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.”