Dalai Lama to Hand Over Political Leader Role (WSJ Article)

BEIJING—The Dalai Lama said he plans to formally step down as political leader of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile in an effort to further democratize the Tibetan refugee community and combat potential efforts by China to hijack the succession process.

The 76-year-old monk, who fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule in 1959, has for several years declared himself unofficially "semiretired" from political leadership, while retaining his more significant role as the Himalayan region's spiritual leader. The Chinese government sees him as a separatist.

Having ruled his homeland as a god-king, he established a parliament-in-exile in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamsala in 1960, introduced a draft constitution three years later, and in 2001 oversaw the first direct election of a prime minister, known as the Kalon Tripa.

But the Kalon Tripa's status among Tibetans and their international supporters continues to be eclipsed by the Dalai Lama—the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner—raising concerns among some of them about who will take over his peaceful campaign for greater autonomy within China after his death.

Tibet's parliament-in-exile in Dharamsala has urged the Dalai Lama not to retire, but he appears determined to enhance the authority of the next Kalon Tripa, who is due to be elected this month, both to govern the 145,000-strong refugee community and, if necessary, to negotiate with China.

"As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power," the Dalai Lama said Thursday in an annual speech marking the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising.

"Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect," he said, adding that he would propose a formal amendment to the constitution at a meeting of the parliament-in-exile on Monday.

"My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run. It is not because I feel disheartened."

Beijing denounced the Dalai Lama's move. "For years he has been expressing his intention to retire. We think these are tricks to deceive the international community," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

The Dalai Lama's remarks came three days after one senior Chinese official disputed his right to choose his own successor, and another confirmed that Tibet would be closed to foreign tourists during the coming anniversary of violent anti-Chinese riots in March 2008.

Behind the statements from both sides lies a historic struggle for the future of Tibet, which Beijing considers to have been an integral part of its territory for hundreds of years, but which the Dalai Lama says had been a de facto independent state for centuries until the Chinese Communist takeover.

Since Mao Zedong's forces took control of the region in 1951, Beijing has tried in vain to crush Tibetans' reverence of the Dalai Lama with a series of brutal political campaigns, and massive state investment into the region in recent years.

Although the Dalai Lama appears to be in good health, both sides are now preparing for his death, which some experts fear could cause the Tibetan movement to fragment, with some splinter groups advocating the use of violence.

Tradition dictates that the Dalai Lama should be replaced by his own reincarnation—identified by senior lamas who interpret signs after the last incumbent's death and then search for promising boys and give them a number of tests.

The current Dalai Lama—who is the 14th—was born into a farming family in eastern Tibet and was identified at the age of two after he passed certain tests, including identifying his predecessor's rosary.

However, many exiled Tibetans fear that this process would leave them leaderless while the next reincarnation grows up, and open the door for the Chinese government to appoint its own rival Dalai Lama.

In 1995, when the Dalai Lama recognized a young boy in Tibet as the new Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese authorities detained the child and appointed their own candidate.

The Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama is dismissed as a fake by many Tibetans but is often quoted in China's state-controlled media praising Chinese policies in Tibet.

"The Tibetan people now enjoy religious freedom and are much better off," he was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency this week, during a meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body of which he is a member. "People can freely choose to start a business, study or become a Buddhist monk. They are free to do whatever they aspire to, which was impossible in old Tibet. The peaceful liberation of Tibet has made people the real master of Tibet."

The Dalai Lama has proposed several alternative succession models, including holding a referendum on whether he should be reincarnated at all among the world's 13 million to 14 million Tibetan Buddhists. He has also suggested he could identify his own reincarnation—who he says could be a foreigner, or a woman—while he is alive, even though no Dalai Lama has done so before.

Another proposal is for him to appoint the Karmapa Lama—the third-highest in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy—as a regent to lead the movement until his successor is old enough to take over.

But the Chinese government also appears determined to control the succession process, claiming repeatedly that it alone has the power to certify reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, although Communist Party members are supposed to be atheists.

Padma Choling, the ethnic Tibetan appointed by Beijing as governor of Tibet, said Monday that the Dalai Lama had no right to abolish the institution of reincarnation.

"I don't think this is appropriate. It's impossible, that's what I think," the former soldier said on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's parliament, the National People's Congress. "We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism," he said.

Zhang Qingli, Tibet's Communist Party chief, also confirmed Monday that foreign tourists were temporarily blocked from visiting Tibet, although he said that was due to the "cold winter," a slew of religious activities and the limited number of hotels.

Write to Jeremy Page at jeremy.page@wsj.com