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What's to come of Free Tibet movement?

The Dalai Lama's decision to give up political role places the Tibetan freedom movement in precarious position.

Dalai lama 2011 03 11Enlarge
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures as he speaks during a students gathering at the Mumbai University in Mumbai on February 18, 2011. (Punit Paranjpe)

NEW DELHI, India — Like his previous suggestion that he might pick his next incarnation before his own death, the Dalai Lama's move to withdraw from politics is a savvy move — this time to dilute the official powers of his office before China's pet monks can begin wrangling with Buddhist leaders in exile for the right to choose his successor.

But will the rough and tumble of parliamentary democracy also dilute international support for "Free Tibet"?

Observers say that the common people of the Tibetan exile community in India, at least, are nervous about the decision. But the Dalai Lama will likely retain his role as the symbolic head of the Tibetan exiles, and his sway over affairs will remain supreme if he chooses to wield it.

"He's trying to take less political responsibility and focus more on the spiritual dimension," said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "But it doesn't mean that he will go away from the scene. Obviously the Tibetan community is highly religious, which means regardless of who is the prime minister, regardless who is the speaker of the parliament in exile, or the cabinet ministers, they will go ahead with the Dalai Lama."

That's true. But it also means that the Dalai Lama is the only leader who enjoys the complete trust and full support of the entire community. Democracy may bring a new kind of factionalism to Tibetan exile politics — where some groups reject the Dalai Lama's decision to settle for autonomy rather than independence and a radical fringe questions the resistance movement's commitment to nonviolence.

"There are factional, divisive politics within the Tibetan community," said Abanti Bhattacharya, a professor in the Asian studies department of Delhi University.

Moreover, exiled Tibetans are likely apprehensive because the move comes as alleged corruption scandals highlight the possible pitfalls of politics in the government-in-exile's host country, India. And it closely follows an ugly round of corruption allegations that implicated the third-highest Tibetan Buddhist religious leader, the Karmapa Lama — which reminded the exiles of their vulnerability, though the devout never gave the accusations much credence.

"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 speech Thursday to mark the 52nd anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese government in Llasa.

China quickly interpreted the statement as "a trick," as the religious leader has talked of stepping down in the past. But this time — to the dismay of many exiled Tibetans — he gave a specific date for his withdrawal from politics, saying he would propose the necessary amendments to the constitution of the parliament in exile on March 14.

"I'm sure the Tibetan people have been talking about the statement yesterday [announcing the Dalai Lama's retirement]," said Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an exile political party. "But at the same time we have to understand that his holiness has said many times that he's in semi-retirement and the current prime minister [of the government-in-exile] is his political boss. As far as we know His Holiness' vision is to have a truly democratic Tibetan society."

That line will make things difficult for China, forcing the Chinese government to talk with the elected government of Tibetan exiles, rather than their religious leader, if they are to hold any negotiations at all. And by devolving his political powers to elected representatives, the Dalai Lama is implicitly challenging the Chinese leadership to do the same thing at a time when it is already under international and internal pressures.

"[This means that] the future will be more complicated for the Chinese," said JNU's Kondapalli. "If you consider them as portions of China, a lot of portions of China are getting democratized, while the central government is not. For instance, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and now the Tibetans in a massive way. It will put a lot of pressure on the Chinese, especially after the Egyptian and Libyan developments."

At the same time, by diluting his political role and delegating more power to the elected government in exile, the Dalai Lama has acted to forestall a leadership crisis after his death. There is bound to be a contest between China's Tibetan representatives and the exiled monks to choose his next incarnation, which could end with the Chinese government effectively selecting the Tibetans' supreme religious leader. And regardless of who makes the selection, the present Dalai Lama's successor will be a small child, which would leave senior monks wrangling for influence.

"[Currently] the Dalai Lama has sweeping powers," said Kondapalli. "So it's better to amend the constitution and let the elected representatives deal with the day to day affairs, rather than [risk] a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama running roughshod over everybody — because [otherwise] the sweeping powers will be there for the next Dalai Lama as well."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/110311/dalai-lama-free-tibet-movement