Resolving the Dalai Lama resignation crisis

By Jamyang Norbu*

In a media season dominated by stories of geriatric, lunatic and other sundry leaders-for-life (and family members) ignobly clinging to office like old chewing gum, the Dalai Lama stepping down from his position of (albeit modest) power, over the genuine and ubiquitous appeals by Tibetans for him to continue, was, of course, received favorably by the world media. The official Chinese press was predictably skeptical. Yet its disdainful speculations were hardly more credible than the suggestion by TV funny man Conan that the Dalai Lama had been prompted to step down on hearing there was an opening in the CBS series “Two and Half Men.”
I called up a couple of old official acquaintances in Dharamshala who are better informed on Tibetan politics than most. They dutifully endorsed His Holiness’s decision but did not seem too happy about the timing of the announcement nor the absence of any official or unofficial consultations regarding the process.

His Holiness’s statement came, quite literally, on verge of an election for a new prime minister. Everyone in the Tibetan world had assumed that this particular election was going to be for the same office of kalon tripa or prime minister, as we had had before. This office was one whose main responsibility, as the outgoing PM, Samdong Rimpoche, had earlier described, was “to carry out the wishes of the Dalai Lama.” No one had thought they would have to vote for someone to actually replace His Holiness as a political and national leader.

Common sense suggests that the announcement should have been made at least a year or two earlier so that people could have prepared themselves to elect a political replacement for the Dalai Lama. Or, the announcement could have been made some time after the elections when the Dalai Lama had gotten to know his new prime minister and cabinet and could judge if they were capable of taking over his political powers, or at least serving as an interim government to prepare for the elections of a new national leader. To be fair, His Holiness had on some earlier occasions talked of retiring, but such general speculations made to the Western or Indian press are clearly very different from an official announcement of an actual and imminent decision to retire.

His Holiness’ announcement has been deeply unsettling for Tibetans in exile, and perhaps even traumatic for Tibetans living under Chinese oppression for whom He is the living symbol of their hope for freedom. The current Prime Minister, Samdong Rimpoche, attempted to explain to the Tibetan public that his administration had repeatedly requested the Dalai Lama not to step down.” His exact words were “We have been urging His Holiness not to give up the political leadership.” But he admitted that it was to no avail. The exile Parliament immediately convened and passed a resolution urging his Holiness not to retire. But on March 19th at a public gathering, His Holiness rejected the resolution by the Tibetan Parliament and declared that he stood firm on his initial decision to resign. And he sounded very final about it.

So what can Tibetans do now?

On December 18, 2007, published an article of mine “The Jewel in the Ballot Box”, which I wrote in response to an earlier such statement by His Holiness’s about retiring and about seeking new ways to select a future incarnation of the Dalai Lama. In the article I laid out, in some detail, a possible solution to, yes, this very crisis Tibetans are facing right now. I described how the Dalai Lama could retire from the day-to-day task of being the political leader of Tibet but yet, retain a symbolic leadership role which would ensure the continuity of the Tibetan governmental system and also stabilize, and I believe even strengthen, the present structure of Tibetan governance in a genuinely democratic manner.

For details readers should go through the original article on and also on my blog Shadow Tibet where I re-posted it a couple of years later. I’m just going to reproduce an excerpt here:

"But no matter how important we Tibetans may regard the institution of the Dalai Lamas, and would like nothing better than to see it continue unchanged, His Holiness himself has, on a number of occasions, made it clear that he would like to retire. Constitutionally this might create a problem since Dalai Lamas are not appointed or elected, so the question of retiring should not really arise. The Dalai Lama’s position is not even like that of a king, who does not become one until his coronation. Rather, the Dalai Lama’s is a lifetime job. He is born a Dalai Lama, and it is assumed that he is one even if the search party hasn’t yet made it to his village and found him. Even in his minority when he does not have the authority to skip a calligraphy lesson, he is still the Dalai Lama. Being the Dalai Lama does not seem to require that he have actual political powers.

And this is where I can begin to make out a single overall solution to these numerous problems that Tibetan society now faces: of His Holiness wishing to retire, of searching for a new Dalai Lama, of maintaining the tradition as the people in Tibet would want it, of countering Chinese efforts to control the reincarnation process, and of maintaining unity in exile society till the next Dalai Lama returns to his people.

The Dalai Lama should not retire and should remain head of state, but he should modify his role to that of a constitutional one like the King of Thailand. In this way His Holiness need not be burdened with the routine problems of government or with the unpleasant squabbles and strife of political life, but still retain a constitutional role to advise perhaps even arbitrate, in the case of a major national crisis. Political power should rest entirely with the Tibetan people, as His Holiness has repeatedly said was his intention.”

I think the exile parliament and the cabinet made a mistake by requesting His Holiness to completely reverse his decision and continue to assume his role as the political ruler of Tibet – exactly as before. We all know His Holiness is very strong-minded and not amenable to reversing or changing a decision after he has made it.

Hence, if I may offer a suggestion, the Tibetan cabinet or parliament, or both together, should once again approach His Holiness and inform him that they now understood and appreciated the fact that His Holiness had carried the enormous political and administrative burden of the Tibetan nation for over sixty years and that it was more than timely for him to retire from political office. Then they should follow up that statement with this request that in order to ensure the continuation and eventual success of His Holiness’s legacy of democratizing Tibetan society, he should assume just the symbolic role of head of state, which would not encumber him with burdensome duties or responsibilities, but help to bring stability and continuation to the democratic process.

They should present this as a compromise solution to the current crisis, in keeping with Holiness’s own Middle Way approach to political strategy. I think that His Holiness, in keeping with his philosophy of moderation and compromise, could not refuse this middle-ground solution, if presented in a completely genuine and sincere way by ministers and members of parliament, and not as a ruse, a roundabout way, to get him to rescind his earlier decision.

If we are unable to convince his Holiness of the need for him to accept the role of a titular or constitutional head of state, I am afraid that, going forward, the government-in-exile will face a number of constitutional, perhaps even existential problems. Some of these will most certainly prove to be damaging to the national struggle itself, even within Tibet. I am not a constitutional scholar so any corrections or additions to the few points I am raising below would be much appreciated.

1. If His Holiness resigns from office as he has announced, we would have to change our system of government fundamentally. We cannot maintain our present parliamentary and prime-ministerial system if we do not have a separate head of state. In a parliamentary system like ours there is a clear differentiation between the head of government and the head of state, with the head of government being the prime minister and the head of state often being a president (as in India or France), a hereditary monarch (as in Thailand or Britain) or representative of a monarch as a Governor-General (in Canada or Australia).

Hence it is necessary for His Holiness to remain at least as the titular or symbolic head of state, if we are to continue with our present system of government, otherwise we would have to elect a separate figurehead president as we have in India, or change our system completely to a presidential system as in the United States.

2. Then there is the more important question of legitimacy. Our present exile government had its genesis on the 29th of March, 1959, when the Dalai Lama made a formal proclamation at Lhuntse Dzong establishing the legitimate government of Tibet (which subsequently became the government-in-exile). The proclamation (reproduced from Tsepon Shakabpa’s great history) clearly states that “…the re-founding of the independent Ganden Phodrang government, with religious and political authority, has been undertaken in the Yugyal Lhuntse Dzong.” The proclamation also noted that the two former prime ministers of Tibet, Lukhangwa and Lobsang Tashi who had been forced to resign from office because of Chinese pressure had been officially reinstated.

This proclamation was read out to all government officials, soldiers and populace assembled at Lhuntse Dzong. Copies of the proclamation, signed and sealed by His Holiness, were sent to district headquarters all over Tibet. The traditional investiture ceremony was conducted by the Dalai Lama’s two tutors, and such traditional dances as the Droshay, or the Dance of Propitious Fortune, performed by the people. In My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama writes that the proclamation was made to counter the announcement by the Chinese that they had dissolved the Tibetan government in Lhasa.

And this claim has been maintained ever since. The government in exile was not merely the administrative authority for Tibetan refugees but also the true government of Tibet. Hence the name Ganden Phodrang (or Joyous Palace) was kept, along with the old seal, but most important of all, its sovereign head, the Dalai Lama. Without these the claim of the exile-government to represent the legitimate government of Tibet, a claim that is hard enough to maintain internationally even with his Holiness at present, would be impossible to establish in the future. Even the fact of the exile-government being elected would merely make it the elected administrative body of Tibetans living outside Tibet.

3. Then there is the matter of Tibetans inside Tibet. The two most recurring slogans shouted by demonstrators in Tibet have been “The Dalai Lama must return to Tibet” and “Full Independence for Tibet.” I don’t believe that this pairing of the two demands is merely a coincidence. For those Tibetans struggling to survive, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, under the unrelenting and pitiless tyranny of Communist China, the Dalai Lama is not only a religious “tsawae lama” or “root guru” (of which there are many great ones in the Tibetan world). For Tibetans in Tibet he is unquestionably and preeminently the sovereign ruler and living symbol of a free and independent “Land of Snows” – a land to which they stubbornly believe he will surely return one day.

*Jamyang Norbu is a Tibetan writer in English living in USA.

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