Tibetan crackdown in Nepal

As part of its 'One China' policy, Maoist-run Nepal will not tolerate protests by Tibetan exiles - a

The order of events outside the Chinese embassy in Katmandu has now become a well-rehearsed routine.

“It is a cat and mouse game,” says Kunchok Tenzin, a local Tibetan businessman. “The police wait outside the embassy for the protesters to arrive, then they beat them up a little bit, put them in a cell for the night and release them in the morning so the same thing can happen again the next day.”

To show support for Beijing’s “one China” policy, which recognises Tibet and Taiwan as integral parts of China, Nepal will not tolerate any protests against its communist friends within its borders. Hundreds of Tibetan protesters are arrested in Nepal every week. Over 500 protesters can be arrested in a single day. Whilst it is understandable that Nepal maintains good relations with its powerful northern neighbour, many Tibetans living in the country believe they take it too far.

“We realise the government has to listen to China to some degree,” says Kunchok, “But what is happening here is just ridiculous.”

Around 2500 to 3000 Tibetans make the crossing over the Himalayas into Nepal each year. Most only stay briefly at a UN reception centre before moving on to India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. But whilst Tibetans exiled in India enjoy a relatively high quality of life in a country that lets them live and protest freely, the same cannot be said for the 20,000 or so Tibetans who choose to live in Nepal.

“We have no problems at all with the Nepali people in the community,” says Tenzin Nanduk, a lecturer from Pokhara. “But the government is trying to knock the life out of us with its pro-China position.”

Even though the Nepali Interim Constitution states that everyone has the right to non-violent assembly, the response by Nepali police to protesters outside the Katmandhu embassy has often been brutal. “My friend had both his ankles broken outside that embassy,” says Kunchok. “He was the only breadwinner for his family.”

Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented not only excessive force during arrests but also ill treatment during detention. “We are particularly concerned by increasing evidence of police use of sexual and other forms of assault during arrests,” read a joint statement released by the two lobbies in March. In May, 560 women were arrested for protesting in Katmandu:

“As they were pulling me away they would feel my breasts,” a middle-aged Tibetan woman said after she was released. “They would just grab me, like they really needed to do this to get me into the van.”

The feeling of injustice growing amongst Tibetans in Nepal has been compounded by the fact that demonstrations by Bhutanese refugees always pass by peacefully without any interference from the Nepali Police.

“There is a double standard working here,” says Tenzin. “Are we paranoid for thinking there just may be other influences affecting the Nepali Government?”

The Nepali administration has a history of appeasing China. In 2007, the Nepal Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of de-registering the Bhota Welfare Office, a local NGO set up to provide community and humanitarian services to Tibetan refugees in Nepal. At the court hearing the Chinese Embassy in Nepal voiced its opposition to the registration accusing the organisation of being an operation of the “Dalai clique.” In January 2005, Nepal’s King Gyanendra, hoping to win China’s support for his February coup, closed the Office of the Representative of the Dalai Lama in Katmandu. The office had been running since the 60’s and was a cornerstone of Tibetan life in the Nepali capital.

The Nepali Monarchy was dissolved in June under pressure from the incoming Maoist government. But although Tibetans and Nepalis alike are hoping the Maoists will be a force for positive change, many are sceptical.

“We could have had it a lot worse here in Nepal,” says Ngawang Sangmo, craft shop owner and worker for the Nepal Tibetan Solidarity Forum. “So since the Maoist resurgence we are worried things could change. We fear it could get violent. I mean, the word itself, “Maoist,” causes immediate anxieties.”

It seems her anxieties were not unfounded. On 19 June, two weeks after I spoke to Ngawang, she was arrested by Nepali police as part of a dawn raid that seized two other Tibetans. Ngawang would sometimes hand out leaflets at demonstrations. She was arrested for conducting an “illegal agitation campaign”. But these three prisoners were not released after the customary single night in the cells. Local leaders fear they will spend three months in jail as this is the maximum time someone can be held without charge under Nepali law.

America has publicly expressed concerns about this recent development. On 26 June the Department Secretary’s Deputy Spokesman, Tom Casey, released a statement condemning the arrests. On 27 June Nepali police arrested 50 more Tibetan protesters.

An added twist in the pressure the Nepali government is putting on Tibetan refugees is the threat of deportation if protesters are arrested without a valid Registration Certificate (RC).

In May 2003 a group of Tibetans were refouled from Katmandu and reportedly beaten and forced to carry out hard labour in a Chinese prison. Tibetans in Nepal hoped this was an isolated incident but the recent threats have made people feel uneasy:

“I am scared because I do not have an RC,” says Pema Tenzin, 22 from Pokhara. “If we get sent back our lives are over. But this will not stop me protesting, nothing will stop us protesting.”

The Nepali government’s reluctance to register Tibetans is perhaps the biggest problem facing this exile community. Registration certificates (RC) give refugees an official identity and status. Without one a refugee has few rights and can be easily harassed by police and local officials. RC’s were provided regularly until the early 70’s when they suddenly stopped being issued. Now the government gives them out randomly and infrequently. Tibetans living in Nepal believe it is yet another tactic to intimidate them.

“There is no good reason why they can’t give me an RC,” says Pema. “Me and my friends are all in our 20s now and none of us have got one. How am I supposed to get a job? They want us to suffer.”

Although RCs provide refugees with some status it is not the same as full citizenship. Even those refugees who are registered cannot access many higher education courses, own land or businesses or be eligible for almost all professional positions. Most Tibetans simply have to be content with working in small restaurants, antique shops and handicraft stalls within the settlements themselves.

“I am a proud person,” says Lhakpa Sicho, 65, from the Tashi Palkhiel settlement in Pokhara. “We get few visitors and I am fed up of having to practically beg the tourists to buy things just so I can survive. I am too old for all this.”

In the 60s, Lhakpa was a member of the CIA trained guerilla resistance movement that fought against the Chinese from a base in Mustang in Northern Nepal, close to the Chinese border.

“The Americans gave us some basic training and some very old guns that couldn’t be traced back to them,” remembers Lhakpa. “We couldn’t do any serious damage but we caused a few headaches for the soldiers at the border!”

These guerilla fighters, or “Lodricks” as they are known in Tibetan, were disbanded in 1974 after the Dalai Lama urged them to put down their weapons. Most blended into settlement life in Nepal putting all thoughts of violence behind them. Tserin Siten is the coordinator of the Lodrick Welfare Society:

“Many of these ex-fighters feel a sense of despair, the guerilla movement did not succeed, the 1989 uprising [in Lhasa] did not succeed- they have resigned themselves to their lives here.”

It seems this feeling of despair is not restricted to ageing ex-freedom fighters. A recent study carried out by a team of researchers from Atlanta found that depression rates among Tibetans living in exile, though much lower than those living in Tibet itself, were high enough to indicate “significant emotional distress.”[i]

“It really is a mental condition,” says Kunchok. “Once you have lost your homeland you develop a completely different mindset, a strange mentality of loss and longing. And we all have it. Under the surface we are all distressed.”

Not only do Tibetans have to battle with the reactive grief of living a stopgap life in a foreign land, they must also deal with the day-to-day hardships that effect every Nepali citizen. In Nepal today people face eight hours of power cuts everyday, 3 hour queues at petrol pumps, soaring food prices and general political unrest.

“Life is hard enough here as it is,” says Pema. “We really don’t need the Nepali government to twist the knife on us with its negative bureaucracy.”

It is perhaps these conditions that are causing increasing numbers to move to the west, particularly to America and Canada. Many move to find work so they can send money back to their families. But even here Chinese influence is dictating the pace. Last year Washington offered asylum to 5000 Tibetans in Nepal as part of a general programme being offered to refugees in South Asia. But the Nepali government, under pressure from Beijing, did not respond meaning only Bhutanese refugees were able to make the move.

Those who remain in Nepal still receive regular direction from the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile based in the hills of Dharamsala in Northern India. The Dalai Lama does not call for independence from China but a “middle way” that would give Tibet autonomy over its own affairs whilst still remaining part of China. Though not ideal, this realistic position gives many Tibetans in Nepal hope for the future.

“We see diplomacy as a light at the end of a very long tunnel,” says Tenzin. “We can move in the direction of that light and it gives us hope. And if we die in the tunnel that is okay too- we know we will see our home again in the next life.”

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater