The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s Retirement from Politics

10. Mar 2011

Today, the 10th of March 2011, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama announced that he will transfer his formal authority to the leader that the exile-Tibetans chose in the upcoming elections for a Tibetan Prime Minister-in-Exile.


The exile-Tibetans have established a state-like polity in India and have since the sixties made efforts to democratise it. The dual role of the Dalai Lama, being both a religious and a political authority, may be seen, however, as an obstacle to democracy. He is a non-elected leader and his semi-divine position in Tibetan society is a source of democratic deficiencies. Some Tibetans also view the exalted position of the Dalai Lama as an obstacle to the emergence of new political leadership and sincere public debate in which people may oppose the guidelines of the Dalai Lama-two problems that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself has tried to mend by disentangling religion and politics.

             Exile-Tibetans have overall been reluctant to get more political influence at the expense of the Dalai Lama’s power. For instance, the Eleventh Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, when it discussed the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile in 1991, democratically decided that the Dalai Lama should hold a prominent position within exile-Tibetan governance. Several of the charter’s articles confirm this. In the democratic set-up, executive power is vested in the Dalai Lama according to article 19 of the Charter of Tibetans-in-Exile. He approves bills passed by the parliament, he can promulgate acts that have the force of law, and he can dissolve the parliament. Furthermore, article 36 on legislative power and article 55 on promulgation of ordinances state that legislation requires the Dalai Lama’s assent before it can become law.

The Dalai Lama has nevertheless insisted on reforms and compelled the exile-Tibetans to assume more responsibility and relieve him of political burdens, for instance, when the exile-Tibetans directly elected a prime minister-in-exile for the first time in 2001. Thus, the Dalai Lama’s own democratising efforts have led him into a paradoxical temporary position that he himself calls ‘semi-retirement’ now that the Tibetans hold democratic elections of their political leader, the prime minister. The idea of semi-retirement aptly captures the Dalai Lama’s efforts to separate his own political say from his religious authority, in that retirement from the political sphere allows him to dedicate his time to religious matters.

The Dalai Lama has increasingly distinguished between the religious and the political aspects of his authority as captured in the notion of semi-retirement. Now, in his March 10 speech this year, the Dalai Lama has stated that he will suggest changes to the charter that will allow him to completely withdraw from politics. He stated: “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, reflecting my decision to devolve my formal authority to the elected leader.” Let us see whether the new leadership emerging from the March 2011 elections will press for such changes or if the exile-Tibetans again will vote against the Dalai Lama’s wish of retirement from politics.




Trine Brox

PhD, Assistant Professor in Tibetology and China Studies
Asian Studies Section
ToRS – Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies
University of Copenhagen
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