Despite the consternation it has raised among Tibetan exiles, the Dalai Lama's retirement from the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) merely recognises a state of affairs that has long been an informal reality. It is hence more of a natural evolution than a revolution. Of greater significance are the Dalai Lama's suggestions for constitutional change for CTA. Acknowledging it to be the administration of the exile Tibetans, rather than the exiled administration of Tibet, he reasons, would update the legitimacy of the CTA. Even those calling for Tibetan independence, in opposition to his 'Middle Way' policies, understand that internationally, as well as within the PRC, only the Dalai Lama can credibly claim to speak for Tibet. The realisation that his role will change and the uncertainties bound to this are painful for many Tibetans and the unease provides the context for the current discussions about the Dalai Lama's future. What the Dalai Lama appears to be doing is exchanging the CTA's legalistic approach for a more politically workable position. In doing this, he hopes to gain more room for manoeuvre for the Tibet issue.
A review of the Dalai Lama's statements and activities, ever since he arrived in exile in 1959, shows his long-term commitment to develop and foster democratic participation in public affairs and that he has consistently refrained from an executive role within the Tibetan exile community. Already by 1962, after establishing a chamber of elected representatives, popularly referred to as the Tibetan Parliament in Exile (actually, it is the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies, or ATPD), he put forward a democratic constitution for a future Tibet (promulgated on 10 March 1963) that saw off the traditional Tibetan system in which the Dalai Lama was, in theory, the sole and absolute ruler'(1). The Dalai Lama anchored his commitment to democracy in Buddhist philosophy. Verses with religious stances justified each segment of the constitution's text, making it a document of Buddhist modernism.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Dalai Lama developed a strong personal vision for the democratic development of the Tibetan exile community, and was the inspiring force behind greater inclusiveness of Tibetans from all religious groups and all regions in the exile administration. While formally he still nominated the cabinet, he did not influence the running of the various departments. In interviews and statements at this time, he repeatedly emphasised that public affairs should be settled by the public themselves through elected organs, that his was a temporary role, and he reiterated that he always saw his actual position as being that of a spiritual leader and wished to concentrate on this.
The Charter for Tibetans in Exile, which was adopted in 1990, in effect replacing the constitution of 1962, continues to define the structure of the Tibetan exile community, and has gradually strengthened the level of public participation. From 1992 onwards, the Dalai Lama stopped nominating ministers, who were instead elected by the ATPD. Finally, in 2001, the exile community for the first time directly elected the Kalon Tripa, the head of the CTA. From this point on, the Dalai Lama has described himself as being in 'semi-retirement', although he has continued to sign decrees and other official documents.
With his speech of 10 March 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his decision "to devolve" all his "formal authority" to an elected leader, and the statement which he addressed to the ATPD on 14 March, requesting them to amend the 'Charter for Tibetans in Exile' to this effect, had a deeply unsettling effect on the Tibetan exile community. A request by the Assembly to reconsider his decision was answered during a public lecture on 19 March in which the Dalai Lama made clear that his decision to be "completely relieved of formal authority" was irrevocable. With that, a five-decade long process of devolution had come to its logical conclusion.
In his message to the ATPD of 14 March, and his lecture of 19 March 2011, the Tibetan spiritual leader also elaborated on his suggestion that the Central Tibetan Administration's Tibetan name be changed. Informally, the CTA is often referred to in Tibetan as the 'Ganden Phodrang Government', Ganden Phodrang being the religious estate (Tib: labrang) of the Dalai Lamas. The Dalai Lama said: "What is happening is that Ganden Phodrang is relinquishing its political responsibilities" meaning there could be no 'Ganden Phodrang Government' anymore. This would also mean that the official Tibetan name of the CTA would need adapting to the new situation. In Tibetan documents, the CTA is referred to as 'Tsanjol Boe Shung' which is translated literally as 'Exile Tibet Government'. The Dalai Lama, however, noted that the Tibetan word 'shung' might not necessarily translate into English as 'government'. Indeed, the word 'shung' also denotes 'centre' and by extension 'central' and the chosen English translation is: 'Central Tibetan Administration' â€“ the CTA's officially registered name. It appears to have been drafted with deference to the sensitivities of India, which, while harbouring the refugees from Tibet, clearly does not recognizes Tibet as independent, and hence would rather not tolerate on its soil an organisation officially claiming sovereignty over of a large part of the PRC's territory. The Dalai Lama's current initiative is therefore designed to put an end to this ambiguity, and he has made it clear that it is wrong to refer to the CTA as the 'Tibetan Government-in-exile' (TGiE) and to the CTA's head as 'Prime Minister'.
The different names of the Tibetan exile administration in Dharamsala
The Dalai Lama's intention appears to be to reformat the CTA and turn it from an exiled government, which no relevant political entity acknowledges as such, into a fully democratically legitimised body enjoying an unequivocal and internationally more viable status, representing Tibetan political refugees and dealing primarily with their affairs. At the same time it would remain a platform from which problems inside Tibet can be articulated. By stepping aside from the CTA, the Dalai Lama also modifies his position within the dialogue process with the PRC. Having formally abdicated all official political positions (and hence any alleged ambitions that may have been part of these), he can more credibly act as an informal speaker for Tibetans in general. This making use of the 'soft power', which his position as supreme spiritual leader and his personal charisma bring, emphasises his informal role rather than the formal role of a political leader; a sort of benign mediator rather than an out-dated 'god-king'.
The issue of representation
The Tibet Justice Center (TJC)'(2), a lobby group based in Berkeley, California, which today is partly run by Tibetan migrants to the US, published a memorandum on 13 May 2011, as preparations were being made for a special meeting in Dharamsala to redraft the Charter for Tibetans in Exile. The memorandum warned against what the TJC sees as the negative legal implications of the Dalai Lama's move. The TJC pleaded for a slow process of devolution and urged the Dalai Lama to remain "at the apex as head of state" with an elected leadership exercising the real political power, as "doing away with the Dalai Lama's role as head of state (...) might harm the CTA's claim to be the continuation of the legitimate government of Tibet".
Soon afterwards, a group calling itself 'Youth for Better Democracy' (YFBD) raised objections about how, in the draft Charter, the term 'Tibetan Government-in-Exile' (Tib: Tsanjol Boe Shung), which they alleged is "globally understood to be the legitimate political government of the entire Tibetan people", had been replaced with an apparent attempt at a more direct translation of 'Central Tibetan Administration' (Tib: Tsanjol Boemi Shung gi Drigtsug; lit. 'Institution of the Government of Tibetan People in Exile''(3)), arguing that "a government or an institution of and solely [run] by the exile Tibetans cannot represent the six million Tibetans".
Just before the beginning of the general meeting in Dharamsala, Swiss-based Tibetan blogger Wangpo Tethong posted an article entitled 'Failing to See the Issue' in which he identified the link between the Dalai Lama's political retirement and his suggestion to redefine the exile organisation's nominal status. Tethong found it "disturbing" and called for a similar solution as that proposed by the Tibet Justice Center.
On 20 May, the Tibet Justice Center itself returned with a further, stronger worded statement objecting to the draft proposal to adopt "Institution of the Government of the Exile Tibetan People" as the CTA'S Tibetan name. The TJC argued: "It should be appreciated that such a change would have dramatically negative consequences under international law".
Common to all these statements is the recognition that the Dalai Lama's role in bestowing legitimacy to the exile institutions is central, but there is also firm opposition to any change to the CTA's claim to represent the Tibetan people in its entirety. However, that appears to have been the point of the Dalai Lama's initiative.
From a historical perspective, the CTA is indeed a direct successor of the traditional Dalai Lamas governments. These ruled Tibet from the 18th Century with, at the least, a very large amount of autonomy from the Manchu/Qing Empire, while in the period between 1913 and 1951, they undeniably led a de facto independent polity. Whether this can equal, from a legal point of view, a valid claim for the CTA to remain today the "legitimate government of Tibet" is, however, a contentious matter among international law experts. Even if there was consensus, the lack of international acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the claim leaves it on a legally fragile basis in international law, apart from rendering it politically unenforceable anyway.
Legally more substantial under international law is the recognition of the Dalai Lama as a 'trustee', i.e. a person who, in absence of a democratically legitimated rule in Tibet, enjoys the trust of a large number of Tibetans, something that all circumstantial evidence clearly indicates is true. From a political point of view, and particularly considering the personal respect he enjoys internationally, the Dalai Lama's role as a 'trustee' is likely to put him in a more solid position. It appears it is the consolidation of this very position that the Dalai Lama seeks to achieve by renouncing his formal political functions.
Indeed, the Dalai Lama has made it clear that he will maintain his responsibility for the Tibetan cause and continue providing spiritual leadership for the rest of his life. He also confirmed that, should "some problem" arise among the exile community that necessitates his involvement, he would "of course (...) still [be] here". This however would not mean returning to a political role, but assuming an advisory and mediating role, which is an inherent part of the role of any Tibetan religious leader. As for the future, he reiterated that further reincarnations of the Dalai Lama would come if Tibetans, but "also the people of the Himalayan regions and other Buddhists who are connected to the Dalai Lamas" feel the need. This allusion to non-Tibetans marks a further demarcation between his spiritual role and the Tibetan polity.
One step forward, two steps back?
Given the overwhelming position of the Dalai Lama within the Tibetan exile community, it is indeed an arduous task to draw a clear line between him and the CTA. His description in the Charter as an "adviser" or a "guide" might possibly be a viable solution. As far as the naming of the CTA is concerned, the Dalai Lama might be satisfied with having advised against a formula that invokes a claim of representation for the entire Tibetan people, and being outvoted by a democratic vote by the ATPD. But without the Dalai Lama's support, it is difficult to see how this claim could be perceived as anything other than mere hubris on the international stage. In any case, more delicate but also more revealing will be the handling of symbols and institutions that both the Dalai Lama and the CTA have shared in the past, because these will exemplify how deep the separation between both institutions can be. For instance, will the CTA continue to use the seals of the traditional Tibetan government? Will the representatives of the Dalai Lama in various foreign countries continue to be de facto embassies for CTA, or will they shift their activities to be liaison offices for the Dalai Lama for pure religious, charitable or cultural purposes?
Originally published at: http://www.tibetinfonet.net/content/update/175