By Jamyang Norbu
In a media season dominated by stories of geriatric, lunatic and other sundry leaders-for-life (and family members) ignobly clinging to office like old chewing gum, the Dalai Lama stepping down from his position of (albeit modest) power, over the genuine and ubiquitous appeals by Tibetans for him to continue, was, of course, received favorably by the world media. The official Chinese press was predictably skeptical. Yet its disdainful speculations were hardly more credible than the suggestion by TV funny man Conan that the Dalai Lama had been prompted to step down on hearing there was an opening in the CBS series “Two and Half Men.”
I called up a couple of old official acquaintances in Dharamshala who are better informed on Tibetan politics than most. They dutifully endorsed His Holiness’s decision but did not seem too happy about the timing of the announcement nor the absence of any official or unofficial consultations regarding the process.
His Holiness’s statement came, quite literally, on verge of an election for a new prime minister. Everyone in the Tibetan world had assumed that this particular election was going to be for the same office of kalon tripa or prime minister, as we had had before. This office was one whose main responsibility, as the outgoing PM, Samdong Rimpoche, had earlier described, was “to carry out the wishes of the Dalai Lama.” No one had thought they would have to vote for someone to actually replace His Holiness as a political and national leader.
Common sense suggests that the announcement should have been made at least a year or two earlier so that people could have prepared themselves to elect a political replacement for the Dalai Lama. Or, the announcement could have been made some time after the elections when the Dalai Lama had gotten to know his new prime minister and cabinet and could judge if they were capable of taking over his political powers, or at least serving as an interim government to prepare for the elections of a new national leader. To be fair, His Holiness had on some earlier occasions talked of retiring, but such general speculations made to the Western or Indian press are clearly very different from an official announcement of an actual decision to retire.
His Holiness’ announcement has been
deeply unsettling for Tibetans in exile, and perhaps even traumatic
for Tibetans living under Chinese oppression for whom He is the living
symbol of their hope for freedom. The current Prime Minister, Samdong
Rimpoche, attempted to explain to the Tibetan public that his administration
had repeatedly requested the Dalai Lama not to step down. His exact
words were “We have been urging His Holiness not to give up the political
leadership.” But he admitted that it was to no avail. The exile Parliament
immediately convened and passed a resolution urging his Holiness not
to retire. But on March 19th at a public gathering, His Holiness rejected
the resolution by the Tibetan Parliament and declared that he stood
firm on his initial decision to resign. And he sounded very final about
So what can Tibetans do now?
On December 18, 2007, Phayul.com published
an article of mine “The Jewel in the Ballot Box” which I wrote in response to an earlier such
statement by His Holiness’s about retiring and about seeking new ways
to select a future incarnation of the Dalai Lama. In the article I laid
out, in some detail, a possible solution to, yes, this very crisis Tibetans
are facing right now. I described how the Dalai Lama could retire from
the day-to-day task of being the political leader of Tibet but yet,
maintain a symbolic leadership role which would ensure the continuity
of the Tibetan governmental system and also stabilize, and I believe
even strengthen, the present structure of Tibetan governance in a genuinely
For details readers should go through the original article on Phayul.com and also on my blog Shadow Tibet were I re-posted it a couple of years later. I’m just going to reproduce an excerpt here:
Hence, if I may offer a suggestion, the
Tibetan cabinet or parliament, or both together, should once again approach
His Holiness and inform him that they now understood and appreciated
the fact that His Holiness had carried the enormous political and administrative
burden of the Tibetan nation for over sixty years and that it was more
than timely for him to retire from political office. Then they should
follow up that statement with this request that in order to ensure the
continuation and eventual success of His Holiness’s legacy of democratizing
Tibetan society, he should assume just the symbolic role of head of
state, which would not encumber him with burdensome duties or responsibilities,
but help to bring stability and continuation to the democratic process.
They should present this as a compromise
solution to the current crisis, in keeping with Holiness’s own Middle
Way approach to political strategy. I think that His Holiness, in keeping
with his philosophy of moderation and compromise, could not refuse this
middle-ground solution, if presented in a completely genuine and sincere
way by ministers and members of parliament, and not as a ruse, a roundabout
way, to get him to rescind his earlier decision.
If we are unable to convince his Holiness
of the need for him to accept the role of a titular or constitutional
head of state, I am afraid that, going forward, the government-in-exile
will face a number of constitutional, perhaps even existential problems.
Some of these will most certainly prove to be damaging to the national
struggle itself, even within Tibet. I am not a constitutional scholar
so any corrections or additions to the few points I am raising below
would be much appreciated.
1. If His Holiness resigns from office
as he has announced, we would have to change our system of government
fundamentally. We cannot maintain our present parliamentary and prime-ministerial
system if we do not have a separate head of state. In a parliamentary
system like ours there is a clear differentiation between the head of
government and the head of state, with the head of government being
the prime minister and the head of state often being a president (as
in India or France), a hereditary monarch (as in Thailand or Britain)
or representative of a monarch as a Governor-General (in Canada or Australia).
Hence it is necessary for His Holiness
to remain at least as the titular or symbolic head of state, if we are
to continue with our present system of government, otherwise we would
have to elect a separate figurehead president as we have in India, or
change our system completely to a presidential system as in the United
2. Then there is the more important question
of legitimacy. Our present exile government had its genesis on the 29th
of March 1959, when the Dalai Lama made a formal proclamation at Lhuntse
Dzong establishing the legitimate government of Tibet (which subsequently
became the government-in-exile). The proclamation (reproduced from Tsepon
Shakabpa’s great history) clearly states that “…the re-founding
of the independent Ganden Phodrang government, with religious and political
authority, has been undertaken in the Yugyal Lhuntse Dzong.” The proclamation
also noted that the two former prime ministers of Tibet, Lukhangwa and
Lobsang Tashi who had been forced to resign from office because of Chinese
pressure had been officially reinstated.
This proclamation was read out to all
government officials, soldiers and populace assembled at Lhuntse Dzong.
Copies of the proclamation, signed and sealed by His Holiness, were
sent to district headquarters all over Tibet. The traditional investiture
ceremony was conducted by the Dalai Lama’s two tutors, and such traditional
dances as the Droshay, or the Dance of Propitious Fortune, performed
by the people. In My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama writes
that the proclamation was made to counter the announcement by the Chinese
that they had dissolved the Tibetan government in Lhasa.
And this claim has been maintained ever
since. The government in exile was not merely the administrative authority
for Tibetan refugees but also the true government of Tibet. Hence the
name Ganden Phodrang (or Joyous Palace) was kept, along with the old
seal, but most important of all, its sovereign head, the Dalai Lama.
Without these the claim of the exile-government to represent the legitimate
government of Tibet, a claim that is hard enough to maintain internationally
even with his Holiness at present, would be impossible to establish
in the future. Even the fact of the exile-government being elected would
merely make it the elected administrative body of Tibetans living outside
3. Then there is the matter of Tibetans
inside Tibet. The two most recurring slogans shouted by demonstrators
in Tibet have been “The Dalai Lama must return to Tibet” and “Full
Independence for Tibet.” I don’t believe that this pairing of the
two demands is merely a coincidence. For those Tibetans struggling to
survive, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, under
the unrelenting and pitiless tyranny of Communist China, the Dalai Lama
is not only a religious “tsawae lama” or “root guru”
(of which there are many great ones in the Tibetan world). For Tibetans
in Tibet he is unquestionably and preeminently the sovereign ruler and
living symbol of a free and independent “Land of Snows” – a land
to which they stubbornly believe he will surely return one day.