Dalai Lama steps back to push Tibetans forward

Spiritual leader's speech intended to spark drive for democracy

The Dalai Lama has announced his intention to give up his political duties in what appears to be a desire to force the community of exiled Tibetan Buddhists to become more democratic in the face of growing challenges from China.

In a long-anticipated announcement, the spiritual and political leader said he would propose changes to the government-in-exile's constitution as early as next week to devolve his political roles to that of an elected leader. He believes the move will boost the fortunes of a new generation of Tibetan leaders in pressing their demands for autonomy from China.

"As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power," he said in a speech marking the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. "Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect."

In Dharamsala, the Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas that has been his home and the base for the Tibetan government-in-exile for 50 years, he added: "[This will] benefit Tibetans in the long run. It is not because I feel disheartened."

Although the 76-year-old Nobel laureate has long made clear his desire to democratise the movement, the announcement sent ripples through the Tibetan community and its supporters. In Dharamsala, there was even talk that the parliament could reject his proposal.

"In contrast to those long-serving autocrats who have been much in the news, the Dalai Lama is the rare visionary who is willingly divesting power to his people," said Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet. "His decision... deserves both accolades and support."

In truth, the announcement may make little difference to his day-to-day activities, at least initially. The government-in-exile already has an elected prime minister, albeit a member of the Buddhist clergy, and, even if he decides he wishes to retain no formal political office, the Dalai Lama will remain the community's de facto leader. He will also remain the religious head for his school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Yet while the Dalai Lama is believed to be in reasonable health, there has long been concern about who might fill the gap following his death. He has always insisted his successor – believed to be his reincarnation – would come from the exile community. But China insists that it must approve any reincarnation and that it must come from within its Tibetan areas. Many analysts believe there may eventually be two Dalai Lamas, one chosen by China and another by the exile community.

This month, Tibetans will hold an election for a new prime minister. The three main contenders are all secular figures, unlike the incumbent. Reports suggest the favourite is Lobsang Sangay, a Fulbright scholar with a doctorate in law from Harvard.

China has long rejected the overtures of the Dalai Lama and said he is someone whose sole aim is to split the country. Yesterday it dismissed his talk of giving up his political role as "a trick". "The Dalai Lama uses religion as a disguise and he is a political exile who has been carrying out separatist activities for a long time," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. "For years he has been expressing his intention to retire. We think these are tricks to deceive the international community."

The Dalai Lama, who for many years has backed a moderate "middle way" approach to dealing with China, has long been preparing his community for his death. Two years ago, he stressed that whoever became the 15th Dalai Lama need not hold both a political and religious function. "The Dalai Lamas held temporal and spiritual leadership over the past 400 to 500 years," he said. "It may have been quite useful. But that period is over. Today, it is clear to the whole world that democracy is the best system despite its minor negativities. That is why it is important Tibetans move with the larger world community."

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