As the Dalai Lama Exits the Political Stage, What’s Next for the Tibetan Movement?

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Just how quickly can a politician be reincarnated? Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans—both within the troubled mountainous territory and in exile all around the world—must be pondering this metaphysical conundrum as their beloved spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, asked the Tibetan exile community today to allow him to retire from political life. “Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power,” said the Dalai Lama in a statement from his headquarters in exile in Dharamsala, India. “My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run.” The statement was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the quashed 1959 Tibetan rebellion against the Chinese Communists that prompted the Dalai Lama’s harrowing escape overland to India.

The long-expected transition, in which the 76-year-old monk’s formal leadership role will likely be handed over to whomever is elected the exiled Tibetan Prime Minister on March 20, raises serious questions about the future of the Tibetan political movement. With his kindly mien, gentle aphorisms and globetrotting enthusiasm, the 14th Dalai Lama singlehandedly rescued the Tibetan political movement from the dust-heap of obscure ethnic struggles. (Look, by contrast, at the fate of the Uighurs who inhabit a restive region to the north of Tibet that is controlled by China; without a charismatic leader, the Turkic Muslim ethnic group has been unable to garner the support of celebrities like Richard Gere or the Beastie Boys.) But even as the Dalai Lama has been celebrated abroad, he continues to be pilloried in China, where the official orthodoxy holds that he is a “splittist” intent on seeking Tibet’s independence from China. (The Dalai Lama maintains that he is merely seeking autonomy for a region that faces serious threats against its cultural heritage.) Beijing blames the Dalai Lama for masterminding race riots in Tibet three years ago that claimed both Tibetan and ethnic Han Chinese lives. (The Dalai Lama disputes these charges.) At the annual meeting of the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress this month, Tibet’s Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli, who is not ethnically Tibetan, called the exiled Buddhist icon a “wolf in monk’s robes.”

With the Dalai Lama voluntarily choosing to exit center stage, the exile community is desperately searching for another compelling representative to broadcast their cause. One option may be the 17th Karmapa Lama, the third-highest monk within the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy. But the reputation of the 26-year-old Karmapa Lama, who escaped dramatically from China to India in 2000 after having his reincarnation approved by both Beijing and the Dalai Lama, has been hurt in recent weeks by a financial scandal in which more than $750,000 in cash was found at his headquarters in northeastern India. Some excitable local officials in India went on to wonder publicly whether the Karmapa Lama was a Chinese spy, a charge that the Indian central government has dismissed by praising the young monk’s fervor and discipline. (Read our piece about the Karmapa controversy.)

The money scandal notwithstanding, the exiled Karmapa Lama may be the best choice for the Tibetan community, in part because there’s really no one else. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama is considered the second-highest ranked monk in Tibetan Buddhism. But the boy picked by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama has not been seen in public since 1995. Instead, Beijing selected its own Panchen Lama, who is feared to have been indoctrinated by Chinese ideologues. Historically, the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is picked with help from the Panchen Lama. Now that the Dalai Lama’s chosen Panchen Lama is missing and Beijing’s pick has grown up within the fold of the Communist Party, the worry is that when the current Dalai Lama dies, a politically pliant reincarnation will be named by the Chinese leadership under the auspices of their Panchen Lama.

Perhaps that’s why the Dalai Lama has decided to excuse himself from politics and instead allow registered Tibetan exiles, who number around 80,000, to vote for their new political leader. That way, even if a future Dalai Lama is chosen under cloudy, Beijing-controlled circumstances, a separate political structure will exist in which Tibet’s interests can be looked after by an independent leader. In that case, reincarnation will not be the salient issue. Democracy, as practiced by the Tibetan exile community, will be. How’s that for a deft move by a “wolf in monk’s robes?”

More from See photographs of the Dalai Lama at his residence in exile; Read “A Monk’s Struggle” by Pico Iyer; Watch TIME’s interview with the Dalai Lama.