GAUHATI, India (AP) — The exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said Saturday that it's up to his followers to decide whether the office of the Dalai Lama exists in the future.
During a visit to the northeast Indian town of Tawang — the second-highest seat of Tibetan Buddhism — the Dalai Lama denied that he had any knowledge of where his successor would be born. Asked if the next Dalai Lama could be a woman, he said, "That might also happen."
The question of who will replace the 81-year-old spiritual leader has gained significance in recent years, with Beijing insisting that the next Dalai Lama be born in China.
On Saturday, the Tibetan leader said the people should decide on the question of the next Dalai Lama.
"They will decide whether the tradition continues or not," he told reporters in Tawang, located in India's remote northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Dalai Lama is on a weeklong visit to Arunachal Pradesh despite objections by China, which considers the state a disputed region.
On China's claim on the next Dalai Lama, he said, "Let China first come clear on its theory on rebirth."
The Dalai Lama said that he has nothing to do with "politics," and that it was the Tibetan self-declared government-in-exile that handled all political matters, including the Tibetan cause.
"I retired from politics in 2011 and all political matters are handled by our government-in-exile," he said. "However, I am committed to promote and preserve Tibetan culture and ecology."
The Dalai Lama and his followers have been living in exile in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala in northern India since they fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.
China doesn't recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile, and hasn't held any dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama since 2010.
China says Tibet has historically been part of its territory since the mid-13th century, and the Communist Party has governed the Himalayan region since 1951. But many Tibetans say that they were effectively independent for most of their history, and that the Chinese government wants to exploit their resource-rich region while crushing their cultural identity.
In Tawang, thousands of people thronged both sides of the road Saturday and broke into loud cheers and waved prayer flags as the Dalai Lama's motorcade entered a stadium where he addressed his followers.
Tawang was spruced up for the Dalai Lama's visit — his first since 2009. Streets were swept, houses freshly painted and welcome arches and banners erected across the main streets.
The Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh has drawn sharp protests from China. On Wednesday, China accused India of "using" the Dalai Lama to undermine Beijing's interests and summoned the Indian ambassador in Beijing to formally lodge a protest.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying warned India that China "will firmly take necessary measures to defend its territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests."
India responded by saying China was creating an "artificial controversy."
China claims about 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in Arunachal Pradesh, referred to informally by some Chinese as "Southern Tibet." India says China is occupying 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau.
The Dalai Lama has often said that he was not seeking independence for Tibet, but trying to secure greater autonomy for the Tibetan people within China.