Dharamsala’s Democratic Dalai Lama
McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala
It’s been startling to witness mass demonstrations in countries across the Middle East for freedom from autocracy, while, in the Tibetan community, a die-hard champion of “people power” tries to dethrone himself and his people keep asking him to stay on. Again and again the Dalai Lama (who tends to be more radical and less romantic than most of his followers) has sought to find ways to give up power, and his community has sought to find ways to ensure he can’t. It could be said that almost the only time Tibetans don’t listen to the Dalai Lama is when he tells them they shouldn’t listen to him. Now, on the eve of an important election for Tibet’s government-in-exile, he has announced he is relinquishing formal political authority entirely—and the Tibetan government has accepted his decision, even as the move has alarmed many around the world and struck some as the end of an era.
In truth, the Dalai Lama’s statement was merely a continuation—and a stronger expression—of what he has been saying for years: that political leadership for the Tibetan people (in exile at least) belongs with the democratically elected government-in-exile he has so painstakingly set up over decades in Dharamsala, in India (elections for a new prime minister are to be held March 20); that he will function only as a “senior advisor,” helping to oversee the transition to a post-Dalai Lama era; and, most important, that the spiritual and temporal sides of Tibetan rule will at last be separate. As he noted in the speech that mentioned his “retirement”—his annual state-of-the-nation address, in effect, delivered on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the People’s Republic of China and a frequent day of protest—he has believed, since childhood, that church and state should not be one and that the fate of Tibet should be in the hands of all Tibetans.
Democracy, as the Dalai Lama sees it, is perfectly in tune with the Buddha’s central principles of self-rule and responsibility; it is one of the features of the wider world that long-isolated Tibet can and should now learn from; and it only stands to reason that the voices of all Tibetans be more important than that of just one—a logic that appeals to the scientist and the natural Everyman in him. Besides, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama will be 76 this July and the Dalai Lama institution cannot function as it did now that Tibet’s exiled leaders are separated from the 98 percent of Tibetans—some six million people—who live within the People’s Republic of China in circumstances of general repression and deprivation of political rights. Beijing has already “banned” reincarnations without government approval and all but announced that the finding of a “Fifteenth Dalai Lama” will lie under its jurisdiction as soon as the current, fourteenth, Dalai Lama dies.
The Dalai Lama’s official relinquishing of political leadership was one way of underlining to Beijing that the Tibetan problem will not go away when he dies, and that there will still be Tibetans pressing for a (probably peaceful, negotiated) settlement to the issue, to counter the more confrontational firebrands often featured in the press. Meanwhile, those in Tibet itself continue to wait for the most basic human rights, transparency and real democracy to come to them from Beijing. On March 16th, according to a report from Dharamsala, a 21-year-old Tibet monk in Sichuan Province set himself fatally alight in his monastery, both to protest Chinese rule and, perhaps, to try to spark uprisings akin to the ones seen recently in Egypt and Tunisia.