In light of the momentous events in the Middle East, some may have missed an important story out of India: The Dalai Lama has announced his intention to retire and has asked for amendments to Tibet’s “Constitution” to allow him to do so. If accepted by the parliament, this would end centuries of theocratic rule among Tibetans, and mark a dramatic constitutional modernization. No doubt part of the strategic subtext is China’s assertion that it has the right to select any future reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, saying that such a person would be found “within the country.” The Chinese approach has been to simply wait until the 75-year old Dalai Lama passes on. As Tim Johnson argues in his recent book Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Won the World and Lost the Battle with China, Tibet’s leader has pursued a flexible strategy against overwhelming odds, but now faces the ultimate task of trying to ensure that his movement survives his own lifetime. In light of this, the constitutional reform effectively ending the office of the Dalai Lama seems a wise strategy.
This announcement gave new interest to elections being held today to elect a parliament and prime minister for Tibet’s Government-in-Exile. The Dalai Lama’s legacy will have been the democratization of the Tibetan movement; but this will also allow for new levels of contention between radicals and moderates that have heretofore been suppressed by the Dalai Lama’s own articulation of a middle way, seeking autonomy within China. Democracy can be messy, even in exile.