The Dalai Lama, whose title Kundun means “the Presence,” has kept the present and future existence of Tibet and the Tibetans very much alive in a complex world. Bhuchung Tsering, a member of the Tibetan team that has been negotiating the future of Tibet, pointedly reminded his fellow countrymen of this fact when the Dalai Lama recently announced his decision to retire. On December 15, 2010, Tsering wrote, “The Dalai Lama has been making efforts to shake off the Tibetan people’s overdependence on him and this is one more step toward that objective. Then there have been some individuals who have said that the absence of the Dalai Lama from the government system would not altogether be a bad thing for the Tibetan struggle. The Dalai Lama’s statement [of his intention to retire from the political direction of his government] will now be a challenge to these individuals to rise to the occasion and play a responsible role in preparing Tibetan society for such a development. This will be the time for these people to walk the talk.”

This awesome challenge became more immediate on August 8, 2011, when the Dalai Lama formally turned over political leadership of the Tibetan government–in- exile to Lobsang Sangay, a forty- three- year- old Harvard Law School graduate and the son of a former resistance leader. The test will be whether Sangay and his countrymen who aspire to follow in his footsteps will rule with the same combination of humility, grace, and keen insight into the political aspirations, actions, and limitations of his fellow man that has made the Dalai Lama one of the world’s most respected leaders. He has led his people out of the mountains into an increasingly complex and interconnected world and spent the past half- century developing and maintaining a living culture and mode of governance far beyond the quaint and exotic image to which they had been relegated. It has imperfections, but it represents a fulfilled act of self- determination that gives the Tibetans a valid claim to self- government. The free world has come to find it in its self-interest to ally with him, his people, and the government they have created in exile across the mountains from their homeland.

By continuing to fulfill the commitments they have made to Tibet over the past half century, the United States and other freedom- seeking nations serve their common interest in an increasingly interdependent world. There would be two prizes to gain. The immediate one would be to convince the coming administrations in Beijing that China would benefit by ridding itself of a persistent domestic problem and international opprobrium. The other prize, a derivative one, would be for the citizens of the free world to discover that the way of life they have supported and promoted as a means of confronting Chinese expansionism continues and merits both sustained support and practice in their own increasingly uncertain, interconnected world beyond Shangri-La.


We dedicate this excerpt from John Kenneth Knaus’s Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the Twenty-First Century to the nearly 100 Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of China’s occupation.

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