By Tenzin Tsundue
Last Thursday, when the Dalai Lama made his 52nd State of the Occupied Nation's Speech on Tibetan National Uprising Day, it wasn't Chinese officials alone who voiced scepticism at his remarks but also Tibetans who reacted with apprehension and anxiety. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly spoken about his desire to retire from his political role. But this time he outlined his decision and is clearly determined to bring it into effect.
The annual uprising ceremony on March 10 was first addressed by the Kalon Tripa, head of the government-in-exile's cabinet, Samdhong Rinpoche, who before the Dalai Lama had announced his retirement was beseeching the Tibetan leader to "not take such a step". Already the Dalai Lama's office had received hundreds of letters from individuals and organisations imploring him not to 'abdicate'.
What the Tibetans are resisting is not what most of the media are highlighting. The Dalai Lama will neither be looking for a successor nor will he cease to be visible. Also, this is not an answer to China's promise that it will install its own Dalai Lama. It is actually the decisive step to preparing the post-Dalai Lama scenario.
So most young Tibetans, I think, will be supporting the Dalai Lama in what is a visionary move to create a new leadership so as to spearhead the struggle and keep the nation united (with whatever limitations) while he is still watching over Tibetans. What this final transition of power really means in practical terms for the populace and the Tibetan government-in-exile is that the Dalai Lama will devolve all the nine key powers vested in him by the Charter for Tibetans in Exile.
Legally, the Dalai Lama appoints and can dismiss the chief justice and his two assistants, the chief election commissioner and the auditor general. Though the Kalon Tripa is directly elected by all Tibetans in exile, and his seven other ministers must receive a two-third majority vote from the parliament, His Holiness can dissolve the eight-member Kashag (cabinet) and the 43-member parliament as he did in 1990. All resolutions passed by the parliament, including the annual budget, must be sent to him for his endorsement, and without that they do not become law.
Having all these powers safely placed in the hands of the Dalai Lama is one thing. The worrying question is: who will be vested with these powers if it isn't the Dalai Lama? Which is why the officials running the Dharamsala-based government are at their wits' end debating this imminent and massive legislative amendment, thinking how to finesse such fundamental changes to the Charter. In the new mechanism the government might resort to innovative resources such as using the provisions to jointly elect (through an electoral college) a 'Silon' (a prime minister) or a 'desi' (a regent) who traditionally ran the political scenario in the interim years between previous Dalai Lamas.
On Monday, the Dalai Lama's statement to the Tibetan parliament suggested an amendment to the Charter by the setting up of a Council of Regency. More than the technical aspect of these changes that will evolve in time, the people's genuine apprehension today is of credibility, confidence, effectiveness and, most of all, the absence of the Dalai Lama's steadying hand in the government.
Democracy, when exercised among the Tibetans here in India, looks small, even petty like a ping-pong ball that's constantly being tossed between the Dalai Lama and his people. The leader, loved, trusted and worshipped — and with a mandate far higher than one provided by elections — doesn't want an elected head of State to be leading while the people he is entrusting his powers to are tossing the ball back to the Buddha. Tibetan 'Lama' democracy has been characterised by a never-ending ping-pong rally between the Dalai Lama and his reluctant people. Now, it's time for change.
The Dalai Lama announced five days ago: "Now we have clearly reached the time to put this [change] into effect." Some Tibetan MPs feel that the Dalai Lama is almost inflicting this change on them. But the Dalai Lama's political reforms of Tibetan society date right back to the days in Tibet when he was enthroned in 1950 at 15 to lead his country, then in the process of being invaded by its northern neighbour, Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China.
Who would have known that in 1959 — when the 24-year-old leader set up his first government in exile with three ministers who had escaped with him from Tibet; inaugurated the first parliament with 13 members on September 2, 1960, and then introduced the Constitution in 1963 — the complete cycle of this democratisation process over 51 years would end with the Dalai Lama forcing the community to stand on its own feet in March 2011?
The forthcoming election on March 20 for an all-powerful Kalon Tripa and a parliament-in-exile with much-enhanced authority is, therefore, a turning point as new leaders will play pivotal roles in shaping the Tibetan people's future. The government-in-exile will evolve as a new structure sustaining the leadership. Tibetan politicians — unlike Tibetan businessmen — are not risk-takers. Perhaps this is because they come from sectarian and provincial constituencies that are symbolic and create no direct link with their votebanks.
With the Dalai Lama's latest statement, change is now certain. But it will come into effect gradually.
The author is a Tibetan writer and independence activist.
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