|As the Dalai Lama steps down from his political role, it is difficult to identify a successor who can match his standing
The Dalai Lama has announced that he will retire as political head of the exiled Tibetan movement. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images
Symbols and gestures play a crucial role in politics. The Dalai Lama's announcement that he will retire as the political head of the Tibetan government in exile and let the next elected Kalon Tripa (prime minister) take over does not come as a surprise.
Democratisation and secularisation of Tibetan diasporic politics is reaching a mature stage as three candidates, all of them laymen, are vying to get votes and become the next Kalon Tripa. But it does put the Tibetan exile community on an uncharted road and has a significance for the future of Tibetan diaspora, the worldwide Free Tibet movement, and for Sino-Tibetan relations.
The processes of secularisation and democratisation may help in making Tibetan diaspora more viable in the post-14th Dalai Lama environment. It will engage younger generations and give them the right and the responsibility to shape their political future. It will definitely impact upon the nature and content of the Free Tibet movement.
If negotiations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing go nowhere, there will be very little attraction for the "middle way" approach of genuine autonomy within China for the next generation of Tibetans. Radicalisation of demands, if not methods of protests, is inevitable. There can be no new leader of a stature who will be able to persuade Tibetans to go with him or her on a compromise route. More importantly, in the absence of the 14th Dalai Lama, China will have no one to have dialogue with. China insists it only negotiates about the Dalai Lama's personal status and deems the government-in-exile as illegal. Any dialogue between the new elected leader and China would imply a big shift in Chinese position, which is highly unlikely. So the impasse will become the norm. This spells a future of alienation, repression, and uncertainty inside Tibet. There may come a day when China will be nostalgic for the 14th Dalai Lama and the peace and stability that he ensured.
The moral claim of Tibetans in exile is based on them being the freer and truer voice of Tibetans living in their homeland under Chinese rule. While a flourishing democracy in exile could give the diaspora a moral edge vis-a-vis the Chinese people, it could also create a chasm. The presence of the Dalai Lama and many other senior lamas in exile stands for the severe manipulation and suppression of religious freedoms in Tibet. A democratically elected Tibetan leader in exile will not be known in their homeland. How can they inspire the majority of Tibetans living under Chinese rule when they may have no standing among them? Tibetans often risk their life and livelihood to possess the photograph of the Dalai Lama because for them there is no distinction between him as a spiritual, religious and political figure. No elected lay person can become a symbol of the Tibetan nation and people in this manner.
Apart from the Dalai Lama, there is only one other leader who is venerated both inside and outside Tibet. It is the 17th Karmapa. Though there is a controversy around recognition and there is a rival claimant, Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the one who is worshipped by most Tibetans. Karmapa's recognition had been supported by the Dalai Lama as well as Beijing and he grew up inside Tibet in early 90s. However, his dramatic escape to seek refuge in India in 1999 has given Tibetan diaspora another potential figure who can become a rallying point for all Tibetans and thus a symbol of the Tibetan nation. But that is far from certain as it will involve moving beyond sectarian politics (Karmapas and Dalai Lamas belong to different sects) and inventing tradition (Karmapas have usually kept out of politics in the traditional Tibetan state).
The present Dalai Lama's most important legacy is the preservation of religion and culture in exile, the creation of a non-sectarian and inclusive Tibetan nationalism and keeping the link between the diaspora and homeland. Tibetans should deliberate hard over how best to carry on that legacy.The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.