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Dalai Lama to resign as Tibetan political leader

The Bangkok Post, March 10, 2011

Dharmsala, India -- The Dalai Lama announced Thursday he would step down as political head of Tibet's exiled government, but continue to push the Tibetan cause in his key role as its spiritual figurehead.

In a speech on the anniversary of a failed uprising in 1959 against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama said he would seek an amendment allowing him to resign his political office when the exiled Tibetan parliament meets next week.

"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," he said in Dharamshala, the seat of Tibet's government-in-exile in northern India.

"Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect."

China, which brands the 75-year-old Nobel peace laureate a "splittist" bent on Tibetan independence, responded by accusing him of playing "tricks" to deceive the international community.

While the Dalai Lama retains the more significant role of Tibet's spiritual leader, the move marks a symbolic watershed in the history of the Tibetan movement and its long and largely fruitless struggle against Chinese rule.

The Dalai Lama was just 15 when he was appointed "head of state" in 1950 after Chinese troops moved into Tibet. He fled his homeland in 1959 after the unsuccessful uprising.

His temporal duties are largely ceremonial and the Dalai Lama had already pronounced himself "semi-retired" following the first direct election in 2001 of a prime minister as the formal head of the exiled government.

Spiritual and secular loyalty to his leadership has remained steadfast over the long decades of exile, binding together various factions within his movement, some of whom favour a more radical agenda than the Dalai Lama's non-violent campaign for autonomy within the Chinese state.

In his speech, the Dalai Lama acknowledged "repeated and earnest" requests from within Tibet and outside to continue as political leader, but appealed for understanding of his decision.

"My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility," he said.

"It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run. It is not because I feel disheartened."

His speech made it clear that he would not be withdrawing from the political struggle and remained "committed to playing my part in the just cause of Tibet".

Despite his advancing age and several health scares, the Dalai Lama maintains a punishing travel schedule as the global face of the Tibetan movement.

But while the Dalai Lama commands substantial international respect, official support for his movement has largely been sacrificed to the necessity of maintaining political and trade relations with Beijing.

China has sought to sideline him by castigating any foreign government that champions his cause or allows him to visit.

"The Dalai is a political exile under a religious cloak long engaged in activities aimed at splitting China," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

"The government-in-exile is an illegal political organisation and no country in the world recognises it."

In his speech, the Dalai Lama denounced the "grim reality" of life in Tibet under Chinese rule where people live in "constant fear and anxiety".

He said that repressive policies over the past six decades had only served to make the Tibetan problem "more intractable" than ever.

While resigning his political office is unlikely to diminish his pre-eminent status, it marks an acceleration of preparations to fill the inevitable vacuum that will be left by his death.

The London-based International Campaign for Tibet said the Dalai Lama's announcement underlined his desire to provide the Tibetan movement with a durable, democratic legacy.

"In contrast to those long-serving autocrats who have been much in the news, the Dalai Lama is the rare visionary who is willingly divesting power to his people," said ICT president Mary Beth Markey.

"His decision, based on the maturation of Tibetan democracy in exile, deserves both accolades and support," she added.

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