March 10, 2011

Tibetans commemorating the Tibetan National Uprising Day on March 10, 2011 in Dharamsala India. (Abhishek Madhukar)

Amidst the Tibetan people’s annual commemoration of the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising against the Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has proclaimed a victory for Tibetan democracy by announcing his desire for the full devolution of his responsibilities in the Tibetan exile government to the elected Tibetan leader or Kalon Tripa.

“As early as the 1960’s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people to whom I can devolve power. Now we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect.” For the full statement, see

In his statement, the Dalai Lama cited appeals he has received from Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile that he not step back from political leadership. He implored them to understand his intention, support his decision and allow it to take effect. “As one among them, I am committed to playing my part in the just cause of Tibet,” he said.

“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 Mary Beth Markey, ICT President. “His decision, based on the maturation of Tibetan democracy in exile, deserves both accolades and support.”

As a young leader in Tibet the 14th Dalai Lama had visualized “far-reaching” reforms in the governance of what he called a “New Tibet,” but it was not until he escaped that he was able to freely develop representative government. In 1959, the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan government in exile, officially the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (CTA).

In his first March 10 statement, delivered from Dharamsala, India, in 1961, the Dalai Lama called for reforms, telling Tibetans that “the task and responsibility lies upon all of us.” Two years later, on March 10, 1963, the Dalai Lama introduced a draft democratic Constitution for a Future Tibet that provided ‘for effective participation by the people and for securing social and economic justice.” Although the Constitution was meant to come into force when Tibetans regained their freedoms in Tibet, it guided the CTA for almost 30 years.

In 1990, a Constitution Redrafting Committee instituted by the Dalai Lama prepared a draft Charter for Tibetans in Exile. On July 14, 1991, following its circulation for popular comment, the Tibetan parliament in exile voted unanimously to approve the final Charter. Two weeks later, the Dalai Lama added his consent, and so it was duly approved by the elected representatives of the Tibetans in exile and by their spiritual and political leader.

The Charter is a working constitution modeled on similar documents in liberal democracies. To date, the only contentious provisions of the Charter have been those limiting the power of the Dalai Lama, which he proposed. When the parliament pressed for the withdrawal of these provisions, the Dalai Lama responded: “The two clauses exist not as decorative pieces of the Charter but to drive home the difference between a system that pays lip service to democracy while holding on firmly to power, and one that is serious about implementing democracy.” The Dalai Lama summarily exercised his authority to limit his own power, overriding the parliament’s objection.

The Dalai Lama’s stated decision to fully devolve his formal authority to an elected Tibetan authority will again require a legal response within the Tibetan democratic system. “During the forthcoming eleventh session of the fourteenth Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which begins on 14th March, I will formally propose that the necessary amendments be made to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile,” he said.

“No one can dispute the relevance of the Dalai Lama as the natural leader of the Tibetan people,” said Tsering Jampa, Executive Director of ICT-Europe, “but now we will see how the Tibetan leaders in parliament respond to a significant step for the Tibetan people in the democratic process.”

A spate of comments from Chinese officials dismissing the authority of the Dalai Lama and directives limiting foreign travel in Tibet indicate that the Chinese government is nervous about what the Dalai Lama would say on March 10 and its effect on stability in Tibet. In March 2008, a wave of demonstrations began in Lhasa on Tibetan National Uprising Day and spread across the Tibetan plateau. The Chinese government responded with a massive security crackdown, and its tight restrictions remain in force.