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Will the Dalai Lama’s successor matter?

Tibet | Religion & Politics

THE RECENT SWEARING-IN of the new Tibetan prime minister in exile was historic.

Apart from taking the highest office in the exiled government, Harvard scholar Lobsang Sangay became the first-ever secular leader of the Tibetan freedom movement, formerly headed by the Dalai Lama. The ensuing commentary in the media carried armchair analysis, which underestimated the significance of this historic development, exiled leaders say.


The decades-long struggle to restore freedom in Tibet, which was annexed by China in 1951, received some international support due to the Dalai Lama’s popularity. But the new leader, analysts say, lacks the stature. And then, the Dalai Lama was Tibet’s Head of State before he and 80,000 Tibetans fled to India following a failed uprising in 1959 and therefore he was seen as a legitimate representative of the movement. Sangay, on the other hand, has never been to Tibet and represents just about 150,000 Tibetan exiles, they point out.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the struggle is being perceived as declining. However, the mood and the resolve among Tibetan activists in the north Indian hill town of Dharamsala, where the exiles are based, suggest a different story. The Dalai Lama’s move to separate politics from religion, they say, was a calculated one and aimed at strengthening their struggle and ensuring its longevity. Hardly anyone in McLeodganj, the “Little Tibet” in Dharamsala, doubts his wisdom and the majority anticipates growth of the freedom movement.

“Now the onus is on us,” said Tenzin Dhardon from the Tibetan Women’s Association. “This realisation has made the youth even more responsible,” said Tenzin Tsundue, a poet and activist who spent months in jails in Tibet and India for street protests. The 43-year-old new leader has energised the exiled youth, he added.

Tibetan activists say in private that the Dalai Lama, now only the spiritual head of his people, has also pre-empted China’s attempt to rob them of leadership. For Beijing is grooming its own Panchen Lama in Tibet to succeed the Dalai Lama while the one Dalai Lama’s representatives had selected is believed to be in jail.

Not only the movement will grow, it will also maintain the international support, said Tenzin P. Atisha, the exiled government’s international relations secretary. “The Dalai Lama will always be the face of the Tibetan struggle and his retirement from politics will make it easier for nations to welcome him,” Atisha said.

Moreover, Sangay has adopted the Dalai Lama’s middle-way policy, which seeks genuine autonomy within China, as opposed to independence, he said. “So nations should not see a problem in engaging him.”

Even when the Dalai Lama was heading the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the politically correct name of the exiled government, no country officially recognised it. However, the Dalai Lama was able to officially appoint representatives to 11 countries. Dhardon said her organisation was preparing to launch an online campaign urging foreign governments to officially recognise Sangay’s government – a tall order.

Activists are optimistic but not foolhardy. They realise that no amount of resistance, protest or lobbying can restore freedom in Tibet, said Tenzin Yangzom from the Tibetan Youth Congress. “Pressure doesn’t work with China.”

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