On Sunday, legislators in Tibet’s Parliament in exile will cast a historic vote. They have been asked by the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan spiritual community — and for many Tibetans, the rightful leader of their nation — to formalize the separation of spiritual and political authority.

The Dalai Lama says this move only ratifies a division of labor that already exists and lays the foundation for the creation of true democracy among his followers. Yet for many Tibetans, the move risks splitting their community and undermining its legitimacy. Even the Chinese government, a hostile and implacable foe of the Dalai Lama, is opposed to the plan, fearing that it will make it even more difficult to quiet the nationalist ambitions of many Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama has headed the Tibetan government in exile since he fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising. After settling in the Indian town of Dharamsala, he has become a global figure, the face of Tibetan Buddhism and that society’s struggle for self-determination in the face of Chinese efforts to fully assimilate a sometimes hostile population. While millions of people consider the Dalai Lama to be their rightful leader, the government in Beijing sees him as “a splittist,” a supporter of a feudal order and a threat to China’s core interests.

At 75, the Dalai Lama is well aware that his life may be drawing to an end and he is trying to put the Tibetan community’s affairs in order. His proposed reforms would make the prime minister, elected by the Tibetan parliament in exile, the head of state and administrative leader; the Dalai Lama would continue to be the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans who worship him as a reincarnated leader.

The new system would provide more legitimacy to the exiles’ leader and the parliament, preparing them for the day when the Dalai Lama will pass on. The Dalai Lama explained that “It is necessary that we establish a sound system of governance while I remain able and healthy in order that the exile Tibetan administration can become more self-reliant rather than dependent on the Dalai Lama.”

Failure to plan for that inevitability would mean that the Tibetan would risk confusion and disorder on his passing as the Chinese government’s designated Dalai Lama would compete for legitimacy with that selected by the Tibetan exile group. Such a division is not unprecedented: In 1995, the Chinese government selected its reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most holy lama for Tibetan Buddhists. Meanwhile, a boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as Panchen Lama was detained by Chinese authorities and has not been seen since.

Many believe that Beijing is drawing out discussions with the Dalai Lama’s representatives over Tibet’s future as a way of stalling and waiting for his passing. There is speculation that the Dalai Lama may identify his successor before he dies to give that person a boost in the competition.

Beijing has called the move to step down “a trick” and has added it to the long list of charges against the Dalai Lama. The irony is that the Chinese government, which is atheist and argues that it seeks to modernize Tibet and rid it of its feudal tendencies, insists that the next Dalai Lama must be reincarnated and that it gets to confirm that reincarnation.

Beijing has other concerns as well. For all the vilification heaped upon the Dalai Lama, China’s leaders know that he is a voice of moderation among Tibetan exiles. There is a fear that the next generation of leaders will be more radical and perhaps even more violent in their opposition to Chinese rule of Tibet. Thus China faces the prospect of a leadership that is not only more democratic but also even more radical in its challenge to Beijing.

There is no guarantee that the Dalai Lama’s plan will be approved. Many Tibetans, in particular those still in Tibet, support only him; they do not know other proposed leaders. The three candidates for prime minister are not lamas; Beijing has said that it will not recognize their authority and will only negotiate with the Dalai Lama. There is the danger then that splitting his political and religious authority can weaken rather than strengthen the government in exile. It is likely that Beijing, eager to seize an opportunity, will inform Tibetans that they have been “abandoned” by their leader in an attempt to further weaken the exile community’s influence.

In fact, the Dalai Lama has been trying to prepare his followers for this moment for over four decades. Shortly after fleeing to India, he called for the transition to a system more like a constitutional monarchy. In 2001, he endorsed democratic elections for the prime minister. The latest reforms will complete the democratization process.

If the measure passes, the Dalai Lama will not retire after the vote. He will continue to serve as the head of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and will, most likely, continue with some ceremonial roles. But he will have taken critical steps to ensure that the exile community has real leadership after he passes. It is a far-sighted move, one befitting a real leader.

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