“My job is too big for one man”

That was the sentiment expressed by the Dalai Lama in a recent speech, as reported by the Independent.  As Andrew Buncombe describes it:

In a speech that underscored the pressures he has had to bear during his life serving as both a spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama has said there is no need for his successor to perform the two roles.

Now, the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile, which is basically the constitution of the government-in-exile, specifies that the Dalai Lama is the chief executive. This is not a figurehead position, since it is given broad executive powers and a veto over legislation. So, we’re talking about amending the Charter to remove the Dalai Lama’s powers? It seems like that would be politically difficult to do if the incumbent Dalai Lama doesn’t suggest it explicitly. So, is that what he is suggesting?

I would like to make it clear that the government-in-exile has never claimed that their Charter should be the governing structure for a future free Tibet. The Dalai Lama has produced a separate document detailing his suggestions in that case, which calls for a democratic republic in which the Dalai Lama would not even be a figurehead (contrary to what some people would tell you, that the Dalai Lama is trying to restore a theocracy or aristocratic government). What I’m talking about is the governing structure of the exile movement. I believe that’s the same as what the Dalai Lama was talking about in his speech.

“It is appropriate that a democratically elected leader lead a people’s movement.”

I wonder about this. Looking at the history of successful popular movements, it’s not very clear how important elections were to their leaders. Who elected Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or even Mao Zedong, for that matter? Each of these men may have been elected to the leadership of certain private organisations over the course of their activist careers, but is that what made them leaders? I suggest that they were leaders first because of their own actions, so, if they needed an organisation to head, they could simply have founded a new group and had themselves elected to head it. “Who elected the Dalai Lama?” is the unspoken question that hangs over the topic of Tibetan exile democracy — not that it undermines the Dalai Lama’s position, but that it undermines the relevance of elections. The answer to this is, well, complicated.

The speech put the firmest cap possible on the idea that the Lama should be the sole repository of leadership for the Tibetan people.

Does it? I wonder about this. I wonder if any elected Tibetan leader will be able to command half the respect and unity that the Dalai Lama does now. People’s minds keep tending to come back to the idea of appointment, and they are thinking of an appointment by the Dalai Lama:

Despite the Dalai Lama’s stated commitment to democracy, some observers believe a “regent” could be appointed to lead the freedom struggle in the form of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who is the Karmapa, or spiritual head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism and the third highest-ranking figure across the various schools. Whilst the 17th Karmapa could not inherit the title of Dalai Lama, he could act as a figurehead and help fill the void should the Dalai Lama fall ill or die. Such a move has been publicly discussed amid concerns last year about the Dalai Lama’s health.

I am forced to wonder whether anybody actually stops to look at the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile. Articles 31 to 35 lay out in considerable detail the procedure for appointment a council of regency, which is to have three persons, including a chief regent. This is obviously necessary, because the Charter makes the Dalai Lama the “head of state” with broad powers; thus, someone must fill this role when the Dalai Lama is not available. Now, the Charter says that the regents are to be elected by the Kashag and the parliament. It doesn’t say anything about being appointed by the Dalai Lama.

That said, the Charter could be amended (it has apparently already been amended, since the version I’m referring to says that the Kalön Tripa is elected by the Kashag, but that position is now publically elected), to allow the Dalai Lama to appoint a successor. Or, if he wanted to, I’m sure he could just say in public, “I think Person X would make a fine regent. Why not consider choosing him or her as Chief Regent if the need arises?” and no one would dare to refuse to support that candidate later. But, doesn’t that undermine the idea of democratic reform, exactly what this speech was intended to support? In any event, under the current Charter, the 15th Dalai Lama will resume his authority upon reaching the age of majority, so any changes to the division religious and political power will only be temporary.

I do feel optimistic, looking at Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, that he has the potential to become a popular leader of the same type as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the current Dalai Lama, etc. — perhaps not of the same stature, which remains to be seen, but of the same type in that he doesn’t necessarily need to be elected to anything, but will be able to exercise leadership naturally through his own actions and charisma. Maybe this will prove to be a fruitful division of labour: an exile government with an elected leader, who may or may not actually do anything, but will be a useful propaganda item to contrast with the dictatorial, oligarchic Chinese leadership; and, in addition, an unelected, popular leader who enjoys the confidence of the Tibetan people and can do things like talk to the Chinese and actually get things done.

My job is too big for one man

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