Tibetans Fear for Their Future after the Dalai Lama

By Austin Ramzy

DHARAMSALA, India - For almost half a century the Dalai Lama has been a headache for China's communist leaders. Beijing regularly denounces the Tibetan spiritual leader as a traitor and a "splittist."

Since fleeing to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama has brought world attention to the struggle to free Tibet from China's grasp, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and international recognition in the process.

Delegates to the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies gather for tea outside a meeting hall in Dharamsala, India.
Photo by Austin Ramzy

But the Dalai Lama poses a problem for Tibetans as well. While Tibetans revere him, some worry that they have come to rely too heavily on the 66-year-old leader and that his death would deeply harm their cause.

"The institution of the Dalai Lama, it's one of Tibet's great strengths," said Thubten Samphel, information secretary for the exiled Tibetan government. "At the same time, it's one of our weaknesses, because all of us are dependent on him."

The Dalai Lama is the fourteenth in a line of leaders that stretches back to the 15th century. Since the mid-17th century the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet. The death of a Dalai Lama lead to a search for a reincarnation, with regents ruling Tibet until the boy recognized as the Dalai Lama reached 18.

Samdhong Rinpoche, the newly elected prime minister of the exile government, said the institution created a fundamental flaw in Tibetan government. Historically, the long stretch after the death of a Dalai Lama left a void in leadership as his reincarnation grew to adulthood, Samdhong said.

"Between Dalai Lamas Tibet has always suffered. We could not become strong for the last 300 years because of the weakness between two Dalai Lamas," he said.

"During that period no one is capable of managing the state. Therefore Tibet becomes weaker and weaker.

" The Dalai Lama's recent illness has sharpened the questions about his succession.

After complaining of stomach pains while at a Buddhist festival in January, he was flown to Bombay and admitted to a hospital. He was discharged a week later after receiving treatment for a bowel infection and returned to Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, where his office says he is in good health.

In Dharamsala, thoughts of the Dalai Lama are never far from the Tibetan exile community. His picture can be found in every restaurant, in storefront windows, on buses, necklaces, t-shirts and postcards sold on tables in the narrow streets.

Most Tibetans here say they hope to return to Tibet with the Dalai Lama. But many acknowledge that's unlikely to happen and they worry about what comes next.

A Tibetan nun turns a prayer wheel at a stupa in Dharamsala.
Photo by Austin Ramzy

Outside the Dalai Lama's residence a 62-year-old Tibetan woman who recently journeyed from Lhasa flicked prayer beads between her fingers. "In Tibet all the people are eager to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They are thirsty. They need water," she said.

But what would happen to those hopes when the Dalai Lama dies?

"If that happens we will become very sorrowful," she said.

"We will become like blind people." Tibetans in exile widely believe that when the fourteenth Dalai Lama dies the Chinese will choose their own reincarnation. They see the case of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest-ranking religious figure, as a prologue. In 1995 the Dalai Lama recognized a 6-year-old boy in Tibet as the successor to the 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989.

China detained the boy and chose another in his place. The Dalai Lama's choice and his family have not been seen since.

The Dalai Lama has said that to avoid such a situation his reincarnation will be born outside Tibet. He has also expanded democratic elections in the exile government. Last year the position of prime minister was chosen for the first time by a vote of Tibetans abroad. The Dalai Lama said he made the position directly elected to remove any questions of leadership.

Samdhong Rinpoche received 84 percent of the votes cast in the election last year. The 62-year-old monk, who is recognized by Tibetans as a reincarnate lama, is known in India as the "Tibetan Ghandi" for his belief in peaceful activism.

Samdhong Rinpoche previously served as the chairman of the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies, the representative arm of the exile government.

When his term as chairman of the assembly ended in March 2001, Samdhong Rinpoche made an apology, saying he failed to sufficiently help the Tibetan cause.

"I made that because I felt a number of frustrations because His Holiness was in a great hurry to make our democratization complete within a specific time. The democratization is imposed from above, but it has to be the people's own initiative." Samdhong Rinpoche said. "For that I tried my best but I was not able to ground the people and particularly the parliament members to carry their responsibilities in the right direction."

As the exile government's first directly elected prime minister, Samdhong Rinpoche was able to nominate his own cabinet, subject to approval of the assembly. Previously the nominations came from the Dalai Lama.

Last year the Dalai Lama said he wanted to transfer his administrative responsibilities to the prime minister and the assembly. But Samdhong Rinpoche asked him to reconsider the decision, saying that the question of handing over the Dalai Lama's traditional responsibilities would need several years of examination.

While Tibetans in exile support having a more direct say in the leadership, many support the changes out of deference to the Dalai Lama.

Rinchen Dolma, 62, was one of the more than 30,000 Tibetans living abroad who voted to choose a prime minister last year. "When you have a democratic system, it's the most honest way," she said as she sipped a cup of tea in a Tibetan caf¨¦.

"Whatever idea His Holiness the Dalai Lama has for a system of government, that is most beneficial for Tibetans."

Tenzin Rigzin, a 29-year-old man who works for the government in exile's department of finance, said he thinks Tibetans abroad will learn to value electing a leader. "Unlike other countries, our democracy is given to us. Other countries, they had to fight and shed blood," he said. "The election of the prime minister is a good exercise. Gradually we will learn to see the value of this."

Many Tibetans acknowledge that the Dalai Lama's death will be a setback to their hopes for an independent Tibet, but they remain optimistic.

Bagdro, a 34-year old monk, fled Tibet after being imprisoned for three years following 1988 riots in Lhasa.

"I think if something happens to this Dalai Lama, it will be very difficult," he said. "But the struggle will continue."

"Buddha came 2,000 years ago. He's dead, but we still have Buddhism. If we don't have His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we'll still have six million Tibetan people."

But Tibetans in exile say they must eventually face the future after the Dalai Lama's death.

Kalsang Phuntsok Godrukpa, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that advocates direct action for Tibetan independence, tells members of his group to prepare for that time.

"I believe Tibet will be free one day. It may take 500 years, 1,000 years. We may not see it in our lifetime," he said. "One thing we have to face in our lifetime is the time after His Holiness." END