His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the official commemoration of the 52nd Tibetan National Uprising Day at Tsuglakhang courtyard, March 10, 2011.

Yeshi Tsomo is 74-years-old. When asked about His Holiness the Dalai Lama's retirement from Tibetan politics her face melts into a pool of tears. This is the fundamental problem. Emotions of the Tibetan people, both in and outside Tibet, become so elevated on this issue that the possibility of any logical analysis and factual decision dies. We must, as Bob Dylan sang, “take the rag away from [y]our face/Now ain't the time for [y]our tears.”

Retirement Conundrum

Misunderstandings regarding the Dalai Lama’s wish to retire are widespread among the Tibetans and also in the media, some of which reported that the Dalai Lama is “retiring from being the Dalai Lama”. His Holiness states his powers should be devolved and that the involvement of the institution of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan Government must now cease. But, as one among six million Tibetans, the Dalai Lama will continue to serve the cause of Tibet. This is a historic decision and the culmination of the democratization process that His Holiness started since coming into exile in April 1959.

This decision stems from his belief that “the essence of a democratic system is, in short, the assumption of political responsibility by elected leaders for the popular good.” In 2001, the Tibetans in exile directly elected their prime minister for the first time and on 20 March this year, the exile community will vote both for the prime minister and members of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile. Over the past ten years the Kashag (cabinet) headed by the prime minister has been taking the day-to-day administrative responsibilities and the Dalai Lama’s role has dramatically reduced. However, in order for the Tibetan democratization process to be complete, His Holiness states that “the time has come for me to devolve my formal authority to such an elected leadership.”

This is a pragmatic political decision involving the long-term interests of the Tibetan struggle and the survival of Tibet as a nation without having to depend on one person. There is no space for emotional outbursts and counterfactual arguments. Healthy debates, especially among the younger generation, have already started in social networks. This must continue, informed by full understanding of His Holiness’ decision and with full knowledge of its impacts.


In 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama founded the Ganden Phodrang Government of Tibet. Since then the successive Dalai Lamas have provided leadership for nearly four centuries. Few governments in the world today can trace their institutional and legal origins so far back in history. Hence the institution of the Dalai Lama has great historical legitimacy. Additionally, because of his tireless work for Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama is universally recognized by Tibetans in and outside Tibet as their undisputed leader. Today the issue of Tibet is synonymous with the Dalai Lama.

Immediately after coming into exile, the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, officially known as the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since then, the exile government under the Dalai Lama set up as many as 12 foreign missions all under the auspices of His Holiness’ name. These missions and other establishments are essential to bring the issue of Tibet to their respective countries and to to assert the just cause of Tibet in international forums.

How will the offices of Tibet continue to operate under the Dalai Lama’s name if the institution of the Dalai Lama is delinked from the Tibetan government? In fact, how will the entire exile establishment function and survive without the Dalai Lama?

The question can be also raised regarding the roles of the Dalai Lama’s special envoys through which talks with China are held. Since world leaders, including Barack Obama, urge the Chinese leadership to talk with the Dalai Lama and his envoys, how an elected Tibetan leadership can impress upon the international audience — and more importantly leaders of the free world — to pressure China to talk with them? How can a Tibetan government not led by the Dalai Lama command legitimacy and the loyalty of Tibetans in and outside of Tibet.

These are absolutely difficult and crucially important questions without easy solutions. But delaying these eventualities will make things worse. Having experienced occupation, exile, traveling the world and meeting with numerous leaders, His Holiness understands the complex global political situation and its impact on Tibet better than any other Tibetan. Thus, His Holiness states that the Tibetan must implement a system of governance while he “… will still be able to help resolve problems if called upon to do so”.

This is a testament to his enduring and tireless work for Tibet. This is reassurance enough for the Tibetan people to bury their emotions, wipe their tears and work to establish a democratic system based on informed and mature decisions.

The Challenges

As I write this, the 11th session of the 14th Tibetan Parliament in Exile is discussing the Dalai Lama’s decision to devolve his powers to the elected leadership. In the annals of Tibetan history, the decisions that come out of this session will be crucial.

Yesterday, when the Speaker read His Holiness’ statement many members of parliament were in tears. Later, when the media interviewed some of them, they found it hard to control their emotions. This is understandable. Tibetans inside Tibet must feel even worse. The issue is not only about the Dalai Lama’s devolution of powers but also changing the title of the Ganden Phodrang Government headed by the Dalai Lamas for nearly four centuries.

But soaking handkerchiefs and banging chests does not help. Decisions must not be taken in heightened emotional states, which often turn out to be counterfactual, incorrect and damaging in the long run. The test before the parliament is to find a viable legal solution, in which His Holiness is freed from all the ceremonial and administrative responsibilities but, perhaps, still remains the head of state. This is important because the Dalai Lama has historical legitimacy and complete trust of the Tibetan populace. Besides, any elected leadership in exile may find it hard to maintain the offices of Tibet and other vital democratic institutions without the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama’s name and global reach.

However, this is not the solution that His Holiness desires, which is to simply be one among the six million Tibetans and serve Tibet accordingly. More importantly, His Holiness wants to separate the institution of Dalai Lama from that of the Tibetan government. If members of the parliament are to fulfil this, they must be bold enough to use their political vision and acumen to make amendments in the Charter for Tibetans-in-exile so that a functioning system of governance can be instituted in exile without the Dalai Lama. “Now, a decision on this important matter should be delayed no longer,” wrote His Holiness in his statement.

The Positive Outcomes

The genius of the legislative body will lie in instituting a democratic system so that a complete transformational operation on the structure of the exile government does not have to be performed immediately, but at the same time fulfils the Dalai Lama’s wishes. If such a system is in place, then there will be a clear demarcation between the political issue of the six million Tibetans and that of the person of the Dalai Lama. This is crucial since the Chinese authorities make the issue of Tibet synonymous with that of the Dalai Lama’s personal status. Besides, the Dalai Lama working for the Tibetan cause as an individual — “as one among the six million Tibetans” — will be more legitimate, more democratic and more long-term.

A democratic system sans the Dalai Lama will also make it easier for the Middle Way Policy to be reviewed, re-analyzed and amended if necessary. Currently, any challenge to this policy and discussions on other strategies such as Rangzen are affected by emotions. On one online forum a Rangzen advocate was branded as ‘against’ His Holiness. Additionally, if a time comes when Rangzen becomes the official policy, then the Chinese authorities won’t be able to call the Dalai Lama a ‘separatist’ engaged in ‘activities splitting China’.

Whatever solutions the exile parliament may come to, they must bear in mind that His Holiness’ decision is for the long-term benefit of the Tibetans — that a democratic system led by a popularly elected leadership becomes more stable, longer lasting and is more in tune with changing times than depending on one person. Fear of temporary shake-ups must not prevent them from paving ways for the future.

The Tibetan people, in and outside Tibet, need to realize that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has tirelessly served Tibet since the age of sixteen. He turns 76 this year. The least that Tibetans can do is to be less selfish and carry out our duties to give him some time and personal freedom. His Holiness does not say that he is going into a cave nor is shirking any responsibilities. His Holiness simply wants to be one among the Tibetans and “as long as Tibetans place their trust and faith in me,” he says, “I will continue to serve the cause of Tibet.” 

So stop soaking your handkerchiefs and start carrying out your duties. 

The writer can be reached at bhuchungdsonam@gmail.com

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