The Dalai Lama’s announcement on Thursday that he would relinquish his role as a political leader of the exiled Tibetan movement has cast doubt over the future of his on-going talks with the Chinese government.

The Tibetan religious leader said in a statement from his base in Dharamsala he would devolve his “formal authority” to a leader “elected freely” by exiled Tibetans. He said he would make a formal proposal when the self-declared government-in-exile’s Parliament meets on March 14.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry described the announcement as a “trick to deceive the international community.”

“The Dalai Lama is a political exile under a religious cloak, now engaged in activities aimed at splitting China,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said.

While Ms. Jiang did not say whether the Dalai Lama’s decision would affect his on-going talks with the Chinese government, she indicated that China would not be inclined to engage with any representatives of the “government-in-exile.”

“The government-in-exile is an illegal political organisation,” she said. “No country in the world recognises it.”

The Dalai Lama’s representatives have, so far, held nine rounds of talks with the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, most recently in February 2010. Following the ninth round, the two sides’ positions remained “sharply divided”, according to Zhu Weiqun, a Vice-Minister of the department. He said then that any progress hinged on the Dalai Lama giving up his role in political matters.

Ms. Jiang, however, described his decision to do so as a ruse. “He has often talked about retirement,” she said.

It remains unclear how the Dalai Lama’s day-to-day role will, if at all, change, following the announcement. The Tibetan spiritual leader still attends and advises political meetings, and holds unrivalled influence among exiled Tibetans.

An elected leader is likely to succeed the 76-year-old Dalai Lama in leading the exiled community after his passing, amid uncertainty about who will replace him. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has said that he may appoint his own successor, who may be elected. He has also suggested that the institution could end after his passing.

The Chinese government maintains that it has final say in choosing his successor. “We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. I am afraid it is not up to anyone to abolish the reincarnation institution or not,” said Padma Choling, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government, this week.

The Dalai Lama has historically been both a spiritual and political leader for Tibetans. He remains the most well-recognised face of the exiled Tibetan community, and is also revered widely by Tibetans in China. The representatives of the so-called exiled government, by contrast, are largely unheard of in China.

In an interview with The Hindu in 2009, the Dalai Lama stressed that his role was only as “a spokesman” for Tibetans, indicating he no longer had any political authority. “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,” he said in Thursday's statement. “Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect.”

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