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Associated Press
Amritsar, India – The Dalai Lama said Tuesday the Tibetan people will vote on a new system of leadership before he dies, as Tibetan Buddhists grapple with ways to prevent their spiritual leaders from falling under Chinese control.
For decades, the Dalai Lama has personified Tibetans’ struggle for self-determination. But fears that China will appoint a new Dalai Lama after his death has led Tibetan leaders to contemplate breaking with the centuries-old system to choose their spiritual leader – including doing away with Dalai Lamas or changing the system of his reincarnation
China, which accuses the Tibetan spiritual leader of seeking independence for Tibet, angrily condemned the Nobel Peace Prize-winner’s proposal as a subversion of Buddhist tradition.
But the Dalai Lama said it was up to the Tibetan people to decide.
“If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, it will continue,” he said in an interview with a small group of reporters on the sidelines of a gathering of world religious leaders in this northern Indian city.
The Dalai Lama said a referendum would be held among all traditional Tibetan Buddhists along the Himalayan range, including China, Nepal and India and into Mongolia, to determine what kind of leadership they want after his death.
“When my physical condition becomes weak, and there are serious preparations for death, then this event should happen,” said the 72-year-old, adding “according to my regular medical checkup I am good for another few decades.”
It was not immediately clear how such a vote would take place, particularly in areas under Chinese rule, where even his portrait is banned. However, some 80,000 Tibetans voted last year for their government in exile, which is based in India.
China, which has ruled Tibet with a heavy hand since its forces invaded in 1951, condemned the referendum proposal.
“The Dalai Lama’s statement is in blatant violation of religious practice and historical procedure,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.
For centuries, the search for the reincarnation of religious leaders, known as lamas – and including the Dalai Lama – has been carried out by Tibetan monks following the leaders’ deaths.
Tibetans fear China will control the search for a successor once the Dalai Lama dies, further eroding the Himalayan region’s unique Buddhist culture.
Those concerns were heightened in August when Beijing moved to tighten its grip over Tibetan Buddhism by asserting the officially atheistic communist government’s sole right to recognize Buddhist reincarnations of the lamas that form the backbone of the religion’s clergy.
Such fears were also stirred following the death in 1989 of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest ranking figure, who serves the ceremonial role of the Dalai Lama’s teacher.
China refused to recognize a boy named by the Dalai Lama to be the 11th Panchen Lama, instead installing their own pick, Gyaltsen Norbu, now 16, in 1995. The boy recognized by the Dalai Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, now 18, disappeared soon afterward and has reportedly been in Chinese custody ever since. China says he is living a normal life but has given no details.
The Dalai Lama said he expected China to do the same following his death. And the Tibetan leadership in exile has begun exploring several possible ways to prevent this.
First a referendum would be held to decide if Tibetan Buddhists want to continue with the Dalai Lama system. If they do, the Dalai Lama said he would either be reincarnated after his death outside China or he would choose a new Dalai Lama before he died.
“The very purpose of reincarnation is to carry out the tasks of the previous life that are not yet achieved,” The Dalai Lama said. “If I die while we are still refugees, my reincarnation, logically, will come outside Tibet, who will carry out the work I started.”
The spiritual leader also raised the possibility of naming a new Dalai Lama while he was still alive.
The Dalai Lama fended off criticism that this would be a break with Buddhist tradition, saying there was a precedent of one incarnation being named while the other was still alive.
The Dalai Lama said one of his teachers, the Lama Trogye Trichen, was recognized as a reincarnated lama while his predecessor was still alive.
Tibetan activists said the moves were forced by China.
“The Dalai Lama is speaking from a place where he is very aware of the restrictions, the repression in Tibet today and in particular the controls over reincarnate lamas which the Chinese authorities have imposed most recently,” said Kate Saunders of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
However, the Dalai Lama, acknowledged that the Tibetan exile leadership had not yet decided exactly what course to follow.
“Serious detailed discussions have not yet started,” he said.
For now, the Dalai Lama’s influence is paramount, among the exiles as well as deep inside Tibet. Nearly every day, Tibetans arrive in India after crossing the Himalayas to join him in Dharmsala, where the government-in-exile is based.
Most appear to want the Dalai Lama tradition to continue, though they are divided as to how he should do it.
“It is better if he chooses his successor because all Tibetans have complete faith in him,” said Topgyal Tsering, 21, a college student in Dharmsala.
The Dalai Lama, who believes he is the 14th reincarnated Dalai Lama, acknowledged his death would be difficult for many Tibetans.
“If I die today there will be some setback to the Tibetan struggle,” he said “But the Tibetan spirit will not go away with my death.”
Associated Press Writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Ashwini Bhatia in Dharmsala, India contributed to this report.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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