Dalai Lama To Give Up Political Role In Tibet

The Dalai Lama says he will give up his political role in the Tibetan government-in-exile and shift that power to an elected representative. It is a move that drew attention to the question of succession of the aging Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Dalai Lama is stepping away from politics. The Tibetan spiritual leader announced today that he will give up his role in the Tibetan government-in-exile.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Shanghai, the 75-year-old Buddhist leader said he will shift that power to an elected representative.

ROB GIFFORD: Today is the 52nd anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet. It was that uprising that sent the Dalai Lama into exile in the first place and was therefore a highly symbolic date for him to make his announcement.

The DALAI LAMA: (Speaking foreign language).

GIFFORD: In a speech in the Indian town of Dharamsala that has become the home of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama said that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by Tibetan people, to whom he can devolve political power.

Now, he said, the time is right for that transition, though he will remain the spiritual leader of Tibetans. Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University in New York, says the Dalai Lama has always embodied the hopes of the Tibetan people, but he's now recognizing his own mortality.

Mr. ROBBIE BARNETT (Columbia University): What's going on here is building up authority and standing of the government that's now in India to become the representatives of the Tibetan people that can survive the death of the Dalai Lama when that comes.

GIFFORD: The Chinese government responded with characteristic anger, lambasting the Dalai Lama from Beijing.

Ms. JIANG YU: (Speaking foreign language).

GIFFORD: The Dalai Lama uses religion as a disguise for separatism, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, adding that the announcement is a trick to deceive the international community.

Beijing says Tibet has been part of China for centuries, and it does not recognize the Tibetan government in exile. The officially atheist Communist Party now finds itself in the bizarre position of supporting the traditional Buddhist way of choosing a new Dalai Lama in Tibet after the death of the existing one, through reincarnation. Whereas The Dalai Lama in exile has suggested he may give up on the idea of reincarnation all together and actually appoint a successor before he dies.

For Robbie Barnett at Columbia, the writing is on the wall for what will happen when the current Dalai Lama dies.

Mr. BARNETT: We're going to end up with two Dalai Lamas, unless this is resolved through negotiation before the Dalai Lama dies.

GIFFORD: And that negotiated resolution doesn't look likely anytime soon.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai.

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