Dalai Lama to relinquish political role

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, said Thursday that he will pass the reins of political power to the elected prime minister of the self-proclaimed Tibetan government in exile.

The announcement formalizes the signals that the Tibetan leader has been sending for years in his efforts to avoid a political vacuum after his death and to ensure credible leadership amid Chinese crackdowns and mounting global pressure. But the Dalai Lama, 75, made a point of saying he wasn’t “retiring,” and his global status and reputation ensure that he will continue to play a major role in Tibetan affairs.

The decision to elevate Lobsang Tenzin, 71, the prime minister in exile in India who is known as Samdhong Rinpoche, will be presented to the Tibetan parliament in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala on Monday.

“As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power,” the Dalai Lama said in a statement Thursday. “Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect.”


The move comes as the Chinese government appears increasingly eager to maintain political control over the restive Tibetan plateau, which saw a major uprising in March 2008. Recent pro-democracy demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa have unnerved the tight-fisted Communist Party in Beijing. And its last two attempts to influence succession of leadership by controlling the Karmapa Lama and the Panchen Lama, among Tibetan Buddhism’s most senior positions, have proved unsuccessful.

“Their last two efforts ended in failure,” said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. “The Karmapa fled China, and their candidate for Panchen Lama has not been accepted by the Tibetan people.”

Barnett said it may be difficult for outsiders to understand why China gets so worked up about a religious leader, but he noted that control and stamping out any potential threat is fundamental to their psyche.

“There’s deep anxiety for China that they don’t leave a vulnerability for the party that allows a new, charismatic leader to emerge,” he said. “A key Chinese official recently told me that the specter of the Dalai Lama returning is more serious than a vast army.”

Kate Saunders, a London-based spokeswoman with the International Campaign for Tibet, said the move represents a further step in ensuring greater democracy in among Tibetans, both in China and in exile.

The announcement came on the 52nd anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet amid a Chinese government crackdown in 1959.