What does the Dalai Lama’s resignation mean for Tibet?

As thousands of people all over the world marched through towns and cities last Saturday to mark the 52nd anniversay of the Lhasa Uprising in Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced that he will devolve his power to the Central Tibetan Administration (aka Tibetan Government in Exile) and the Kalon Tripa (elected Prime Minister). This move ends the role of the Dalai Lamas as political leader of Tibet established by Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso the Great Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. This is both an important move towards true democracy and a strategic move in terms of the future of the relationship between Tibet and China.

To explain and understand what this move means for Tibet there is some background to go over. The Chinese government recently passed a law that reportedly states that no Buddhist lama may be reincarnated without their permission. This is a misunderstanding of the law, what it actually states is that no lama may be recognised without the permission of the Chinese government. As with any position of power derived from “divine mandate”, the process of being recognised as a Tulku (reincarnated lama) is somewhat tenuous and has been open to abuse even before the meddling bureaucrats from the Chinese State Council. They were correcting an oversight on their part that created one of the most controversial political prisoners in the world. In 1995 a 5 year old boy from Nagchu province called Gedun Chokyi Nyima was arrested. He had recently been recognised by the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s second most important religious leader, the Panchen Lama. It is believed he has been kept under house arrest in Beijing for the last 16 years and a new, Chinese government approved, Panchen Lama was selected and enthroned. When the Dalai Lama dies, it is the role of the Panchen Lama to recognise the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. So by controlling the Panchen Lama they can legitimately control the selection of the Dalai Lama and all subsequent Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Of course, the legitimacy is questionable as no Tibetan or practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism recognises the Chinese Panchen Lama.

For many years there has been speculation about what the Dalai Lama will do as he grows older and his death gets closer. The Dalai Lama has achieved the position of Tulku, this is a lama who is able to choose the manner of their reincarnation. With this in mind there are four options open to him. The first is to decide that he will not reincarnate again until Tibet is no longer under occupation, though this would go against his desire as a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who goes through the cycles of rebirth to help others achieve enlightenment). The second is to publicly state where he will be reincarnated, ie. not in Tibet thereby deligitimising any Dalai Lama claim from the Chinese government about a Dalai Lama from Tibet, he has taken this step already. The third is to recognise his own reincarnation before he dies. This is a complicated and tenuous method that, whilst legitimate and not without precedent, would create problems for the Tibetan government in the eyes of those who do not believe in reincarnation. The last is the option he has taken, to give up his political power before he dies so that legitimate governing mandate for Tibet will never be controlled by the Chinese government.

The future of Tibet will depend on the negotiations between members of the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) and the Chinese government. This is where change will come from. Pressure from campaigners and activists, like Students for a Free Tibet, creates a space for these negotiations to happen whilst affecting change on a day-to-day basis in Tibet. The risk with this transition is that the Chinese government will refuse to recognise the authority of the TGIE and will claim political power still resides with the Dalai Lama. This whole pantomime about a government that believes religion is the opiate of the people trying to wield religious power is evidence of the power of the Tibetan independence movement. Without people watching and campaigning for Tibet, the Chinese government would never acknowledge the authority of the current Dalai Lama, let alone the TGIE. Our task now is to force them to acknowledge the authority of the TGIE and to keep the negotiations open. And we do that through political campaigning, through education and through non-violent civil-disobedience.