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PAC 42 – Separating the Political from the Religious for Democracy The Retreat of the Dalai Lama

By Anaïs Henry

Translation: Melissa Okabe

Passage au crible n°42

On March 10th, 2011, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, decided to relinquish his political power to the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile. Thus, since April 27th, Lobsang Sangay has held the role of leader of the Tibetan community. This decision was very surprising, because for nearly four centuries the Dalai Lamas have embodied a power both political and spiritual at the same time, particularly in the eyes of the 150,000 Tibetans in exile worldwide.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

Tibet has experienced different periods of Buddhist diffusion since the 8th century. However, it was not until the 16th century that Sonam Gyatso, third monk of the Gelugpa (school of Buddhism) of the Drepung Monastery, was recognized for the first time as the Dalai Lama. Retrospectively, his two predecessors became the first and second Dalai Lamas; from then on they were all representative of the system of reincarnation. Initially, they only held religious power and were thus guarantors of four branches of Tibetan Buddhism, namely those of the Nigmapa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa and Gelugpa sects. But in 1642, “thanks to the support of the Mongols, the fifth Dalai Lama unified, […], a vast territory under the authority of an ecclesiastico-nobiliary government, in Lhasa, the Ganden Phodrang”. From this moment, the Dalai Lamas would exert a power equally religious as political in Tibet.

In 1949, Mao Zedong, who came to form the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ordered the invasion of Tibet. In 1950, Tenzin Gyatso – then only 15 years old – was inaugurated as the Dalai Lama. Despite his negotiation efforts with the Chinese government, he was forced into self-exile in India, on March 10th, 1959. Since this date, a number of Tibetans have similarly found refuge abroad. A majority among them has settled in border states (India, Nepal, Sikkim, Ladakh), but also in Europe and in Anglo-Saxon countries. From these first years, the Dalai Lama has laid the foundations of a government to protect his people and his culture. Thanks to the constitution that he established, a government in exile was formed in Dharamsala, in a democratic spirit and in respect of human rights.

The Dalai Lama received many awards for his battle in favor of nonviolence, human rights and peace. In this respect, let’s recall that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th, 1989. More recently, the American Congress returned his gold medal in October 2007, to acknowledge its commitment in favor of nonviolence.

Theoretical framework

Let us retain two lines of force:

1. The Fulfillment of a Process of Democratization. The decision of the Dalai Lama illustrates Laurence Whitehead’s thesis. According to Whitehead, since the end of the bipolar world, we would witness the standardization of the process of democratization on the international scene, which would occur with the free election of political leaders.
2. Crossed-Games of Qualification. Let us emphasize the exile strategy developed by China and its implementation on the world scene, aiming at the Tibetan Nobel Peace Prize winner.


Since his inauguration, the fourteenth Dalai Lama wished for a democratic change. In this perspective, before even leaving in exile, he modified the judicial system and raised the hereditary debt, which subjected the peasants to the aristocracy. After his departure abroad, he put in place a number of guarantor institutions for the Tibetan identity and facilitated the emergence of a democratic system. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, he encouraged the creation of offices in countries where important Tibetan communities were found to be settled. Thus, these populations can at present vote for their representatives. So, by entrusting the executive power to the Prime Minister, the Dalai Lama finalizes a process of democratization already in motion. More recently, the populations of the Arab world have up-risen against their leaders to demand democracy. But here, we are in a particular case of another configuration, because it is not the Tibetans who asked their leader to leave power, rather the contrary. This is no more a result from an exterior directive. Rather, it is a question of the paternalistic and charismatic politics of a seventy-five-year-old man who considered the time would come for the self-government of his people.

In addition to this consideration, one must equally understand that the Dalai Lama was the object of the politics of disqualification on the part of the Chinese authorities. Indeed, when he achieves an act or is in movement, the Chinese authorities criticize him. For them, it is about a friar in a monk’s robe, a separatist, a despot, trying to maintain his subjects in submissiveness. Mao Zedong has moreover legitimized, a posteriori, the invasion of Tibet, invoking the necessity to liberate it from a theocratic regime. At the heart of this operation includes, however, a manipulation of information, the researched objective being the illegal securement of an international legitimacy. However, today, the political leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile is henceforth a non-religious person elected by universal suffrage, by the majority of Tibetans in exile (55%). However, in the future, the Chinese government can no longer use this repertoire of stigmatization toward this new leader. Finally, China, but also other countries, have previously denounced the status of the Dalai Lama who mixes the religious and the political. Now, the change carried out recently in the devolvement of the executive power has negated this criticism.

This decision inscribes itself within the framework of a political fight, which has lasted for more than sixty years. By the act of nonviolence, the Tibetan people show how much they aspire to improve human rights in China, and to respect the right of all peoples to self-determination.


Heath John, Tibet and China in the Twenty-first Century, Londres, Saqi, 2005.
Stil-Rever Sofia, Le Dalaï-Lama. Appel au monde, Paris, Seuil, 2011.
Travers Alice, « Chronologie de l’histoire du Tibet », Outre-Terre, (21), janv. 2009, pp. 109-128.
Withehead Laurence, « Entreprise de démocratisation : le rôle des acteurs externes », Critique internationale, (24), mars 2004, pp. 109-124.