Beijing Leans on Nepal over Tibetan Refugees

Under pressure from the Beijing, the Nepalese government has arrested hundreds of refugee Tibetans who cross the border from Tibet to escape persecution by the Chinese regime, refugees say, sending many back to China and earning objections from human rights groups.

Kathmandu has also blocked human rights demonstrations led by Tibet support groups and has put a stop to all pro-Tibet activities, refugees who have made it to Dharamsala say, in particular on March 10 when Tibetans sought to commemorate the anniversary of the failed 2008 uprising in Tibet. The 20,000-odd Tibetans who live in Nepal are barred from holding any protests on its soil. Celebrations of the Dalai Lama's birthday are taken as anti-government activities by authorities.

The tiny Himalayan nation is caught between Asia's two giants, India and China. Most Tibetans fleeing their homeland cross Nepal to India for shelter in the hill town of Dharamsala where their supreme leader and Tibetan Buddhism's highest religious figure, the Dalai Lama, took refuge in 1959 along with thousands of his followers with the consent of the Indian government.

The pressure increased after China's army chief of staff, Gen. Chen Bingde, visited Kathmandu to pledge US$20 million in military and logistical support to the impoverished government of the tiny neighboring country. It was not the first donation and is unlikely to be the last.

Chen led a 15-member army delegation to Nepal seeking to prevent any additional turmoil by the Tibetans in the country. It was the highest-level military visit from China to Nepal in more than a decade. The People's Liberation Army chief held high-level talks with Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav, Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal, Defence Minister Bishnu Paudel and his Nepalese counterpart General Chhatraman Singh Gurung, requesting that the Nepal government block movement of Tibetans across the border.

"The purpose of my visit is to strengthen friendship and cooperation between Nepal and China," Chen told reporters. "This cooperation is not only conducive for our people but also for world peace and the Asia Pacific region."

The Nepalese government reassured China of its support and commitment to the 'One China Policy,' and indicated it would bar anti-Chinese activity on its soil. It also agreed to "deepen military ties and ensure peace at the Tibet frontier."

"General Chen expressed gladness at the steadily developing relation between two countries and said that economically developing and politically stable Nepal is important not only for the stability of Asia Pacific region but also for the whole world," according to a statement released by the Nepal's Prime Minister's Office in Kathmandu.

Over the years Beijing has vilified any efforts by exiles to change the situation inside Tibet, which the Chinese occupied in 1950, terming the invasion a peaceful liberation of longstanding Chinese territory. Tibetans refugees started flocking to Nepal after the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayas into exile in India.

Interestingly Nepal has traditionally been more aligned with India. However, recent moves by Beijing, especially in infrastructure development, have made China a much more influential player in Nepal than India.

"We are treated as criminals in Nepal," said an exiled Tibetan who gave his name only as Tsering. "The Nepalese government does everything the way China wants it do, and we have even lost the right to do a peaceful march." He had lived in Nepal but fled to Dharamsala, he said.

Nepal has launched many crackdowns since refugees staged protests against China in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games and the deadly 2008 Tibetan riots. Rights groups have declared Tibetan refugees in Nepal to be increasingly vulnerable and at risk of arrest and repatriation to China. Under pressure from China, Nepal has refused to recognize Tibetan refugees who arrived after 1989. They are not allowed to register marriages.

On any major anniversary of that Tibetan exiles attempt to celebrate, dozens are arrested, with reports that even monks are beaten, tear-gassed and kicked. The United Nations' human-rights office says some people are now being arrested purely "on the basis of their appearance" without being demonstrators.

Recent Tibetan government-in-exile elections were treated as an unlawful activity by the Nepalese government, depriving a large number of people the right to exercise their vote.

"We cannot allow such an illegal activity within our territory," Superintendent of Police Pushkar Karki, who also serves as chief of Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Circle, told local media. "We need to follow the government's policy."

Last year the Wikileaks website disclosed US State Department cables from the embassy in New Delhi, alleging that China pays Nepalese police substantial money to arrest fleeing Tibetans.

"Chinese government rewards (Nepali forces) by providing financial incentives to officers who hand over Tibetans attempting to exit Tibet," said the cable, titled 'Update on Tibetan refugee flow.'

Despite the restrictions, more than 2,500 Tibetans cross the border annually, embarrassing the Chinese government, which has sought to portray its administration in Lhasa as benevolent and dedicated to the welfare of the Tibetan people. The Nepalese government since the Wikileaks disclosures has come under fire for bending to pressure from the Chinese government in deporting exiles to China after previously having allowed them unhindered passage.

The Nepalese government previously honored a United Nations-brokered "gentlemen's agreement" between Nepal and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide safe transit to Tibetan refugees who wish to travel through Nepal to Dharamsala, where thousands of Tibetan exiles have their base. That agreement has been abrogated under Chinese pressure.

Watch groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists have recently warned Kathmandu against breaching its international obligations, instead substituting "preventive arrests and policing restrictions on demonstrations and freedom of movement that deny the right to legitimate peaceful expression and assembly during anniversaries and festivals marked by the Tibetan community."

"The link between China's aggression against Tibetans and Nepalese police actions has contributed to an environment of fear and insecurity in Nepal's Tibetan communities," the International Campaign for Tibet, the US based Tibet lobby said.

Western countries, particularly the United States, have pressed the Nepalese government to soften its stance. The Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero, the White House's special coordinator for Tibetan issues, visited refugee centers in Nepal in February where she met government officials to raise the issues of free passage and problems faced by Tibetans in Nepal itself. She pledged the continued support of the US government for the safety and welfare of refugees.

"We have a longstanding policy, as you know, of supporting the needs of vulnerable refugee populations, and consider the Tibetan populations in Nepal to be particularly vulnerable. The U.S. continues to monitor the situation of both newly arriving refugees and the long-staying populations," a State Department official said in a statement on Feb. 18.

The Tibetan government-in-exile has appealed to Western nations to persuade the Nepalese government to allow the Tibetan activities and respect the human rights situation.

Analysts believe China's long term plan is to neutralize Tibetans outside Tibet, leaving no voices to speak against them when the Dalai Lama retires completely. Rameshwor Acharya, the former Nepal ambassador to China, told reporters on March 24 that "China's concerns over Nepal are growing" and that "the visit shows that China wants the support of our army to control anti-Chinese activities following the resignation of the Dalai Lama."

Thus many of the thousands of refugees wishing to leave their Himalayan homeland are finding that safe passage through Nepal is becoming increasingly unlikely and the future of Nepal's ownTibetan community appears uncertain as well.

Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India.