In Foreign Policy, Tibet expert Robert Barnett writes about the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement that he would resign his political position as head of Tibet’s government-in-exile in favor of a freely elected Prime Minister:
This means that a 350-year era of Tibetan history will come to an end, and Dalai Lamas will no longer be the political leaders of the Tibetan people.
Instead, the leader of the Tibetan government, which now exists only in exile in India and is charged with “rehabilitating Tibetan refugees and restoring freedom and happiness in Tibet,” will be their prime minister. The last two prime ministers have been chosen democratically by the 150,000 exiles, and an election was held to choose the next one on March 20. (The front-runner is a 42-year-old Tibetan named Lobsang Sangay who graduated from Harvard Law School; however, the final results won’t be announced until late April.) The winner would become the ultimate leader of Tibetan exiles if this proposal is accepted by the exile parliament, which alone has authority to change the exile constitution. But so far 42 of the 43 exile parliamentarians, meeting in northern India this week, are still insisting that the Dalai Lama remain in power, though they have agreed to set up a committee to examine the issue.
Then again, the most important reaction to the Dalai Lama’s statement will come not from the exiles, but from the 5.5 million Tibetans in China, whose willingness to accept Chinese rule is at the root of the China-Tibet question. They constitute just .4 percent of China’s population, but, like Mongols in Inner Mongolia and Uighurs in Xinjiang, inhabit vast areas of China where the central government’s territorial claims are weakest. Each of these peoples has supporters in large numbers among fellow ethnics living just across China’s borders with India, Nepal, Central Asia, Mongolia, and elsewhere. As a result, their ability to draw the worried glance of Beijing and so impact Chinese politics is far out of proportion to their actual numbers. The authorities respond to even slight indications of dissent among these nationalities with disproportionate force and angry rhetoric.