The Dalai Lama has long represented a peaceful union of spiritual and temporal authority for the Tibetan people. That now seems set to end. On Thursday, the 52nd anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama announced that he would propose to relinquish his political position when the Tibetan government-in-exile convenes next week.
Ever since the 1960s, the Dalai Lama has expressed unease with his political function even as he has campaigned actively for Tibet’s cause.
Perhaps as a result, he has also tried to reform the Tibetan political structure, traditionally dependent on spiritual authority. In his statement on Thursday, he called for an alternative leader to be freely elected by the Tibetan people to whom he could devolve his formal authority. This is commendable democratic instinct, and is on a par with other notable reformist tendencies in modern times.
The question is: what does it mean for the Tibetan community? The Chinese takeover that forced the Dalai Lama and others into exile also deprived the Tibetan community of nationhood. Because the Tibetan identity cannot count on the geography of Tibet, it depends on several cultural symbols. The Dalai Lama, as the community’s religious and political leader, is the most prominent of these (this is perhaps the reason why the Chinese have been so against dealing with him). Setting aside half that symbol is likely to erode its potential to influence the Tibetan cause.
That’s all the more worrying because the other half of the Dalai Lama’s function is already under attack. China is more than willing—as it was in the case of the Panchen Lama—to institute its own “reincarnation” once the incumbent passes from the scene. If that comes to pass, the Tibetan cause may come to a fruitless end.
The transition from a personality-driven to an institution-driven movement is bound to be difficult for the Tibetans. And it might just give China the time it needs to cement its hold over Tibet. The issue on both sides is political legitimacy: a representative leadership for the Tibetans, and an internationally accepted control over Tibet for the Chinese. The question is which side will find it first.
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