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Tibetans searching for a future beyond the Dalai Lama

Tibetan communities living in various regions of the world are gearing up for elections. Though they have no state to call their own, exile Tibetans will be electing a new government in March.

The 14th Dalai Lama is stepping down from his political duties

The 14th Dalai Lama is stepping down from his political duties

A few months ago, the Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans, announced he would be stepping down from his political duties. That means, for the first time in history, the March 20 elections for a parliament and government-in-exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala will be more than a mere symbolic act. And preliminary election figures show that the Dalai Lama’s wish to step down has stirred up the Tibetans; voter participation was over 60 percent in North American and European preliminaries, according to the Dalai Lama’s representative to Switzerland, Tseten Samdup Choekyapa.

An election campaign for 21 voters

Tseten Samdup Choekyapa and Samdhong Rinpoche, Tibet’s prime minister in exile, were recently in Germany on a kind of election campaign. They came to talk with journalists, meet Tibetans living here and to shake hands and rub shoulders. No constituency is too small. In Germany there are a mere 21 Tibetans registered to vote. But much is unconventional about a government living in exile.

Samdhong Rinpoche, right, with the Dalai Lama

Samdhong Rinpoche, right, with the Dalai Lama

"His Holiness believes that the Tibetans have become lazy under the old political system," said Samdhong Rinpoche, wearing a saffron-colored monk’s habit and Birkenstock sandals. Candidates for the ministerial offices were previously suggested to parliament by the Dalai Lama, and from 2001 on, from the prime minister. That has been the extent of Tibetan democracy.

Two minds about Dalai Lama's departure

The Dalai Lama now wants that to end. Sitting in a plain office set up for the Tibet Initiative in Berlin, Samdhong Rinpoche explained, "he wants the Tibetan people to be more active in forming their government." He and the Dalai Lama are already old, over 70. But the Dalai Lama's plans for democracy are posing a "dilemma" for him and his people, he admitted.

No matter how popular the Dalai Lama is internationally, the Tibetans still have very little power. Hollywood stars line up for photo ops with the charismatic Nobel laureate and heads of states give him one award after the other for his spiritual leadership. The Dalai Lama is Tibet's face and thus its problem as well.

Samdhong Rinpoche was on election campaign in Germany this month

Samdhong Rinpoche was on "election campaign" in Germany this month

"When the Dalai Lama leaves his office, who knows how it will change our diplomatic relations," Samdhong Rinpoche said quietly and pensively. Politicians from the West will more than likely not want to be seen with representatives of the exile Tibetan government for fear of provoking China.

Until now, the Chinese leaders have always held their symbolic talks with representatives of the 14th Dalai Lama. Nervously tapping his hand on the arm of his chair, Samdhong Rinpoche said, "he wants to help his people get used to a future without him, as long as he is still alive." On the one hand, Samdhong Rinpoche wants the Dalai Lama to stay, like the majority of Tibetans. On the other hand, he supports his plans for the future.

New leadership, new policy?

The change might just come easier for Tibetan voters than the monks think; the primary elections have shown that the majority is in favor of Lobsang Sangay as the next prime minister. He is not a monk and has not fled from Tibet. He teaches law at Harvard and has so far not been regarded as a political heavyweight among the Tibetan diaspora. On March 20, he will be up against former PM Tenzin N. Thethong and former foreign secretary, Tashi Wangdi.

The Dalai Lama has been a symbol for the Tibetan cause

The Dalai Lama has been a symbol for the Tibetan cause

While debates have in the past flared up with regards to the policies of the Tibetan government, this question is not playing a role in this election campaign; the "Middle Way", in which Tibet seeks more autonomy within China, is regarded as the Tibetan government’s unanimously accepted approach.

But more and more, younger generations have been calling for a change of policy. They are tired of talks going nowhere, of the systematic suppression of the Tibetan people and they are frustrated and tired of the Chinese government’s obstinacy. But Samdhong Rinpoche just shrugged, saying, "they represent less than ten percent of our voters. We will not change our policies for a small minority. If there are new policies, the 44-seat parliament will decide on them."

For Samdhong Rinpoche, this tour around the world is also his last trip as PM, now that his term is over and cannot be extended. He has decided to take his future after March 20 as it comes. If he could do what he wanted, he would go back to his home monastery in Kham, where he has not returned since 1959 and where he used to sit under the trees and meditate as a young man. He said, "they are wonderful and they are still standing."

Autor: Adrienne Woltersdorf (sb)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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