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Dalai Lama Steps Aside For Election


By Dmitry Kosyrev


The Tibetan world is in for a major political change. The Dalai Lama, who has served as the leader of the Tibetan government in exile for more than fifty years, announced last Thursday that he intends to cede his political role to an elected leader. The election will be held on Sunday, March 20, in the northern Indian city of Dharmsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the center of the Tibetan exile community.

Even after he steps down as political leader, the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, will continue to be revered by Tibetan Buddhists across the world as their spiritual leader. The 76-year-old was chosen for the role of Dalai Lama as a child. Like his predecessors, he is believed to be the latest reincarnation of Buddha.

The beginning of the end?

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso in 2007
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso in 2007

The Dalai Lama’s announcement did not come as a complete surprise. He has been gradually stepping back from politics. Yet, the initial reaction was confusion, leading to questions about who will succeed Gyatso as the reincarnated leader when he passes away.

Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama, a position that combines spiritual and worldly responsibilities. Senior monks choose a new Dalai Lama by interpreting a series of mystical signs. This tradition traces its history back to the 15th century, which saw the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism.


Succession is a highly controversial issue with the potential to cause a rift in the Tibetan community. Gyatso has indicated that his successor should be from the exile community, while Beijing insists the new leader be found in Tibet proper. Experts see the possibility of two rival Dalai Lamas, one backed by Beijing and the other by senior monks loyal to the current Dalai Lama.

At a recent conference in Beijing, Tibetan politicians criticized Gyatso’s statement that he may be the last Dalai Lama and that the institution could be abolished by a majority of Tibetan Buddhists.

Spirituality vs. Consumerism

The Tibetan exile community, which came into being on March 19, 1959, accuses the Chinese authorities of repressing the peaceful lamas.

According to Beijing, the repression was a response to the rebel movements that emerged in Tibet following anti-serfdom reforms launched in the late 1950s as part of Mao Zedong’s “great leap forward.” It claims that as much as 90% of the Tibetan population was living as serfs. As members of the lowest caste, they were treated as slaves by the lamas. They could be bought and sold. The Dalai Lama’s family is alleged to have profited from forced labor, and to have concentrated in their hands most of the country’s lands and livestock. Chinese officials maintain that the liberation of Tibetans from serfdom was the primary motive behind Mao’s reforms in Tibet.

Today’s Tibet is strikingly different from what it was some fifty years ago. The incomes of both urban and rural Tibetans have doubled since 2005, although the wealth gap between town and countryside remains rather wide. Many of the local monasteries are being renovated, and traditional Buddhist schools are thriving.

Today’s Tibet is a far cry from the Tibet of 1935, the year of the current Dalai Lama’s birth, or the Tibet of 1959, the year the anti-Chinese uprising began.

The dog breed known as the Tibetan Mastiff is one of the symbols of modern-day Tibet. This photo gives you an idea of how big a Tibetan Mastiff can get. This particular pet was bought by a restaurant owner in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, for $419,000, which is in the same price range as a Porsche or a Ferrari. Such an extravagant purchase would have been unthinkable in Tibet some twenty years ago.

But Tibet will remain a spiritual center despite the newfound consumerism, at least for as long as the current Dalai Lama is alive.

Business and politics

The Dalai Lama’s role in the exile government has not been without controversy. Chinese authorities, who have spies operating in Dharmsala and among the Tibetan exile community at large, accuse the Dalai Lama of engaging in subversive activities, including the antigovernment riots in Tibet prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The Tibetan spiritual leader is also known to be at loggerheads with radical exiles based in Dharmsala and the United States, who have made fortunes exploiting their background in the West. And they are hoping for more.

The Tibetan exile government, which is not recognized by any state, is reminiscent of the White Guard committees formed by Russian emigres in Paris between the First and Second World War. Like them, the exile government has no spiritual dimension. It is all about politics and business.

Until now, China has stopped short of putting serious pressure on India over the exile government’s activity in Dharmsala. But now that its long-serving leader is set to transfer power to an elected successor, the situation may well change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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