The Dalai Lama recently announced that he would be relinquishing his political role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala.
Though the Dalai Lama will continue to be the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, an elected prime minister will soon take over his political role. Obviously, the Dalai Lama is conscious of his mortality and is taking steps to split the two roles to ensure that the struggle for Tibetan identity doesn’t live and die with him.
This move will upset China, even though Beijing might ignore it on the surface.
The next step will probably be the anointment of a new Dalai Lama, who will take over as his successor.
The formality of finding one after his death in the traditional way might have to be dispensed with because Tibet is under Chinese rule. Indeed, Beijing is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, which Chinese officials hope will enable them to find a new Tibetan spiritual leader that satisfies their needs.
The Dalai Lama is acutely aware of this, which explains why he would be keen to make arrangements for his political and spiritual succession. This is important because his successors, both in their political and spiritual roles, will carry his enormous moral authority.
China obviously hopes that with the death of the Dalai Lama in the not-too-distant future, the Tibetan issue will fade away and eventually disappear. China’s leaders believe that as China continues to grow in power, the Tibetan cause will have fewer and fewer supporters in the international sphere for fear of offending China.
Chinese officials think the Dalai Lama’s death will help in this regard. His charisma, charm and sincerity have kept the Tibetan issue alive and kicking. China, therefore, believes that Tibet will lose whatever appeal it might still have when the Dalai Lama is not around. This is shortsighted thinking.
The Dalai Lama has sought, over the years, to resolve the issue of Tibet’s status peacefully by seeking autonomy, not independence. Through many hours of fitful talks over the years between his representatives and China, the Dalai Lama’s demand for Tibet has been for internal autonomy with Beijing in control of its foreign and defense affairs. With internal autonomy, Tibetans should be able to maintain their ethnic and cultural identity.
That is not too much to ask and Beijing should not have a problem with it, but it does.
First, Beijing does not trust the Dalai Lama to seek political and cultural space for his people without challenging China’s sovereignty. Beijing simply wants submission with the right to define and regulate how the Tibetans should and would live within their own territory. This is precisely what they are doing now. Because the Dalai Lama seeks better terms for his people, he is denounced as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Therefore, China has never been serious about talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives to resolve the Tibetan issue.
A solution on the basis of genuine autonomy with the imprimatur of the Dalai Lama’s moral authority would be a lasting one and would be acceptable to the Tibetan people. However, China is not concerned with the moral and popular dimensions of the Tibetan cause. They have been busy all these years cutting at the roots of these considerations. For example, Beijing has sliced and spliced Tibet, with parts of it joined to neighboring Han-dominated provinces. Thus, Tibet proper is now much smaller than it used to be. Its population of 6 million is scattered, reducing Tibet’s potential to create “trouble.”