister to be chosen this weekend.
Some experts see the move as "radical," saying it could trigger concerns among Tibetans, especially inside Tibet, that the Dalai Lama is abandoning them.
Others questioned the timing of the decision of the 75-year-old Nobel Laureate, who has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan struggle for almost sixty years.
The Dalai Lama has requested parliament to make an amendment to the exiled government's constitution, allowing him to step down.
The request could be rejected by Tibetan members of parliament, muddling the situation further as some of his confidantes feel that the Dalai Lama has made an irrevocable decision.
The Dalai Lama, the 14th in a line of Tibetan spiritual leaders, has led the Tibetan people in exile since a failed 1959 national uprising against Chinese occupation. His predecessors had ruled Tibet virtually unchallenged for centuries before.
“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” of the Tibetan freedom struggle, the Dalai Lama said in a letter read to MPs Monday by the speaker of the parliament at the gathering’s opening session.
If a stable and confident system of governance is not already in place, “the consequent uncertainty might present an overwhelming challenge,” he added.
The Dalai Lama has encouraged the Tibetan exile community for years to develop more democratic institutions, setting up a parliament based in Dharamsala, India, and moving gradually from the direct appointment of exile prime ministers to their election in open, popular votes.
The current prime minister, or Kalon Tripa, Samdhong Rinpoche, will be succeeded following two five-year terms in office by one of three candidates now contesting elections scheduled for March 20.
‘No going back’
In a press conference Monday following the opening of parliament, Samdhong Rinpoche underscored the Dalai Lama’s determination to hand over political responsibility to new leaders, saying “The decision of His Holiness is final. There is no going back.”
Speaking in an interview, Robbie Barnett—Director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program—called the Dalai Lama’s proposal to step down “a statement that [Tibetans] have to secularize and have a modern system which doesn’t rely on religion, which is quite radical.”
The risk now, Barnett said, is that Tibetans inside Tibet may think that by removing himself from political leadership, the Dalai Lama is abandoning their cause.
“[But] he said he will continue traveling as a religious leader and will continue to speak out on the Tibet issue, presumably in a personal capacity,” he said. “So in practice, the differences are not going to be so evident to us.”
The Dalai Lama’s continued involvement in now-stalled talks with China over the status of Tibet would still be required, though, Barnett said.
Chinese officials have met several times with envoys of the Dalai Lama, Barnett said, but would probably refuse to speak with leaders of Tibet’s exile administration, which they regard as an illegal organization.
“I think the parliament will say, ‘Okay, you can retire, but you have to please return to doing the negotiations with China. You must still be in charge of that.’”
“I think the speed [of the Dalai Lama’s announcement] is the most interesting thing, in a way,” Barnett added.
“It really is quite politically bold and creative of the Dalai Lama to push his parliament in this way.”
Jamyang Norbu, a Tennessee-based writer and blogger on Tibetan politics, questioned the timing of the Dalai Lama's decision, which he called confusing.
“It would have been much wiser to make the statement at least a year, or two years, before the Kalon Tripa election,” Norbu said.
“You know, to tell the public that this time the elections are absolutely real, because now the people who come into [the government] will assume real power, because he is going to step down.”
The Dalai Lama is not “just a person,” Norbu said.
“He is an institution, an old institution. This is the 14th Dalai Lama. He owes it to his predecessors, he owes it to the government and the system that he does things in a systematic way.”
The Dalai Lama has been signaling his desire to formalize a separation between political and spiritual responsibilities for some time.
And though China closely watches these developments, Norbu said, “they are not really worried about the Dalai Lama’s administration being capable of doing anything. They really know it inside out.”
“They are scared more about vague revolutionary sentiments all over Tibet—the unknown rather than the known, which is in Dharamsala, which is fairly predictable now.”
The Dalai Lama’s decision, first announced last week, was met with blunt criticism by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu. “We think these are his tricks to deceive the international community,” she said.
Reported by Richard Finney.