At least one unelected life-long world leader has decided to hand over power to his citizens, and it hasn't come on the heels of protest in the streets. On March 10, the anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising for independence in 1959 and of a wave of major protests that began in Lhasa three years ago, the Dalai Lama announced that he intends to retire from his political responsibilities. This will not change his spiritual role, or end his travels round the world. Nor will it avoid almost certain conflict over his reincarnation, as the Chinese government still insists only it has the right to choose.
But it is a major challenge for Tibetan exiles, because the Dalai Lama also made a radical demand to his exile parliament, based in Dharamsala, India: He asked it to change the constitution and replace his position with "a democratic system in which the political leadership is elected by the [Tibetan] people for a specific term."
This means that a 350-year era of Tibetan history will come to an end, and Dalai Lamas will no longer be the political leaders of the Tibetan people.
Instead, the leader of the Tibetan government, which now exists only in exile in India and is charged with "rehabilitating Tibetan refugees and restoring freedom and happiness in Tibet," will be their prime minister. The last two prime ministers have been chosen democratically by the 150,000 exiles, and an election was held to choose the next one on March 20. (The front-runner is a 42-year-old Tibetan named Lobsang Sangay who graduated from Harvard Law School; however, the final results won't be announced until late April.) The winner would become the ultimate leader of Tibetan exiles if this proposal is accepted by the exile parliament, which alone has authority to change the exile constitution. But so far 42 of the 43 exile parliamentarians, meeting in northern India this week, are still insisting that the Dalai Lama remain in power, though they have agreed to set up a committee to examine the issue.
Then again, the most important reaction to the Dalai Lama's statement will come not from the exiles, but from the 5.5 million Tibetans in China, whose willingness to accept Chinese rule is at the root of the China-Tibet question. They constitute just .4 percent of China's population, but, like Mongols in Inner Mongolia and Uighurs in Xinjiang, inhabit vast areas of China where the central government's territorial claims are weakest. Each of these peoples has supporters in large numbers among fellow ethnics living just across China's borders with India, Nepal, Central Asia, Mongolia, and elsewhere. As a result, their ability to draw the worried glance of Beijing and so impact Chinese politics is far out of proportion to their actual numbers. The authorities respond to even slight indications of dissent among these nationalities with disproportionate force and angry rhetoric.