Peter Popham: He held his people together – but they must move on

The Dalai Lama has exasperated many young Tibetans in recent years by his refusal to yield on non-violence

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Tibetans are by no means overjoyed that the Dalai Lama has decided to relinquish his role as their political leader. In the southern Indian town of Mundagod, where exiled Tibetans have built a monastery, they told The Times of India yesterday: "We are shocked and pained... the mood in all families here is gloomy. The Lamas are now worried over the future of displaced Tibetans who are fighting for freedom from the clutches of China."

Their distress is easy to understand: Tibet has been ruled by the high Buddhist clergy for centuries. The Dalai Lama's legitimacy goes back to his childhood, when he was "revealed" as the 14th incarnation. The legitimacy of rulers is a fragile commodity, as the world has witnessed in North Africa: it's the glue that holds a nation together, but unless a ruler enjoys not only opinion of interest, as Hume put it, but also opinion of right – unless people agree that he has the moral right to rule – even a tyrant can lose traction fast.

The Dalai Lama has exasperated many younger Tibetans in recent years by his refusal to yield on non-violence and his decision to make autonomy rather than independence his government's goal. But even the Tibetans who criticise his politics would not question his right to do what he does. It is only that unquestioned legitimacy, and the charisma of his personality, that has succeeded in holding his impoverished, oppressed and scattered people together.

Tibetans educated in the West may share some of our scepticism about their homeland's reincarnation traditions, but even they are united in their respect for what Tenzin Gyatso has achieved in raising the profile of their struggle.

The Tibetan parliament, which meets later this month to pick a leader represents 80,000 Tibetan exiles. That means the Dalai Lama is the leader a community smaller than the population of Basingstoke – yet he is one of the most famous people in the world. Their elected prime minister will have a job matching that.

For years the Dalai Lama has been trying to get Tibetan exiles to accept that the time for them to be ruled by reincarnated High Lamas is over; that they must enter the modern world and shoulder the responsibilities of power. It's an uphill task. He will remain his community's ultimate spiritual authority until he dies, but the danger is that the Chinese, who have "discovered" and raised a Panchen Lama obedient to their rule, will succeed in their long-term aim of usurping Tibet's reincarnation rituals to impose High Lamas of their own choosing.

One defence against that may be the exiled 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, now 25 and the best prospect for a charismatic successor to the Dalai Lama. But eventually the Tibetans will have to join the modern world, with all its pitfalls. If they succeed it will be the Chinese Communist Party that looks like a quaint anachronism.

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