What China could learn from the Dalai Lama

Wednesday, on his 76th birthday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be honored at Verizon Center by 11,000 people, including Arun Gandhi and Martin Luther King III, the grandson and son of the two stalwarts of nonviolence.

This spring, when people put their lives on the line for democracy during the Jasmine Revolution, with Col. Moammar Gaddafi still shedding blood to hold on to power in Libya, and despite impassioned appeals by Tibetans, the Dalai Lama devolved all his political power to democratically elected Tibetan leaders. That means that the Dalai Lama gave up his constitutional power to dismiss the Tibetan parliament, judiciary and executive; to sign or veto bills; to summon emergency meetings; and to appoint representatives and envoys abroad.

The decision of the 14th Dalai Lama to end the 400-year reign as the Tibetan people’s political leader shocked many Tibetans and the world at large. But this development was neither abrupt nor surprising.

In fact, it was a long time in coming.

For decades, the Dalai Lama had been quietly dismantling the traditional theocratic­aristocratic system of his position and preparing Tibetans for the day he would not be at the helm.

The Dalai Lama’s democratic changes began as early as 1954, with the establishment of a reform committee to exempt poor farmers and indigent Tibetans from heavy taxes. But the committee was disrupted by the invading forces of Communist China.

After Tibet was occupied, the Dalai Lama arrived in India in 1959. His vision of a secular democratic society began to be realized. In 1960, at the behest of the then-25-year-old Dalai Lama, Tibetans elected their first parliament; soon, Tibetan women were elected as representatives. Tibet’s first democratic constitution, adopted in 1963, included, at his insistence, a provision to allow for the impeachment of the Dalai Lama.

In 1991, amid the “Third Wave” of democracy, the Tibetan parliament was expanded and empowered to elect the cabinet, which had been the prerogative of the Dalai Lama as the head of state.

In 2001, on the eve of the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe, the Dalai Lama declared himself semi-retired and introduced direct election of the head of the cabinet (known as Kalon Tripa, the position is equivalent to prime minister). Samdhong Rinpoche won with 90 percent of the votes.

This past March, after delegating all his political powers to elected leaders, the Dalai Lama rejected an appeal to stay on as the nominal head of state.

Tibet’s constitution, which guides primarily the exile administration, was ratified to reflect the new state of affairs. The Kalon Tripa, as the legitimate political leader of the administration, now signs bills into law, appoints representatives and envoys, and implements major policies.

This transition doubtless has been a source of anxiety for many Tibetans. This moment, however, also provides an opportunity to work toward a more secular, stronger and sustainable Tibetan freedom movement.

For Tibetans, this is uncharted territory. But there are indications that Tibetans are gearing up to accept the new challenges.

The Dalai Lama’s power transfer was accompanied by an unprecedented election on March 20, when Tibetans in 30 countries — from Asia to Europe to North America and beyond — cast ballots to elect a new Kalon Tripa and members of parliament. Tibetans in Tibet followed this historic election closely; the process demonstrated the indomitable spirit and resilience of the Tibetan people.

The election sent a clear message to Beijing that leadership of the Tibetan freedom movement has been entrusted to a younger generation that will build on the legacy and hard work of their elders over the past five decades.

The Dalai Lama’s retirement from politics also proves wrong the Chinese government’s propaganda that the Dalai Lama is not a religious figure but a politician.

It is a pity that the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with the Dalai Lama’s political role and resorts to the blame game, when China’s primary concern should be the future of Tibet and its people. Meanwhile, confusion abounds in Tibet about the Dalai Lama’s role thanks to the lack of information and transparency.

This moment poses a test for the authoritarian regime in China. Tibet has endured 50 years of rule by force. The current state of affairs in Tibet — undeclared martial law, with ongoing protests in Kirti and Kardze and a ban on tourists — shows that Beijing’s rule in Tibet has failed. Instead of hosting indicted war criminals such as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the Great Hall, Beijing’s leadership has a golden opportunity to prove its sincerity, garner good will and improve the image of China if it would, as the Dalai Lama devolved his political authority, devolve its power to Tibetans to resolve the issue of Tibet.

Whatever happens, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has proven that he is a democrat.

Lobsang Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School, will assume the post of Kalon Tripa on Aug. 8.

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