Monday, May 30, 2011

Untangling Nepal-China Ties: The politics of Tibetan refugees in Nepal

Boris Markhampa and Susan Appleyard

The legitimacy of Nepal’s Peoples’ Movement stemmed from the Movement’s demand for the return of democratic rights which had been destroyed by the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra. For more than one year human rights groups, political parties and a large portion of the general population took to the streets using human rights slogans to demand regime change in Nepal. Memories of their trampled banners reading “Restore Democracy” or “Return Freedom of Expression” left behind as they were brutally detained by the Nepal security forces are easily recalled. By the end of April 2006, their struggle had succeeded and many civil and political rights were soon restored in the country.

On March 10, 2011, Tibetans living in Nepal were once again beaten and arbitrarily detained when they attempted to peacefully gather to mark Uprising Day, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan rebellion against China’s rule in Tibet. Some Tibetans were arrested from protests, others from the streets near Boudha; more still were denied freedom of movement as they attempted to reach prayer meetings. Ten days later, the Tibetan community was denied the right to take part in the election of the new Kalon Tripa, Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, with Nepal’s security forces seizing the ballot boxes just hours before the poll was due to close.

This begs the question – was the People’s Movement seeking to restore rights for all in Nepal? Since March 2008, at the behest of the Chinese Government, each of Nepal’s three major political parties, Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the UML, have successively flouted the rights they struggled so hard for by repeatedly cracking down on Nepal’s Tibetan community. These political actors who struggled for a return of democracy and civil and political rights to Nepal during the People’s Movement should question if the Nepal they struggled for is a country that so easily gives up constitutionally protected rights at the request of a powerful neighbor.

The Chinese Government’s interference in Nepal’s treatment of Tibetan refugees can be demonstrated over decades of Nepal’s political history. The last decade has seen a steady escalation in the Chinese Government’s successful attempts to buy Nepal’s suppression of Tibetan’s rights. Since 2008, this has increased, as is demonstrated by the recent visit of China’s Army Chief, General Chen Bingde, to Nepal and the granting of military aid valued at 20 million dollars to the Nepal Army. The Chinese Government is investing heavily in numerous countries around the world, however, in Nepal this investment has unique impacts. The Nepali Government appears to feel obliged to repay the Chinese Government’s aid and investment with the suppression of Tibetans in Nepal and the effective denial of entry to Tibetans attempting to leave China. As the Chinese Government becomes increasingly fearful of even the slightest expression of dissent within Tibet, the Tibetans in Nepal will feel a corresponding squeeze on their rights and freedoms.

Intersections of Tibetan and Nepali History and Culture

As Tibet shares a vast border with Nepal along the greater Himalayan range to the immediate north, it is only natural that the two countries share many cultural practices and traditions. Almost all of Nepal’s ethnic communities along this border practice Tibetan Buddhism, wear traditional Tibetan costumes and speak languages that could be considered Tibetan dialects. Many of their forefathers are from Tibet; for example, the grandfather of one of the author’s relatives currently living in Nepal’s Namche Bazar, Solukhumbu District is from Tibet. Among Nepal’s many World Heritage sites are several holy Buddhist shrines including Boudhanath and Swayambunath Stupas. Kathmandu Valley has hundreds of Buddhist temples and Tibetans believe that great guru Padmasambhava meditated in Pharping, in western Kathmandu. Relations go as far back as the seventh century, when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo married Nepali princess Bhrikuti.

The Recent Arrival of Tibetans in Nepal

Due to the entrenched and extensive geographical and cultural ties, many Tibetans chose to travel to Nepal during the 1959 exodus from Tibet in the early years of the Chinese occupation. Many of the 100,000 Tibetans who fled the country, used Nepal as transit point and soon continued their journey on to India, to where His Holiness the Dalai Lama had fled, and where the Indian Government assisted them, granting them permission to stay and political space to establish the Tibetan government-in-exile. However, due to the cultural and historic ties between Nepal and Tibet many of those who fled Tibet decided to stay in Nepal, settling in various parts of the country including foreign assisted settlements such as in Jalsa, Kathmandu, and Pokhara. Donors supported the newly arrived Tibetan communities to establish Tibetan carpet factories in their settlements to sustain their livelihood. The carpet industry has had a significant impact on Nepal’s economy and in the following decades became a top industry.

In parallel to the Tibetan refugee community establishing themselves in Kathmandu and elsewhere, a Tibetan resistance movement comprising of voluntary members of the then Chushi Gangdruk resistance force and other young volunteers, with support from the CIA, established a resistance army force in Mustang District of Nepal and operated for almost 14 years. Around 1974, they were finally dissolved as a result of suppression by the Nepali Government under pressure from the Chinese Government and the sudden cutting of CIA support due to the formal establishment of US-China relations. While many of the resistance force were resettled in parts of Nepal, some refused to surrender to Nepali forces and were imprisoned; others committed suicide and some went to India. This history feeds a misguided fear that Tibetans may return to violent means of resistance against the Chinese Government.

Since the large influx of Tibetans in the 1960s, around 3,000 Tibetans per year seek security from Chinese-dominated Tibet by undertaking the dangerous and expensive journey over the mountains and into Nepal, from where most travel on to Dharamsala. For example, in October 2006, a group of 41 Tibetan refugees including two guides arrived safely at the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu after escaping shootings by Chinese Border Security forces on the morning of 30th September 2006. According to an eye witness, Kelsang Namtso, a 17 year old nun from Driru County of Tibet was shot dead just before the Nangpa La Pass and Kunsang Namgyal, a 20 year old boy from Kandze was hit by bullets on his leg and he could not escape. He and 30 other Tibetans including 14 boys under the age of 18 were arrested by soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms. In addition to this case, there are hundreds of confirmed reports of arrests, looting, beating and deportation at the border as Tibetans trying to flee Tibet both by Chinese and Nepali Police.

Life for Tibetans in Nepal

The nearly 20,000 Tibetans living in Nepal have suffered decades of state imposed restrictions on some political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights including limits on state-provided education and health care and also employment restrictions. Their freedom of movement within the country is also restricted. Despite many of them being born in Nepal they are constitutionally not entitled to citizenship and cannot vote. They are one of Nepal’s many vulnerable minority communities. Within the 20,000 strong community, approximately 6,000 are not officially recognized and hold no legal papers. As a result their situation is even more precarious, as they are vulnerable to being viewed as illegal immigrants, potentially prosecuted as such and deported to China. This situation is a result of the Nepal Government’s decision in 1989 to stop issuing refugee identify cards to Tibetans, though allowing Tibetans to continue to enter the country and live in Nepal, effectively denying Tibetan asylum seekers a safe refuge. The fear of deportation is not without basis; in May 2003 Nepal deported 18 Tibetans to China without regard for due process on charges of travelling without valid documents.

Fear of confrontation with Nepali authorities and potential deportation is a constant source of trauma underlying the daily lives of Tibetans in Nepal. The Nepal authorities used this to their advantage during protests by Tibetans in March 2008, when they began to threaten even those holding refugee identity cards with deportation. For example, the Kathmandu Chief District Officer summoned and interrogated a Tibetan monk Tenzin Jamphel of Drubthok/Saraswati Monastery in Swayambhu, who was born in Nepal to Tibetan refugee parents and holds a Tibetan refugee identity card. He was forced to sign a paper and threatened that his Refugee Identity Card would be taken away and he would be returned to Tibet if he took part in any future demonstrations.

The Rights of Tibetans in Nepal

Tibetans, like everyone else have the fundamental right to seek asylum from persecution and the corresponding right, to not be returned to a country where they are likely to be persecuted. Furthermore, Tibetans living in Nepal, like all who reside inside Nepal, are guaranteed the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, among many other rights. Nepal’s own constitution guarantees freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to all persons and these rights are clearly spelled out in internationally agreed laws on civil and political rights and refugee rights and in customary law. Derogation of these rights can only take place under extreme circumstances and where an imminent, specific and serious threat can be linked to the speech that is being restricted. The Nepal Government has never demonstrated such a threat exists and the Supreme Court of Nepal has on more than one occasion found no grounds for restrictions on or arrests of Tibetans. By not guaranteeing safe sanctuary to Tibetans seeking asylum, Nepal is in violation of its own Constitution and its international legal obligations.

Given that the Government of Nepal is unwilling to grant Tibetans in Nepal the usual rights afforded to refugees, it could be viewed as surprising that the Government of Nepal has not allowed the Tibetan community to take advantage of the US Government offer made in September 2005 to resettle 5,000 Tibetan refugees. This denial of settlement in a third country, forces one to question what motivates the Nepal Government to essentially keep the Tibetan community prisoner within Nepal’s boarders?

Nepal-China Ties

Successive Governments of Nepal have always maintained a “pro-China” position, stating that “anti-China” activities would not be carried out on Nepali soil. This position deepened during the rule of former king Gyanendra. For example, immediately preceding king Gyanendra's assumption of direct control of Nepal in February 2005, the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama was closed by the Nepal Government. On the following day the Chinese Government welcomed the closure. When the king assumed directly control of the country, the Chinese Government stated that it was an internal matter for Nepal. The king was using Nepal’s Tibetan community as a bargaining chip in the hope that the Chinese Government would protect him from international condemnation. As his regime continued to falter and India’s support swung clearly in the direction of an alliance between Nepal’s political parties and the Community Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M), in October 2005 the king made a further gesture to China by halting the issuing of exit permits to Tibetan refugees, bring a complete halt to the “gentleman’s agreement” that had for decades allowed Tibetans to transit Nepal on their way to Dharamsala and third countries for permanent resettlement. This significant decision by the King of Nepal, immediately followed the United States offer to resettle 5,000 Tibetan refugees from Nepal.

The king’s hope that an alliance with the Chinese Government would help him to maintain a position of direct rule within Nepal was short lived. By May 2006, the Seven Party Alliance was leading an All Party Government, which was broadly accepted as democratic and by the end of the year, Nepal was a republic and the majority of civil and political rights denied under the king’s regime were reinstated. These same rights however, were not to be granted to Nepal’s Tibetan refugees. While the All Party Government did resume the issuing of exit permits, it did not allow the resettlement of the 5,000 refugees proposed by the US. The role of the Chinese Government in this is clear; in July 2006 during a visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister, he stated that some serious thinking needed to be undertaken by the Nepali authorities in regard to their decision to provide travel documents to the 5,000 Tibetan refugees at the same time and indicated that the Chinese Government would increase its aid to Nepal by 50 percent. Despite democratic elections in Nepal in 2008, the 5,000 refugees remain in Nepal, denied their basic rights in a country they are not allowed to leave.

In 2007, the All Party Government took the unprecedented step of deregistering the Bhota Welfare Office, a local organization assisting Tibetans living in Nepal. The organization challenged its deregistration in the Supreme Court of Nepal and during the final hearing on the case in February 2008, the government attorney handed a confidential file to the judge, to which the organization's lawyers were denied access. The Supreme Court then issued an oral judgment that the organization could not be re-registered.

Deepening China-Nepal Ties and Intensified Repression of Tibetan’s in Nepal

In March 2008 as the Olympic torch was greeted globally by protests as it made its way around the world to its final destination in Beijing, the repression of Tibetans in Nepal reach a climax. The dramatic civil unrest across the Tibetan plateau around the same time further inflamed Chinese Government fear and subsequently lead to increased repression of Tibetans in Nepal. Many eye witness accounts of the bloody crackdown that followed the protests in Tibet have been widely reported. It was considered one of the largest uprisings by Tibetans against Chinese occupation since 1959 when His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled Tibet.

In response to the protests in Tibet the Chinese Government has significantly increased its pressure on Nepal to suppress Tibetan dissent. This increase is evidenced by the increase in statements by the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal in 2008, documented evidence of direct behind the scenes pressure of Chinese diplomats for the detention of Tibetans in early 2008, the presence of Chinese security officials operating on along the Nepal side of the border and the restriction on access to areas around Mount Everest base camp prior to the assent of the Olympic torch. As a result the treatment of Tibetans by Nepali authorities has taken a more sinister turn toward what could be described as persecution of a minority. On 10 March 2008, Tibetans around the world exercised their right to freedom of assembly and expression by gathering to mark “Uprising Day”, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan rebellion against rule of the Chinese Government in Tibet. In most countries their rights were respected and their protests went off without a hitch. In Nepal over 150 arrests were made, many using unnecessary force, and around 15 Tibetans were beaten inside Boudha Police Station in Kathmandu.

What began as a normal celebration of Uprising Day in Nepal developed in the days that followed into regular mass protests by Tibetans who said they were compelled to continue to speak out for the protection of their brothers and sisters inside Tibet. It is very natural for a human to cry for help when a family member is in danger. Most of the Tibetans living in Nepal have relatives or a family member still inside Tibet, as such via direct links many were receiving firsthand information of the bloody suppression in Tibet. As the Nepal police failed to sufficiently suppress the protests, or perhaps because of their violent attempt to suppress, the protests appeared across the world’s media. The Chinese Government was embarrassed not only by the world attention but also by the protesters “knocking” on the door of the Chinese Embassy in Nepal every day over a month of continuous protests. Despite continuing suggestions by the Chinese Government and even by Tibet analysts, that these protests were part of an organized mass dissent, the authors who observed every protest over a six week period firmly believe they were witnessing an unorganized expression of grief and concern by the many Tibetans living in Nepal who had relatives in Tibet who saw no other way to protect their loved ones. Allegations that Tibetan leaders of the various organizations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, also known as the Tibetan Youth Club, or the Tibetan Women’s Association were organizing and leading the protests have no basis, except in the case of the two or three specific protests that took place among the dozens of protests in early 2008.

Between 10 March and 18 July 2008 over 8,350 arbitrary arrests of Tibetans were made by the Nepal Police and the Armed Police Force. Many people were arrested on multiple occasions. Excessive and unnecessary use of force during arrest was extremely common. Accompanying these arrests was a pattern of injuries resulting from beatings during arrest by the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force combined with restrictions on medical treatment to detainees, sexual assault of Tibetan women during arrest, various forms of ill treatment in detention and the use of threats, intimidation and harassment to instill fear in the community. Restrictions on movement of Tibetans within Kathmandu were also imposed. The threat of deportation was so widespread during this period that it was difficult to not view it as a state sponsored method of creating fear within the Tibetan community.

Small groups of Tibetans also found themselves detained and facing charges under Nepal’s Public Security Act (PSA) – a law previously used by the former-king to detain many of the political leaders now in power in Nepal. The argument that Nepal’s “one China” policy could be used as grounds for detention has been rejected by the Supreme Court. Nepal’s Supreme Court has ruled that the detention of Tibetans under the PSA was illegal and ordered them released immediately. Thus the continued detention of Tibetan’s by Nepali authorities places the Government in clear breach of the orders of its own Supreme Court.

This pattern of restrictions, arrests and beatings has continued in Nepal since 2008 and has heightened at moments of cultural importance such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday and Tibetan National Uprising Day. For example, during celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July 2010, over 250 Tibetans were arrested by the Nepali authorities. The continuing arrests and intimidation of Nepal’s Tibetan community are illegal actions by the Government of Nepal and are in breach of Nepal’s obligations under international law.

Life inside Tibet

Chinese Government suppression of any sort of Tibetan unrest in Tibet goes unabated; news of arrests, detention, torture and deaths of Tibetans appear regularly in media. This direct and aggressive suppression adds to the already complex and difficult situation in which Tibetans live their daily lives under Chinese Government rule. Tibetans reaching Nepal report restrictions on their freedom to practice their own culture, livelihood and religion and to use their own language; the continued destruction of Tibet’s natural environment to extract natural resources; discrimination in education, employment, and labour standards; and restrictions on reproductive rights and health care. As a direct result Tibetans continue to be forced to leave their home and seek a more secure life elsewhere.

The Chinese Government’s significant tightening of Tibet’s border with Nepal and pressure on the Nepali Government to do the same since 2008 has seriously impinged on Tibetans’ right to seek asylum. In March 2008, during a visit to the Zhangmu border one of the author’s directly witnessed several Chinese people in plain clothes on Nepali soil in the presence of uniformed Nepali security officials following their news crew. One of the Chinese people later stood in front of the camera lens when their photographer was trying to take video footage of the Friendship Bridge. A reliable local source from Zhangmu, Tibet has confirmed that the Chinese Government provides financial incentives to local Tibetans on the Tibet side of border for vigilant reporting of fleeing Tibetans and bounties for the capture of a Tibetan attempting to flee. The Chinese Government also reportedly provides bounties to Nepali policemen when they hand over a fleeing Tibetan to Chinese officials. Despite the risk involved in crossing the border, Tibetans continue to attempt to enter Nepal with 770 reaching the safety of the UN-run Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu in 2010.

Untangling China-Nepal Ties

Pressure from the Chinese Government on the Government of Nepal is very clear. In May 2008, amid the protests by Tibetans in Nepal the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal said: “We want the Nepali establishment to take severe penal actions against those involved in anti-China activities in Nepal”. If you consider the financial aid the Chinese Government provides to Nepal, it is difficult to imagine the Government of Nepal not following these clear instructions of their powerful neighbor.

One would be forgiven for thinking the Nepali Government is in a difficult position trying to manage a complex relationship with a hugely powerful neighboring country, this line of thinking may generate some tolerance for the Nepal Government’s suppression of Tibetan’s rights. However, when given the opportunity to begin to rid itself of this problematic refugee population via the US Government’s offer to take 5,000 of the refugees, the Nepal government denied them permission to leave the country. Why would the Nepal Government not take advantage of this offer?

The answer lies in the complex web of political and economic benefits Nepal stands to gain while it can leverage control of Tibetans in Nepal against economic and political support from the Chinese Government. As such, the Chinese Government appears to continue to buy the effective sealing of the Nepal-Tibet border, the effective imprisonment of Tibetans within their encampments on significant Tibetan holidays and the daily uncertainty of a secure life for Tibetans in Nepal. For the Nepal Government, it is profit for minimal investment. Suppression of the Tibetan community economically costs Nepal little. Politically there is also little cost to Nepal as there has been minimal significant protest by either Nepalis or the United Nations and rights respecting countries in regard to the treatment of Tibetans. Thus we are reminded of the old Nepali saying ‘punji nabahe ko bepar’, meaning “Business without investment”.

Moving Forward

In depth monitoring and reports like “Appeasing China: Restricting the rights of Tibetans in Nepal” published in July 2008 by New York based Human Rights Watch details the peaceful nature of all protests by Tibetans in early 2008 in Nepal, finding no evidence of violent activity by the Tibetan protesters. However, Peter Lee’s recent article in Asia Times, “China tests Nepal's loyalty over Tibet” demonstrates the Chinese Government’s fear of Nepal’s Tibetan population. This brings to mind a Tibetan saying, “Gya thogpe phung, bhod rewae phung” meaning “Chinese lose by suspicion and Tibetans lose by hope”. Misguided suspicion within the Chinese Government of a possible Tibetan rebellion, combined with fear of a weakened Beijing resulting from a possible future “Jasmine Revolution” may prove to be a blessing in disguise for Tibetans. If the legitimate leaders of Tibet, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, play their cards right it may lead to a path of genuine negotiation between the Chinese Government and the de facto holder of the Tibetan snow lion stamp in Dharamsala. The impact of each and every decision made in Dharamsala has often shown that the decibels of the Dharamsala gongs are high enough to reach as far as Taktser in far eastern Tibet, the birthplace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Many western voices, including some individuals within the United Nations, and some within the Tibetan community itself have suggested that Tibetans in Nepal should sacrifice some of their rights for the greater good of the Tibetan community. They alleged that peaceful protests, which are often no more than quiet cultural or religious gatherings within temple grounds, should be sacrificed to stop drawing the attention of the Chinese Government to Nepal’s policy in regard to Tibetan’s transiting through Nepal. Once we begin a negotiation of rights, such as whose rights and which rights are more important, we step onto a slippery slope of justifying abuses of human rights. As more world leaders bow down to the Chinese Government for economic and political reasons, sustaining the Tibetan way of life becomes increasingly precarious. The international community should instead actively defend the rights of all Tibetans regardless of where they live and pray. If the international community were to make Nepal’s suppression of Tibetans more costly politically, and even financially, there may be some shift in Nepal’s treatment of Tibetans.

Regardless of the financial and political incentives provided by either the Chinese Government or the international community, the political leaders of Nepal should think back to their own struggle for civil and political rights during the Peoples’ Movement and find within themselves a genuine commitment to democratic principles and values. It is on this basis, that these leaders should then decide if they will protect or persecute Tibetans who seek refuge in Nepal.

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