The Dalai Lama’s seven-page letter to the Tibetan parliament-in-exile in March 2011 announcing his full retirement of all political and administrative responsibilities is a historic political moment. Tibet’s spiritual leader, in exile in India since 1959, has in issuing it taken two positive steps: towards reforming the political authority of the highest religious institution in Tibet, and encouraging and empowering the young Tibetan democracy.
At 76, the Dalai Lama has long been conscious of his role as the symbol of Tibetan unity and independence; but he has always understood and emphasised that the Tibetan problem will remain after his demise. In spiritual terms, the Dalai Lama continues to represent an important moral voice in a world that poses hard questions about how to respond effectively and in non-violent ways to the violence of the age, and how to build a better world that struggles against the causes of war and terrorism.
The Dalai Lama’s democratic effort for Tibet is a strong expression of his Buddhist and Gandhian convictions, founded on two principles: self-reliance and non-violence. These two principles will remain central to any democratic measures taken by the new Tibetan prime minister, Lobsang Sangay, and to all future dialogue and compromise with Beijing.
In the view of the Dalai Lama, democracy is a source of power for the powerless and of hope to the hopeless. It offers a politics that is completely at odds with the logic of occupation and violation of human rights in which Tibet lives today.
In his acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel peace prize in Oslo on 10 December 1989, the Dalai Lama proposed a wider vision: “the conversion of the entire Tibetan plateau into a zone of Ahimsa, a sanctuary of peace and non-violence where human beings and nature can live in peace and harmony.”
China’s economic strategy in Tibet has been in the opposite direction, and has caused immense cultural and environmental damage and increased the social marginalisation of Tibetans. Chinese officialdom - which still describes its violent takeover of Tibet in 1950-51 as a "peaceful liberation" - has long hoped that Beijing’s economic and cultural policies in Tibet will create a new generation of Tibetans that are less influenced by Buddhist religion and that, with the passing of the Dalai Lama, will accept finally to be part of China.
In this context, the Dalai Lama’s decision to relinquish his duties as political head of the Tibetan people in exile has increased anxieties in Beijing. No wonder, for the Dalai Lama’s democratic strategy places him a step ahead of China in setting the terms for the tumultuous situation in Lhasa that might follow his death.
The revered Tibetan institution of the Dalai Lama has played a dual role of spiritual and political authority since 1642. Its political reform opens the way to one of the major tests of Tibet’s modern history, namely trying to strike a win-win deal that reformulates Tibetan autonomy within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Much is at stake here: the capacity to resist Chinese efforts to restrict traditional rituals, to reverse the the neglect of the Tibetan language at the expense of Chinese, and to defend the ecosystem in the face of unbalanced development.
The political path
In his address to the European parliament in December 2008, the Dalai Lama reiterated Tibet’s desire for “genuine autonomy” within the PRC and reaffirmed the will of the Central Tibetan Administration to move beyond fear and help to promote a culture of trust between the two nations. The major task of the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, is to promote such a culture. Will he make a difference to future dialogue between Beijing and Dharamsala?
So far, the 42-year-old Harvard law researcher has said that his top priority is to ask the Chinese authorities to review their "hardline" Tibet policy and take a "more moderate and liberal approach". This said, both Chinese and Tibetans will continue to expect the Dalai Lama to have an important influence on future negotiations between Tibet and China, and over the question of Tibetan autonomy. In the final analysis the leaders of Tibet’s reformed institutions, temporal and spiritual, need to work together to build and develop a new Tibet.
The road to Tibet’s autonomy is paved with many difficulties and challenges. That is why the election of Lobsang Sangay and the Dalai Lama's announced departure from political life are noteworthy. They mark a new chapter in the democratic exercise of the Tibetan community, which can show China and the world that even amid marginalisation and hardship the Tibetan community-in-exile is capable of forming a stable and transparent government.
The five years of Sangay’s prime-ministerial term offer Tibetans an opportunity to create a robust interface for the Chinese government to deal with. Even if Sangay does not succeed in convincing Beijing to abandon its hardline phase and accept the principle of autonomy for Tibet, his democratic election and the evolutionary move from the Dalai Lama reveal the anachronism of China’s authoritarian rule over Tibet. The Dalai Lama has once more proved to Tibetans and the world that he is not only a charismatic spiritual figure but a figure capable of bringing wisdom to democracy.