The Dalai Lama’s decision to hand over full political power to an elected exile prime minister has blocked China’s long-range plan to tighten control of Tibet by manipulating a new "reincarnation" of the revered spiritual leader, experts say.
In a March election, Tibetan refugees around the world elected Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay as kalon tripa, or prime minister of Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile.
Shortly afterward, the Dalai Lama announced he would relinquish his political authority and responsibilities, which he and former Dalai Lamas had exercised for centuries, to the newly elected Sangay.
Speaking this week in Washington, International Campaign for Tibet vice president Bhuchung Tsering said that Chinese leaders were surprised by the Dalai Lama’s transfer of political power, and that they doubted the sincerity of his announcement that he wished to do so.
“It is something that they cannot imagine—somebody giving up power voluntarily and happily, as His Holiness did,” Tsering said, speaking at a roundtable discussion held by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
“Secondly, it thwarts the Chinese plans, because the Chinese have planned to use what they see as the ‘next’ Dalai Lama for the political control of the Tibetan people.”
“Now, with this Dalai Lama saying he is devolving authority—not just for this lifetime but for all future Dalai Lamas—the Chinese do not really know what to do.”
China’s government had previously announced that upon the eventual death of the present fourteenth Dalai Lama, they would appoint his successor, raising the possibility of there being two Dalai Lamas—one recognized by China and the other chosen by exiles.
In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Tenth Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese authorities put the boy under house arrest and installed another in his place.
Many Tibetans spurn the China-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake.
'A religious matter'
In an interview this month with the Associated Press, the Dalai Lama said that China’s communist leaders can play no role in deciding his succession.
“This is a religious matter,” he said.
"It's a disgrace that they want to control that," he added. "They've become mad [with] political power."
Also speaking before the Commission this week, Arjia Rinpoche, former abbot of Tibet's Kumbum monastery, agreed, saying that the Tibetan tradition of identifying the reincarnations of important lamas is a concern for Tibetans alone.
It should not be manipulated and controlled by China’s government in the so-called “golden urn” ceremony, said Rinpoche, who came to the United States after going into exile in 1998.
“On the one hand, [the Chinese authorities] criticize and denounce the Buddhist tradition as ‘feudalism,’ he said.
“On the other hand, they [refer back to] the authority of the Chinese emperor in the golden urn ceremony,” in a tradition begun during China’s Qing Dynasty to extend Chinese control over Tibet.
“However, that doesn’t work for all Tibetans. Not all Tibetans recognize that,” Rinpoche said.
'Strength to live'
Former political prisoner Ngawang Sangdrol, also speaking before the Commission, said that the Dalai Lama remains “very important” for Tibetans—especially for Tibetan political prisoners suffering in Chinese prisons.
In her own experience as a political prisoner, and especially when held in solitary confinement for six months, she endured darkness, cold and hunger, said Sangdrol, who was arrested at 13 for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Tibet.
“But every day, I imagined His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the top of my head. This gave me peace of mind, although the physical conditions were very terrible. This was the only thing that gave me some strength to live.”
The Dalai Lama is important not just for this generation of Tibetans, but for the generations to come, Sangdrol said.
Maria Otero, the point person for Tibetan affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration, said Washington believes that the Dalai Lama can be a “constructive partner” for China, particularly as it deals with the challenge of resolving continuing tensions in Tibetan areas.
“China’s engagement with the Dalai Lama, or his representatives, to resolve problems facing Tibetans is in the interests of the Chinese government and the Tibetan people,” Otero said.
Reported by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.