NEW DELHI — The Dalai Lama intends to retire as head of the Tibetan government in exile next year as he looks to reduce his ceremonial role and scale back his workload, his spokesman told AFP Tuesday.
The Tibetan movement in exile, based in the northern Indian hill station of Dharamshala since 1960, directly elected a political leader in 2001 for the first time.
"Since then, His Holiness has always said he has been in a semi-retired state," spokesman Tenzin Taklha said.
"In recent months, His Holiness has been considering approaching the Tibetan parliament in exile to discuss his eventual retirement."
Taklha stressed that his "retirement" would be from his ceremonial responsibilities as head of the government, such as signing resolutions, not his role as spiritual leader and figurehead for Tibetans.
"This does not mean that he will withdraw from leading the political struggle. He is the Dalai Lama, so he will always lead the Tibetan people," he said.
The 75-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner is the global face for the Tibetan struggle against Chinese rule in Tibet, as well as a leading promoter of human rights, dialogue between religions and Buddhist values.
In the past few months he has kept up his frenetic travel schedule, visiting Canada, the United States, Poland and Japan, among other countries.
Taklha said the Dalai Lama would raise the subject of his retirement at the next session of parliament in March and would then look to step back from his responsibilities in the following six months.
"It would depend on talking to the parliament and hearing their views on this. Nothing is for sure, but these are things that are being considered by him," he said.
The speaker of the parliament, Penpa Tsering, told AFP that "every Tibetan would like him to continue as long as his physical condition allows him to." "It is definitely going to be a political change. It is a big, big issue for us. I think we have to wait to look at how and the nature of his presentation (to parliament)," he added.
He stressed that it was important that, whatever the outcome of the discussions, the Dalai Lama should remain as the leading voice in talks between the government in exile and China.
"He has repeatedly mentioned that he will continue to take responsibility for dealing with the Chinese government and he should continue because that is the biggest issue that concerns us all," he said.
There are concerns inside and outside Tibet that his eventual death will deal a blow to the coherence of the Tibetan movement, which seeks independence or autonomy for the Buddhist region from Chinese rule.
The community in exile is braced for a huge struggle with Beijing about the future holder of the Dalai Lama role. China has already stated it intends to have the final say on any reincarnation.
As the highest ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism, he is seen as the spiritual leader of the region after being chosen aged two as the reincarnation of the original Dalai Lama, who was born in 1391.
The current Dalai Lama, born Tenzin Gyatso, has suggested there are several ways of resolving the succession problem in addition to the traditional way in which a search party is sent out to find the reincarnation.
The successor could simply be named by senior religious figures in the way Catholics chose the Pope, or the office could be abolished all together, with another figure assuming responsibilities as spiritual leader.
The 26-year-old Karmapa, a young monk who like the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas from Tibet to seek sanctuary in India, has the highest profile among a cast of young lamas who could fill the void.
The Karmapa is formally recognised not only by the Dalai Lama but also by China which, prior to his escape, had been politically grooming him as the highest reincarnate lama under its control.