Martin Mills: This surprising voice for democracy is now in a race against time

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The fourteenth Dalai Lama wants democracy. There are quite a few people who disagree with this statement, and quite a few more that might find it rather strange. After all, is this not the traditional leader of what was, until the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, one of the most conservative feudal theocracies on earth, designated according to a system of dreams, omens and rituals as the human manifestation of Tibet's patron deity Chenresig, reincarnation of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas, trained from birth to be a religious scholar? Hardly the usual credentials for a spokesman for universal suffrage.

And yet, if we are to judge a man by his words and actions, this is indeed what he seems to be. The present Dalai Lama first publicly advocated democratic reform in 1959, after fleeing into exile in India following the failed Tibetan Uprising against Chinese rule. In 1960, officials in his exiled government renounced their traditional aristocratic titles. In 1963, the Dalai Lama promulgated a draft constitution for a "future free Tibet", in which he first floated the idea that such a state might not actually have a Dalai Lama ruling it.

For most Tibetans, however, the Dalai Lama was the very touchstone of the Tibetan cause: indeed, in 1959 many had fought and died to ensure his personal safety. The very notion of giving up on 'sole protector of the land of the snows' in favour of an elected head of state was anathema, and indeed remains that way. Perplexingly in the post-Cold War world, the Tibetan leader has often advocated democracy in the face of virulent popular protest by Tibetans themselves, who demand his continued rule.

However, the fact of the present Dalai Lama's age and imperfect health hangs like Damacles' sword, and the Tibetan leader clearly feels the issue of succession requires urgent resolution if the exiled Tibetan communities are not going to fragment in his absence.

Nonetheless, the traditional Tibetan solutions to this puzzle are profoundly inadequate, and the Dalai Lama knows it. Tibetans can no longer afford 20 year inter-renums between the death of a sitting Dalai Lama and the majority of his reincarnations.

At the same time, many aristocrats were seen as turncoats working for the Chinese during the Tibetan Uprising. The established monastic leaders, moreover, would now almost certainly cause sectarian schisms amongst Tibet's exiles. For the Dalai Lama, then, the solution lies in the people.

The author is an anthropologist who has written extensively about Tibet

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