The Dalai Lama has announced he will retire from political life within days. In a speech posted on the internet and delivered in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamasala, the veteran Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said that he would ask the Tibetan parliament in exile to make the necessary constitutional changes to relieve him of his "formal authority" as head of the Tibetan community outside China.
The assembly, which meets early next week, is expected to approve his request. Though long-anticipated, the move away from the limelight by one of the world's best known political figures signals a dramatic change. Analysts and supporters have described the decision of the Dalai Lama, whose office traditionally combines spiritual and temporal roles, as "historic".
Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet, said that the decision meant that "at a perilous moment in the history of Tibet" the Dalai Lama was "expressing his faith in the Tibetan people." The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has progressively distanced himself from a direct political role and expressed a desire to live as a simple monk.
"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. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect," the 76-year-old told an audience at his traditional appearance to mark the anniversary of the Tibetan people's uprising of 1959 against Communist Chinese authorities in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and his own escape to India.
Next week the Tibetan community in exile will vote to elect a new Kalon Tripa or prime minister who will, depending on the constitutional changes, take on the Dalai Lama's political functions. The Dalai Lama, who is revered by his followers as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha Avalokitesvara who achieved spiritual enlightenment, said that many of his supporters had asked him not to take the step.
"Since I made my intention clear I have received repeated and earnest requests both from within Tibet and outside, to continue to provide political leadership,"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."
Last year, at a conference in Delhi, the Dalai Lama said that a new set of political leaders were emerging among exiled Tibetans. Since 1960 an assembly has been elected by voters in exile but since 2001 the office of prime minister has been elected too. For the coming polls, 80,000 voters have registered in India, Nepal, Bhutan, US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.
The Dalai Lama had already described himself as "semi-retired" before this announcement. As unrest rippled through Tibetan areas in 2008, he threatened to resign as leader of the administration-in-exile if violence continued. Two years ago, Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, asked him whether it was possible to resign as Dalai Lama, given that Tibetans believe him to be the latest reincarnation in a long line of religious leaders. He told them he would "no longer play a political role or a pronounced spiritual role".
The question of the spiritual succession is highly controversial and has the potential to spark serious fractures within the Tibetan community. Chinese authorities are likely to exploit any opportunities offered by the transition of power.
Some Tibetans would like to see the Karmapa Lama, a young cleric in his late 20s, succeed the Dalai Lama as the figurehead of the community in exile. Others believe it is time for a more fundamental change. Last year the prime minister of the government-in-exile told the Guardian: "The age of the old monks is passing and we are looking forward to a young, energetic, lay leadership." The Dalai Lama is considering ways of averting any succession crisis, possibly through the unprecedented step of seeking his own reincarnation.
The speech, analysts said, was particularly aimed at the six million Tibetans living in China. The Dalai Lama and his senior advisors have been concerned in recent years about a gulf opening between the views and values of the two communities. In today's speech the Dalai Lama spoke about events in the Middle East, describing them as "remarkable non-violent struggles for freedom and democracy".
"I am a firm believer in non-violence and people power and these events have shown once again that determined non-violent action can indeed bring about positive change," he said. "We must all hope that these inspiring changes lead to genuine freedom, happiness and prosperity for the peoples in these countries."
The Dalai Lama also reminded his audience of the importance of preserving Tibet's environment, a key theme in recent years.