DECEMBER 28, 2011
Why Is Nepal Cracking Down on Tibetan Refugees?
BY JON KRAKAUER
Friction between Chinese authorities and the five million Tibetans who live within the borders of China is on the rise, and nowhere is the strife more apparent than in the neighboring nation of Nepal. Last month in Kathmandu, I spoke with five young Tibetans who had just journeyed across the Himalayas to escape draconian policies imposed by the Beijing government in their homeland. More than six hundred Tibetans have fled to Nepal this year, even though it’s a dangerous undertaking. Asylum seekers have lost limbs to frostbite, perished in blizzards, and been arrested by Chinese border patrols. Some have been shot. The youngest of the refugees I met was a fourteen-year-old girl. She was aware of the hazards but lit out for the border anyway, hoping that if she made it into Nepal she’d find safe passage to India, where in 1959 the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan government-in-exile, and where more than a hundred thousand Tibetan refugees presently reside.
According to an informal arrangement hammered out twenty-two years ago between the government of Nepal and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), Kathmandu pledged to allow Tibetans to travel through Nepal en route to India, and to facilitate their transit. Lately, however, this established protocol has been ignored with increasing frequency. Nepalese police have been apprehending Tibetans far inside Nepal, robbing them, and then returning them to Tibet at gunpoint, where they are typically imprisoned and not uncommonly tortured by the Chinese. According to “Tibet’s Stateless Nationals,” a hundred-and-thirty-three-page report issued by the Tibet Justice Center, a relatively small number of these Tibetans have been beaten, raped, and/or shot by the Nepalese police—abuses confirmed by several refugees with whom I spoke during my recent visit to Nepal.
These violations of the U.N.H.C.R. agreement and international law were bought and paid for by Beijing. According to a confidential U.S. embassy cable published by WikiLeaks in 2010, China “rewards [Nepalese forces] by providing financial incentives to officers who hand over Tibetans attempting to exit China.” Another cable stated, “Beijing has asked Kathmandu to step up patrols … and make it more difficult for Tibetans to enter Nepal.”
With an annual per capita income of $645—less than two dollars a day—Nepal is desperate for whatever alms China offers, never mind the strings attached. In 2009, Beijing promised to promote tourism to Nepal, invest in major Nepalese hydropower projects, and increase its financial assistance by approximately eighteen million dollars annually. In return, Kathmandu pledged to endorse Beijing’s “one-China policy” (which decrees that both Taiwan and Tibet are “inalienable parts of Chinese territory”) and to prohibit “anti-Chinese activities” within Nepal. Activities deemed unacceptable include gathering for prayers on the birthday of the Dalai Lama and displaying the Tibetan flag. On November 10th, after a Buddhist monk in Kathmandu doused his robes with kerosene and ignited himself to protest Chinese thuggery, a spokesman for Nepal’s Home Ministry declared that the government was considering revoking “all the rights granted to Tibetans residing in Nepal,” despite the fact that Nepal’s constitution guarantees such rights as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to all persons, and Nepal’s Supreme Court has ruled that restricting Tibetans’ civil rights is illegal.
An estimated twenty thousand Tibetan refugees now live in Nepal, mostly in settlements established after the 1959 invasion of Lhasa by the People’s Liberation Army prompted many Tibetans to flee. For the next thirty years, Nepal welcomed Tibetans, and every Tibetan in the country was issued a “refugee identity certificate,” known as an “R.C.” But Kathmandu stopped accepting additional Tibetan refugees in 1989, ceding to pressure from Beijing, and that pressure has been intensifying. Since 1998, the Nepalese government has refused to issue R.C.s to Tibetans, including children born in Nepal to refugee parents who’ve been residing in the country for decades.
The upshot is that a generation of Tibetans who’ve spent their entire lives in Nepal don’t exist as far as the Nepalese bureaucracy is concerned. Lacking R.C.s, these young refugees cannot obtain driver’s licenses, apply for jobs, or open bank accounts. It is difficult or impossible for them to attend Nepalese schools. Without an R.C., a Tibetan has no legal right to remain in Nepal and may be deported to China at any time—yet Kathmandu refuses to provide these refugees with travel documents that would allow them to immigrate to nations such as the U.S., Canada, and India, where they have been offered asylum.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was slated to travel to Kathmandu on December 19th for an official state visit, leading a hundred-and-one-member delegation from Beijing. Wen was expected to sign a commitment to provide Nepal with a five-billion-dollar line of credit—in return for promises from Nepal to clamp down even harder on Tibetan refugees. At the last minute, however, Beijing postponed the visit indefinitely; according to an official quoted by AFP, the delay had to do with security concerns, specifically the “possibility of protests from Tibetan exiles.” The Chinese ambassador to Kathmandu, Yang Houlan, had previously warned that “Nepal is turning into a playground for anti-China activities,” prompting speculation that Beijing is using the postponement of Wen’s visit as a cudgel to discourage Nepal from softening its policies toward Tibetan refugees.
At a refugee settlement outside the city of Pokhara, a Tibetan in his twenties proposed a simple step to dial down the tension: “If the government is worried about Tibetans threatening Nepal’s security, give us R.C.s.” Such a move would be win-win for all parties, he suggested, because it would allow the authorities to “know what we are doing, and we can get education and jobs.”
“How would it harm China for me to have an identity card?” a Tibetan teen-ager wondered at another refugee settlement. “I was born in Nepal. I’m seventeen years old. All I want is the opportunity for education and a job. How does denying me such things help anyone?”
He has a point. Nepal’s bullying of its Tibetan community is more likely to incite unrest inside China than to dampen it. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly and unequivocally stated that he and his followers “do not seek independence for Tibet.” But few Chinese trust such assurances from a man their leaders have long characterized as a conniving monster. Beijing is adamant that granting concessions to any Tibetans, even Tibetans in exile, poses a dire threat. The great fear is that Tibetan dissent will inflame other ethnic groups inside China, initiating a chain reaction that culminates in the People’s Republic suffering the same fate as the Soviet Union. Given Chinese perceptions of what’s at stake, and Beijing’s ability to purchase apparently limitless influence in Kathmandu, the future doesn’t look bright for Tibetan youth now coming of age in Nepal.
Photograph by Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images.