Tibetans Face Uncertainty as Dalai Lama Turns 89

In a monastery nestled amidst snow-capped mountains in northern India, the Buddhist monk entrusted with safeguarding and foretelling his people’s future harbors concerns.

The Dalai Lama celebrated his 89th birthday on Saturday, and China insists on selecting his successor as Tibet’s chief spiritual leader. This has the Medium of Tibet’s Chief State Oracle contemplating the implications for the future.

“His Holiness is the fourteenth Dalai Lama, then there will be a fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth,” the medium, known as the Nechung, said. “In countries, leaders change, and then that story is over. But in Tibet it works differently.”

Tibetans believe that learned monastics are reincarnated after death as newborns. The Dalai Lama, who is currently recovering in the United States from a medical procedure, has stated he will address questions about succession — including whether and where he will be reincarnated — around his ninetieth birthday. As part of the reincarnation identification process, the medium will enter a trance to consult the oracle.

The current Dalai Lama is a charismatic figure who popularized Buddhism globally and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for championing the Tibetan cause in exile. Beijing views him as a dangerous separatist, though he advocates for a “Middle Way” of peacefully seeking genuine autonomy and religious freedom within China.

Any successor will lack experience and global recognition. This has sparked worries about whether the movement will lose momentum or become more radical amidst escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington, a long-standing source of bipartisan support for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Tibet’s government-in-exile.

The CTA and its Western partners, as well as India, which has hosted the Dalai Lama in the Himalayan foothills for over six decades, are preparing for a future without his influential presence.

The U.S. Congress is poised to soon approve a bill that mandates the State Department to counter what it labels Chinese “disinformation” regarding Tibet, which was annexed by the People’s Republic of China in 1951, having been part of China since ancient times.

“China wants recognition that Tibet has been part of China … throughout history, and this bill is suggesting that it would be relatively easy for Tibet supporters to get a western government to refuse to give recognition for such an extensive claim,” said Tibet specialist Robert Barnett of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

U.S. lawmakers, including former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited the Dalai Lama last month to commemorate Congress’s passage of the legislation, which Sikyong Penpa Tsering, head of the CTA, hailed as a “breakthrough.”

The bill signifies a strategic shift away from emphasizing Chinese human rights violations like forced assimilation, the Sikyong, or political leader, told Reuters. Since 2021, the CTA has lobbied two dozen countries, including the U.S., to publicly undermine Beijing’s narrative that Tibet has always been part of China, he said.

With U.S. support for this strategy, the exiles hope to compel China to engage in negotiations, he said. “If every country keeps saying that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, then where is the reason for China to come and talk to us?”

The Chinese foreign ministry, in response to Reuters’ queries, stated it would be open to discussions with the Dalai Lama about his “personal future” if he “truly gives up his position of splitting the motherland” and acknowledges Tibet as an integral part of China.

Beijing, which hasn’t engaged in official talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives since 2010, has also urged Biden not to sign the bill.

The Dalai Lama’s office, which has in recent years apologized for remarks made about women and to a young child, referred an interview request to the Sikyong.

Most historians maintain that Tibet was integrated into the Mongol Empire during the 13th-14th century Yuan dynasty, which encompassed large swaths of present-day China. Beijing asserts that it established its sovereign claim, although scholars believe the relationship fluctuated significantly over centuries, and remote Tibet largely governed itself for much of that time.

The People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet in 1950 and proclaimed its “peaceful liberation”. Following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, a young Dalai Lama fled into exile in India.

In 1995, atheist China and the Dalai Lama independently identified two boys as the Panchen Lama, the second-most-important Tibetan Buddhist leader. The Dalai Lama’s selection was taken into custody by Chinese authorities and hasn’t been seen since.

Many Buddhists deem Beijing’s choice illegitimate, though most anticipate a similar parallel selection for the next Dalai Lama given the Chinese government’s stance that he must reincarnate, and it must approve the successor.

Chinese authorities have “tried to insert themselves into the succession of the Dalai Lama, but we will not let that happen,” said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee during his Dharamsala visit last month.

India, whose troops clashed with China near the Tibetan plateau in 2022, has been less vocal about its stance on succession.

“The U.S. … does not have to worry about border incursions as India does,” said Donald Camp, a former top South Asia official on the U.S. National Security Council.

However, as home to tens of thousands of Tibetans and an increasingly influential voice on the global stage, Delhi will inevitably be drawn into the fray, observers of Indian diplomacy suggest. Hawkish commentators have already called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to meet with the Dalai Lama as a means of pressuring China.

Delhi’s Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on the succession, but its former ambassador to China, Ashok Kantha, said India would not be “comfortable with China trying to control that process.”

“Privately, we have told China … that for them the best option is engaging with the Dalai Lama and his representatives,” said Kantha. “Post-fourteenth Dalai Lama we don’t know what will happen.”

The respect that the Dalai Lama commands among Tibetan exiles has kept frustrations and a formal push for independence in check, though it’s uncertain if that equilibrium will persist after his passing.

Tibetan Youth Congress general secretary Sonam Tsering said his advocacy group respects the Middle Way, but like many other young Tibetans, it seeks full independence.

For the present, Tibetans are focused on supporting the Dalai Lama in fulfilling his desire to return to his homeland before his death, he said.

But if the wish “is not fulfilled, then the emotional outburst, the emotional challenges they are going through, it’s very difficult to think of,” he said.

The Sikyong said the CTA’s new emphasis on challenging China’s narrative unites pro-independence Tibetans with those pursuing the Middle Way, as Tibet’s historical status is a point of common agreement.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Buddhists and well-wishers around the globe will gather to celebrate and pray for the long life of a leader who, for them, represents the strongest hope of an eventual return to Tibet.

But time for both the Dalai Lama and his people is starting to run out.