The Dalai Lama has announced he will retire as political head of the exiled Tibetan movement, shifting that power to an elected representative.
Speaking on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese control, he said the time had come “to devolve my formal authority to the elected leader”.
The Dalai Lama, whose more significant role is as the movement’s spiritual leader, said he would seek an amendment allowing him to resign his political office when the exiled parliament meets next week.
“My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility,” he said during his address in Dharamshala, the base of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northern India, on Thursday.
“It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run.
It is not because I feel disheartened,” he added. He has long insisted that he wants the exiled government to have more power and has previously said he wants to give up his political role.
But his speech on Thursday was the first time he has given a formal timeframe to that transition.
Just how much change will come, though, is unclear. While the elected parliament officially wields great power in the exile community, the Dalai Lama’s status means he overshadows everyone else.
Samdhong Rinpoche, the current exile prime minister, later indicated that the political transition may not happen soon.
“Despite His Holiness’ request, the people and the government do not feel competent to lead ourselves,” he told reporters, calling the transition “a long and difficult process”.
In the past, the parliament-in-exile has officially asked the Dalai Lama not to give up any of his powers.
Dalai Lamas were traditionally both the political and spiritual leaders of Tibet, and the current Dalai Lama retains almost god-like status to most of his followers.
China regards him as a separatist intent on overthrowing Chinese rule over the Himalayan region.
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 a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
The 75-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner has long talked of stepping down from what is a largely ceremonial role, while maintaining his more important position as the spiritual figurehead of the Tibetan movement.
“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.
“Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect.”
Despite his advancing age and several health scares, the Dalai Lama maintains a punishing travel schedule as the global face of the Tibetan struggle.
He is travelling to Australia for a national tour in June, holding events in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth.
During his time in Brisbane, he will convene a free forum to help victims of the recent floods cope with their losses. Audience members will have the opportunity to ask the Nobel Laureate questions about happiness, compassion and dealing with loss.
In Thursday’s speech, the Dalai Lama said he had received “repeated and earnest” appeals from inside and outside Tibet to provide continued political leadership.
The London-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said the Dalai Lama’s announcement underlined his democratic credentials.
“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.