What the Dalai Lama's Political Resignation Means for Tibet

On Thursday the Tibetan spiritual leader announced he's relinquishing his political power

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The Dalai Lama announced Thursday he's stepping down as political leader of the Tibetan govenment. In a speech on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan upising against Chinese rule, he said "we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect."

The 76-year-old spiritual leader says Tibet's exile government needs to become more democratic as Tibetans elect a new prime minister next month.

"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. "My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run. It is not because I feel disheartened."

So where does this leave the Tibetan independence movement which continues to seek autonomy from the Chinese government? Here's what the experts are saying.

He's not going to disappear, notes Jim Yardley and Edward Wong in The New York Times:

Analysts who study Tibet said the announcement does not mean the Dalai Lama would cease to be recognized as the overall leader of the Tibetan cause. He is regarded as the lone figure capable of uniting and mobilizing Tibetans inside and outside of China. But the analysts said that by formally giving up political power, the Dalai Lama... is trying to deepen the authority and credibility of the Tibetan movement’s democratic government, which is based in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama's charisma has been invaluable though, writes Time's Hannah Beech:

With his kindly mien, gentle aphorisms and globetrotting enthusiasm, the 14th Dalai Lama singlehandedly rescued the Tibetan political movement from the dust-heap of obscure ethnic struggles. (Look, by contrast, at the fate of the Uighurs who inhabit a restive region to the north of Tibet that is controlled by China; without a charismatic leader, the Turkic Muslim ethnic group has been unable to garner the support of celebrities like Richard Gere or the Beastie Boys.)

All eyes are on his spiritual successor now, writes Jeremy Page at The Wall Street Journal:

Beijing has tried to crush Tibetans' reverence of the Dalai Lama despite a series of brutal political campaigns, and massive state investment into the region in recent years.

Although the Dalai Lama appears to be in good health, both sides are now preparing for his death, which some experts fear could cause the Tibetan movement to fragment into splinter groups, some of which advocate the use of violence.

Tradition dictates that the Dalai Lama should be replaced by his own reincarnation--identified by senior lamas who interpret signs from the last incumbent after his death, and then search for promising young boys and set them a number of tests.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.