Tibet's spiritual leader says he's giving up political power -- but it's not that simple.
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.
Some of the government's defensive moves expose it to ridicule and exacerbate relations. Last week, for instance, the Party-appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, told the international press that the region has been closed to foreign tourists for the remainder of this month because of "extreme cold" and lack of hotels. This might sound credible to ethnic Chinese audiences, but everyone in Tibet knows that the weather in Lhasa is not severe (the mean temperature minimum there in March is 27 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as Chicago) and that the city has a glut of hotels. The real reason for the ban on foreigners is not a secret in Lhasa: Tibetans often stage protests on or around March 10 to mark the failed uprising of 1959.
Tibetans have already taken to the streets this March. On March 16, the anniversary of the shooting deaths of at least eight monks in a protest against Chinese rule in 2008, a 20-year-old Tibetan monk burnt himself to death in the local marketplace in Ngaba, an area of eastern Tibet now within Sichuan province. This is only the second time a Tibetan monk is ever known to have used this form of protest. Suicide breaches basic Buddhist vows against self-harm and the Dalai Lama's policy of non-violence, but among ordinary Tibetans such an act is seen as the highest form of dedication to defending the community and its values. Last Wednesday several hundred monks joined protests, which were disbanded by security forces wielding electric batons.
In these tense times, the Dalai Lama's decision to resign is likely to increase anxiety among many Tibetans, desperately worried about a future without a well-established leader. At the same time, his determination to introduce democracy to the Tibetan government in exile will increase his standing among Tibetans remaining within China. It will also remind them that China's leaders have done nothing to devolve the absolute power of the Communist Party despite constitutional promises of "multi-party cooperation." Just last week, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, reaffirmed that China's leaders had "made a solemn declaration that we will not employ a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation."
The party has used two main methods to counter opposition in Tibet. The first is striving to better economic conditions. Over the last 30 years, it has directed billions of dollars worth of subsidies into Tibetan infrastructure and salaries to boost the region's economy (Beijing gave $4.32 billion to Tibet in subsidies in 2007 alone). This has helped push GDP growth rates to more than 12 percent annually for the last 15 years -- higher even than the rest of China -- and improved living conditions in Tibet.
But the second method has been to increase restrictions on Tibetan culture and religion. These were stepped up in the mid-1990s, with bans on worship of the Dalai Lama, on any Buddhist practice among Tibetan students or government employees, on any increase in monks or monasteries, on any criticism of Chinese migration policies, and so on. Chinese officials apparently fear that these practices encourage Tibetan nationalism.
China's current development policies in Tibet have also added to the problem: They are perceived by many Tibetans as an attempt to erode Tibetan culture. In the past two decades, the authorities have openly encouraged Han Chinese traders to move to Tibetan towns; by the year 2000, more than half the males of working age in Lhasa were non-Tibetans, even according to the official census. In 2010, the government announced that Mandarin would replace Tibetan as the principal language of instruction in schools in eastern Tibetan areas, leading to protests by hundreds of Tibetan students.
These are some of the issues that the Dalai Lama has been asking Beijing for 30 years to resolve through face-to-face negotiations. Since 2002, Beijing has held nine largely fruitless rounds of talks with his representatives. It refuses to enter into full negotiations with the exile government, which it considers an illegal entity, or with the Dalai Lama, whom it terms "a political renegade" -- claiming that he is secretly plotting Tibetan independence, despite his public utterances that he only wants Tibet's autonomy within the current Chinese system. Will the Dalai Lama's decision to hand over power to an unknown layman end any chance of a negotiated settlement?
So far the Chinese government has denounced the Dalai Lama's planned retirement. Its spokesperson in Beijing described it as "tricks to deceive the international community," while the state-run newspaper in Lhasa declared that his "nonsense talk of retirement" had "laid bare the true face of the Dalai as a "political salesman" and "exposed the reactionary nature of the Dalai clique."
This denunciation contradicts the usual position of the Chinese authorities, who have always derided the Dalai Lama for retaining a political role. In principle, his new decision should make it easier for them to talk with him. And buried in his statement to his exile parliament is a clue that the Dalai Lama may be trying to ease the path toward effective talks: In the last sentence of his statement, he announced that two declarations passed by the exile parliament in 1963 and 1992 that call explicitly for Tibetan independence would henceforth become "ineffective." Behind the scenes, Chinese officials have long been pushing exiles to nullify these two documents. If they are withdrawn, it would increase the credibility of the Dalai Lama's claim to be seeking autonomy (not independence) for Tibet.
The Dalai Lama's new proposals may increase anxieties about the future among some Tibetans. However, his proposals should also make it easier for Beijing to open negotiations with him or his government -- especially if the last formal documents calling for Tibetan independence have been withdrawn. Beijing may soon find itself under increased pressure to consider serious talks with the Dalai Lama (if not with the Tibetan government) and grapple at last with the situation in Tibet.