Dalai Lama to give up role as political leader

New Delhi, India - The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, said Thursday that he will pass the reins of political power to the elected prime minister of the self-proclaimed Tibetan government in exile.

The announcement formalizes an approach the Tibetan leader has been edging toward for years, hoping to prevent a political vacuum after his death and ensure an effective response to Chinese crackdowns and Beijing's increasingly effective use of diplomatic pressure.

But the Dalai Lama, 75, made a point of saying he wasn't retiring, and his global status and reputation ensure that he will continue to play a major role in Tibetan affairs.

The Dalai Lama's decision will be presented Monday to the parliament in exile, which convenes in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

"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," the Dalai Lama said in a statement Thursday. "Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect."

Lobsang Tenzin, 71, also known as Samdhong Rinpoche, steps down this month after serving for the past decade as prime minister in exile. His replacement will be elected March 20 from among three candidates: Lobsang Sangey, 42, a Harvard Law fellow; Tenzin Namgyal Tethong, 63, a Tibetan studies fellow at Stanford University; and Tashi Wangdi, 63, a civil servant with the government-in-exile, with Sangey expected to win.

The Dalai Lama's announcement comes as the Chinese government tightens its grip on the restive Tibetan plateau, which saw a major uprising in March 2008. Recent pro-democracy demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa have further unnerved the Communist Party in Beijing, analysts said.

China responded skeptically to the announcement. "He has often talked about retirement in the past few years," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters Thursday in Beijing. "I think these are his tricks to deceive the international community."

At issue is whether future Tibetan leaders are chosen by China or Dharamsala, said Rukmani Gupta, a research fellow at New Delhi's Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Recent attempts by Beijing to influence the succession by controlling the Karmapa Lama and the Panchen Lama, among Tibetan Buddhism's most senior positions, were unsuccessful.

"Their last two efforts ended in failure," said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. "The Karmapa fled China, and their candidate for Panchen Lama has not been accepted by the Tibetan people."

Barnett said it may be difficult for outsiders to understand why China gets so worked up about a religious leader, but he noted that control and stamping out any potential threat are fundamental to their psyche.

"There's deep anxiety for China that they don't leave a vulnerability for the party that allows a new, charismatic leader to emerge," he said. "A key Chinese official recently told me that the specter of the Dalai Lama returning is more serious than a vast army."

Kate Saunders, a London-based spokeswoman with the International Campaign for Tibet, said the Dalai Lama's decision represents a further move to ensure greater democracy among Tibetans, both in China and in exile. The announcement came on the 52nd anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet amid a Chinese government crackdown in 1959.