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Dalai Lama’s Retirement: Implications

On the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the March 10 Tibetan Uprising, the Dalai Lama announced his retirement as the political head of the ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’ (TGIE) and said that he would hand over his “formal authority” to a “freely-elected” leader. He remarked that “The decision to devolve authority has not been taken because I feel disheartened. It is to benefit the Tibetans in the longer run. I feel, gradually people will come to understand my intention and will support my decision and let it take effect.” The Dalai Lama is likely to put it formally before the TGIE on Monday, however, the latter need to amend the Tibetan Charter which makes the Dalai Lama as the head of state, and also the political and administrative head of Tibetans. The Tibetan émigrés across the world will elect a new parliament by universal franchise on March 20, 2011. By devolving his powers, the Dalai Lama hopes to give the ‘Prime Minister’ greater clout as the region seeks autonomy from China.

As the Dalai Lama is aging, he would like to devolve powers to elected heads of the TGIE, so as a legitimate leadership evolves during his lifetime and continues the struggle for ‘genuine autonomy’ within the Chinese constitution even when he is not around. He does not want to see the Tibetan movement going astray, as there is already a constituency amongst the émigrés which have been disillusioned by the ‘middle way approach’ of the Dalai Lama and are asking for complete independence rather than ‘genuine autonomy’. However, it has been widely believed that the institutions established by the Tibetan émigrés have been largely democratized and are capable of steering the struggle ahead even in the absence of the Dalai Lama.

On the other hand, the Tibetan émigrés are also unanimous when it comes to the political and religious clout of the Dalai Lama among the Tibetans as well as internationally. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Tibetan Parliament will agree to the Dalai Lama’s retirement. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche has already made it clear that “The TGIE might not have that legitimacy in eyes of Tibetans in case the Dalai Lama withdraws as temporal and political head of the institution.” Furthermore, China may further harden its stance as regards the talks between the envoys of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. In case the Tibetan chose envoys from the elected ‘government,’ China is unlikely to give its approval and the negotiations may be stalled further. The retirement according to Rinpoche will also create a political deadlock in the Tibetan ‘parliament’ in exile.

Long before the Dalai Lama’s announcement, China has once again spouted venom at the Nobel Laureate amidst the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National People’s Political Consultative Conference (NPPCC). Zhang Qingli, the general secretary of the Communist Party in Tibet, reiterated on March 7th 2011 that the Dalai Lama is a “wolf in monk’s robes” a derogatory term widely used by him and others during the March 2008 riots in Tibet. Zhang said that he actually quoted the words of Zhou Enlai to describe the Dalai Lama in that way. Zhang also made comparisons between the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, a Uygur separatist leader from Xinjiang. Zhang however did not rule out the possibility of 2008 style riots in Tibet, but remarked that the current situation in Tibet was generally stable.

Reacting to the Dalai Lama’s announcement of retirement,  Qiangba Puncog, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s People’s Congress said on the sidelines of the NPC session on March 11, that the announcement is “absolutely meaningless.” He said, “Since no country recognizes his self-declared ‘exiled Tibetan government’, whatever he does in his illegal political organization is nonsense and Tibet will not be affected at all.” Puncog admitted that the “Dalai Lama, as Living Buddha and a religious leader, does have some influence on his believers,” but also said that “his death is expected to have a minor impact on Tibet, the overall social situation will remain stable, and we are prepared to handle some minor turbulence after his death.” Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the same vein castigated the Dalai Lama for his “tricks to deceive the international community,” and that he is a “political exile under a religious cloak and has long engaged in activities aimed at splitting apart China.”

The fundamental perceptions of the Tibetan émigrés and China are very diverging as regards the Tibet issue. As far as the Dalai Lama headed TGIE is concerned it has adopted the ‘middle way’ approach for the resolution of Tibet issue. In brief, the Dalai Lama demands “genuine autonomy” within the constitutional framework of the Peoples’ Republic of China. However, part one of the Strasbourg proposals that deal with the history of Tibet and deem Tibet as an independent country before 1949 is troublesome and has not gone well with the Chinese government. The second part is forward looking and deals with future of Tibet. China would remain responsible for Tibet’s foreign policy, but, Tibet would be governed by its own constitution. The government of Tibet would comprise a popular elected chief executive, a bicameral legislature and an independent legal system. The other major hurdle is the demand to restore whole of Tibet known as greater Tibet. The greater Tibet or the so called ‘Cholka –Sum’ is the ethnic Tibet which consisted of three provinces, namely, U Tsang, Kham and Amdo. The genuine autonomy is sought for the entire 6 million Tibetans in China, not just for 2.6 million Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

The organizations such as Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA), National Democratic Party of Tibet (NDPT), Gu-Chu-Sum Movement (GCSM) Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), the International Tibet Support Network (ITSN) and the Tibetan Writers Organization (TWO) etc. are pronounce by China as ‘radical’ organizations and at times have declared TYC as a terror outfit as well, have reservations about the middle way as offered by Dalai Lama  and have  more or less accepted the independence of Tibet as their ultimate goal besides other aims and objectives.

As far as China is concerned as it is evident from its reaction to the Dalai Lama’s announcement of retirement, it doesn’t accept the Dalai Lama’s proposals or the demand for ‘genuine autonomy’ and describe them as a ploy to seek independence, semi independence or even independence in disguised form, for according to China the Charter of the Tibetan in Exile promulgated in 1991 maintains that efforts shall be made to transform a future Tibet into a Federal Democratic Self-Governing Republic and a zone of peace throughout her three regions, and the Dalai Lama as a head of such a future entity.  According to An Caidan, a researcher from China’s Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing, the real motive of “genuine autonomy” could be best described as “sanbuqu” (Trilogy) to secure Tibetan independence: Firstly to secure the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet through negotiations, for the Dalai clique has failed to achieve any success irrespective of engaging in independence activities for decades from outside China. In order to “directly and more effectively” command the pro independence activities, it is important to return home first. Secondly to gain political power through “genuine autonomy”; and 3) finally realize “Tibetan independence” through a “referendum.”

It could be discerned that these are extremely diverging positions and there is no meeting ground for the two sides. China is eagerly waiting for the demise of the Dalai Lama as evident from the statements of its officials in Tibet. It is aware of the political and religious weight and clout of the Dalai Lama inside and outside Tibet. It would be wishful thinking of China if it believes that the Tibetan movement will die with the demise of the Dalai Lama. The émigrés feels that the TGIE has matured as an institution and would continue be an umbrella organization for Tibetan émigré throughout the world, and continue to follow the course of non violence and engage China into a dialogue. The TYC, TWA, SFT and others are likely to continue the struggle through the tactics of the mass movement on the one hand, and arouse international support and sympathy for their cause on the other. Largely, the direction of their movement will be non-violent as indicated by various factions.

Everyone acknowledges that the void left by the Dalai Lama would be difficult to fill in. It would not only a huge loss for Tibet and the émigrés but a loss for China too, for China will never find a personality like him, who could wield the support of all sections of Tibetan people. Therefore, China need to thrash a settlement when he is around, and if China fails to address this issue in time, it could become grave as we have seen how unattended conflicts with ethnic subtexts such as in Palestine, Yugoslavia and Kashmir can erupt in ways that make them virtually impossible to be resolved. It’s in the interest of all stakeholders not to let that happen to Tibet.

(The writer, Dr. B R Deepak, is Associate Professor in the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He could be reached at

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