The potential for danger for Tibetans in Nepal – both in transit and resident – intensified this year in an uncertain political climate two years on from the beginning of protests and a security clampdown across Tibet. Under direct pressure from the Chinese authorities, who regard the Tibet issue as the defining element of China’s bilateral relations with Nepal, the Nepalese government adopted a tough approach on Tibet issues. A disturbing inconsistency was also evident in terms of the Nepalese government’s role in established procedures on the safe transit of Tibetans escaping from Tibet through Nepal.

Vigorous strategies by Beijing to influence the Nepalese government, border forces, the judicial system and civil society at a time of political transition in Nepal mean that Tibetans in Nepal are increasingly vulnerable, demoralized and at risk of arrest and repatriation. There is also increasing concern about assertive actions by the Chinese authorities in Nepal’s sovereign territory, including Chinese armed police searching for a group of Tibetan refugees en route to a UNHCR-funded transit center last week, and the visit of a Chinese embassy official to a group of Tibetan refugees detained in Kathmandu in January.

The interference by Chinese authorities in Nepalese democratic institutions and legal processes, and the summary acquiescence to Chinese demands by the Nepalese government, when it happens, threatens the integrity of these processes and institutions and runs counter to the strong cultural and religious ties among the Himalayan peoples that have existed for centuries.

ICT has monitored the following developments in Nepal:

  • An incident last week in which Tibetan refugees, mainly women and including two sick children, had to hide in a forest in Nepal while Chinese armed police searched for them – after Nepalese police had started to transport them back to the Tibet-Nepal border.
  • Tough language from Nepalese government officials and senior police officers threatening deportation of Tibetan refugees.
  • Attempts by Chinese authorities to influence the Nepalese Armed Police Force (APF).
  • Evidence of inconsistency and lack of clarity in the treatment of Tibetans in transit from Tibet by both Nepalese government officials and border forces, indicating an undermining of the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ with the UNHCR that allows safe passage for Tibetan refugees through the border areas to Kathmandu and onward to India.
  • A threat to open fire upon peaceful Tibetan protestors if they demonstrated outside the Chinese consulate, made by a senior Nepalese official to a Tibetan community leader in Kathmandu a few days before the March 10 ‘Tibet Uprising Day’ anniversary (which was also the second anniversary of the beginning of a wave of protests that swept Tibet from March 10, 2008 onwards).
  • Pre-emptive arrests of Tibetans, ID checks and house and hotel searches prior to the March 10 anniversary of Tibet’s National Uprising in 1959. This contributed to a widespread climate of fear and insecurity among Tibetans in Nepal. Three Tibetans who were detained in Kathmandu on March 9 were released two weeks later when their detention was ruled ‘illegal’ by Nepal’s Supreme Court. Hotels in the Tibetan pilgrimage area of Boudhanath in Kathmandu were raided in the week prior to the March 10 anniversary, with Tibetans taken into custody and released on payment of bribes to police.
  • The large-scale deployment of armed police in Tibetan communities. This year, Tibetan monasteries, nunneries and schools were surrounded by armed police as part of pre-emptive measures to stop protests on the March 10 anniversary of Tibet’s uprising in 1959.
  • Increasing evidence of lack of morale among the long-staying refugee community described by one official as a situation of “death by a thousand cuts.”
  • A growing presence of organizations in Nepal sympathetic to the Chinese government position, both secular and religious, some popularly assumed to have links with the Chinese Embassy.
  • The resistance of the Nepalese government to provide durable solutions for certain long-staying Tibetan refugees in Nepal, either by regularizing their legal status or allowing their resettlement to the United States through a refugee admission program proposed by the U.S. Government in 2005.
‘A yam between two boulders’: the political context

A traditional Nepalese proverb describes Nepal as “a yam between two boulders” – the Asian giants of India and China. The new road to China, currently being carved out of the jagged mountain landscape near the rural farming area of Lamabagar in Nepal, is perhaps the most visible symbol of the relationship between Nepal and its powerful neighbor to the north. This new road, costing the Beijing government almost $20 million, is indicative of the stronger strategic and economic ties between China and Nepal. The more assertive influence of the Chinese government is being applied in the context of continued political crisis and uncertainty in Nepal.

Two years after Maoist leader Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal) stood for prime minister, heralding hope for a new start for Nepal after a decade of conflict in which thousands died, prospects for prosperity, peace and development in Nepal continue to look distant. A coalition of parties took over the government in May, 2009, after the resignation of Prachanda over the issue of involving Maoists in the army. The administration is struggling to tackle crippling corruption, food and fuel shortages, a lack of basic infrastructure and essential facilities such as water, and increasing fears over security.

Eleven days after the country’s ruling parties failed to promulgate a new constitution by its deadline of May 28, Nepal witnessed its first car bomb attack in a bustling area of Kathmandu on June 10. Responsibility for the explosion, which injured four people, was claimed by an organization that had not been heard of before, the Swatantra Nepal Dal, or Free Nepal Party, which said it was launching punitive action against Nepal’s major parties and the latter’s MPs for their failure to promulgate the much-awaited new constitution on time.

A new constitution is part of the comprehensive peace process in Nepal, and many Nepalese hoped that the constitution would finally bring about political stability, economic growth, and the development of infrastructure, currently paralysed due to uncertainty and polarization between political parties. Bipin Adhikari, a legal expert in Kathmandu, wrote recently that the job of the new representative assembly is “To restructure the state, establish the identity of indigenous communities and minority groups; end all discrimination based on ethnicity, language, culture and religion, and regional diversity; end all forms of feudalism; and establish a new Nepal.” (Himal South Asian – March, 2010).

Beijing has sought to strengthen its influence with Nepal’s new leadership, following its prior support for King Gyanendra, notably when he disbanded the government and usurped power in 2005 and which included the sale of arms to the king’s military to fight the Maoists, and then to Prachanda’s Maoist-led government. The Chinese authorities have also stepped up outreach to Nepal’s civil society, and increased trade and cultural exchanges.

This influence is increasingly evident in its impact both on Tibetans in transit through Nepal, and resident in Nepal.

Chinese border forces seek Tibetans in transit: the ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ undermined

From January, 2010, various Nepalese officials or senior police have warned that Tibetans caught in transit from Tibet in Nepal might be “deported” back to Tibet. In two incidents, including one last week, Tibetan refugees narrowly escaped being returned to Tibet by Nepalese border forces. These actions and statements run counter to established procedure under the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the government of Nepal and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which assumes cooperation among Nepalese police and government officials with the UNHCR in providing for the safe transit of Tibetan refugees through Nepal and onward to India.

In recent months, inconsistency and lack of clarity in the treatment of Tibetans in transit from Tibet by both Nepalese government officials and border forces has indicated an undermining of established protocols under the “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” There is also concern over the presence of Chinese border troops in Nepalese areas.

In an incident last week, Chinese armed police crossed into Nepal and searched in the border areas for a group of seven Tibetan refugees, including a seven year old girl and 12 year old boy, who had escaped from Tibet. The group had been detained by Nepalese police, who were transporting them back to the border before abandoning them in a remote area. The Tibetans were forced to remain in hiding for several days in a forest close to the border, in the area where the new road to China is being built, before it was safe for them to move down to meet Tibetan staff near the road in the Lamabagar area. According to sources in Kathmandu who were in contact with Tibetans in the area, at least six Chinese armed security personnel (likely to be People’s Armed Police) were seen in the Lamabagar area, and consistent reports received by ICT indicated that they were looking for the group.

News of the difficulties the Tibetans were facing came from a single member of the group who had broken from the rest and managed to reach Kathmandu. Officials from the UNHCR and from several foreign embassies in Kathmandu intervened with Nepalese authorities and secured assurances that Nepalese border personnel would assist the Tibetans to travel down to Kathmandu.

Two children in the group, consisting of four females and three males from the eastern Tibetan area of Kham, required urgent medical assistance while in hiding, and it was even difficult for them to find food. The Tibetan man who managed to make his way down to Kathmandu ahead of the group told ICT that upon arrival in Nepal across the border from Tibet, the entire group was apprehended by about ten Nepalese people in plainclothes. They questioned the group for a while and then let them go. Later on the group was stopped again by six more Nepalese men, who asked more questions in Nepalese, which the Tibetans did not understand. They told the group to sit by the roadside and checked their possessions. The Tibetan man at this point ran into the forest and managed to escape and make his way to Kathmandu.

The rest of the group also later managed to get away and walked into the forest, seeking to find a route to Kathmandu. They stopped a truck and asked the driver to take them to Kathmandu, but he did not take them much further. The group was then stopped by around ten Nepalese police, who said that they would take them to Kathmandu in their police vehicle. However, it became clear that this was not the case as the police reversed and began to drive back the way the refugees had come – in the direction of the Tibet border. When the road ran out, the refugees were compelled to walk in the same direction with the police. A young Tibetan woman with the group (whose name is known to ICT) was very ill, fainted twice and was bleeding from her mouth and nose. The police began to carry her. The next day, June 6, the group continued walking in the custody of the police, but at about noon, the police became exhausted and decided to go back. One of them fired a gun into the air, which the Tibetans interpreted as sending a signal to the border guards on the Chinese side. The group was completely lost, but came across some Tibetans who helped them, and warned them that there were Chinese border forces searching for them. This report was later confirmed by other sources in Nepal.

After several days in hiding in the forest close to the border, the group began to make its way down to the road, with the help of other Tibetans, and were eventually escorted to Kathmandu.

Threats of forcible repatriation cause fears for new arrivals

In a second incident, in January, Nepalese police escorted Tibetans caught in transit back towards the Tibetan border. A group of 22 people from different areas of Tibet had been apprehended by Nepal police near Lamabagar on January 13, three days after walking into Nepal across a snowbound pass from the Nyalam valley in Tibet, and five days after leaving the Tibetan capital Lhasa, according to interviews with the group later conducted in Kathmandu by ICT.

The reasons that Tibetans escape from Tibet are varied: parents send their children for an education rooted in the Tibetan identity, monks and nuns seek the full measure of religious freedom they are denied in Tibet, and nomads separated from their traditional livelihoods hope to find a future apart from China’s rapid development and resettlement schemes spreading across rural areas of the Tibetan plateau. Virtually all Tibetans say they wish to be near His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since March, 2008, many Tibetans who participated in peaceful protests or expressions of dissent have escaped to avoid imprisonment in Tibet. (Dangerous Crossing – 2007-2008 Update, p 33). Nepal is a portal to freedom in exile for these Tibetans.

Three members of the group were suffering from frostbite, and their guide had been injured in a fall. The police officers had no interpreter, but reportedly indicated to the group that they could not enter Nepal and had to return. The group refused to move and stayed put until it began to get dark. The police then proposed that they go together to their station for the night. The guide advised the group that some should try to escape, get to Kathmandu and inform the reception centre that police were threatening to deport their companions. They walked for several hours through the dark to the police post, and four of them went missing along the way. The police went looking for the missing people, without success. On arrival at the post, the remaining 17 were locked up in a farm building. Later that night, police came in and searched them. They estimate that the police confiscated cash and mobile phones worth a total of Y25,000 ($3,660), plus several thousand Nepalese Rupees.

The next day (January 14) police escorted the group back towards the Tibet border. As they neared the border, and the Tibetans recognised they were returning the way they had come, they sat down and refused to move. The standoff went on until evening, when the police agreed to return to the police post. They walked back in the dark, and two more went missing along the way. The police were unable to find them. The group of 15 was confined in the same building for the night, and given a little food. The building was not a secure one, and during the night some members of the group made a hole in the wall, and several of them escaped. Some police came and discovered what had happened, lost their temper and beat the remaining detainees with sticks.

On January 15, the group was walked down the valley into Nepal by police. They spent the night along the way, and two more managed to escape in the dark. The next day they reached the road and were handed over to another group of police. By afternoon they were put on a bus and taken to the nearest town, where they spent the night in a detention facility in the police station. On January 17, they were driven to Kathmandu and handed over to Nepal Immigration.

Under normal circumstances, Tibetan refugees entering Nepal from Tibet should be handed over to UNHCR in Kathmandu for processing and sent on to India. In the past, UNHCR had sent numerous missions to border areas to train border police in the smooth management of this procedure. Although the UNHCR has not continued these missions, it has stepped up its interventions with immigration authorities in Kathmandu in order to seek assurances of protection of Tibetans in transit.

Although Nepal is not a signatory to international refugee conventions, the forcible return or refoulement of refugees to a place where their lives or freedoms could be threatened violates a fundamental norm of international law.

In at least two incidents so far this year, Chinese officials have visited Tibetans held by the immigration department in cases that are being overseen by UNHCR. In one case, a group of 17 Tibetans were being held for investigation by immigration in January after they were apprehended in the border area of Nepal. These Tibetans, from a border area of Tibet in Shigatse (Chinese: Xigaze) prefecture, were not seeking to escape from Tibet, but to visit relatives in Nepal. Over the years this has been common-place but on this occasion the group was stopped and detained. One of the group told ICT: “We were arrested by Nepali police in an area called Gokho Kala. From there they handed over to next police station [we don’t know the place name] and then to Kathmandu on January 27.

“On the last three nights in the police station of the immigration department, a Chinese man came to see us; I think he is from the Chinese embassy. He asked some questions but we do not understand Chinese. A Chinese man took photos of us. But he did not say anything to us.” A Tibetan official also confirmed that there were several officials from the Chinese consulate at the immigration office at that time. Despite the Chinese intervention, the 17 Tibetans were released and handed over to the UNHCR.

The group of 17 was the third group of Tibetans to be detained entering Nepal who the Nepalese police or immigration authorities have publicly threatened with potential deportation. The first group was escaping from Tibet, while the later two were border residents who exceeded the 30 km limit on cross border travel, and were visiting Nepal with the intention of returning home soon. Increased police presence in border areas and sensitivity over Tibetan new arrivals due to Chinese pressure seems to mean that such people can no longer come and go as they used to.

In the case of the first group, 10 Tibetans — eight men and two women — were arrested in the Dolakha district, 150 kilometers east of Kathmandu, on a Friday and handed over to the Department of Immigration the following Sunday, according to the district’s Deputy Police Superintendent Dhiraj Pratap Singh, and reported by the Kyodo News Agency (January 18). The news agency quoted Madhav Raj Regmi, head of the government’s Department of Immigration, as saying: ”We will interrogate the Tibetans to ascertain their motives and might hand them over to the Chinese Embassy for deportation.” The immigration head then made a reference to the correct procedure, saying: “The other course is to hand them over to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”

It is not uncommon for Nepalese border police to demand money or property from Tibetan refugees in transit through Nepal. In recent months it has even been reported by the Nepalese press; the Himalayan Times reported that 10 Tibetans who entered Nepal were robbed of 44,000 Nepalese Rupees ($592) (The Himalayan, Tibetans robbed in Nepal forest – June 5, 2010).

Over the past decade, until March, 2008, a number approximate to between 2,500 and 3,500 Tibetans have been registered each year by the UNHCR as “persons of concern” and provided assistance at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center in Kathmandu. There have been unusual spikes, and since March, 2008 there has been a dramatic decline in numbers, as means of control and security crackdowns have solidified across Tibet, including in the Tibet-Nepal border region. Only 652 Tibetans arrived safely at the Kathmandu reception center in 2008, and the total for 2009 was 838.

Nepalese government accedes to China over peaceful protests

The Chinese government’s mission in Nepal prioritises efforts to prevent what it characterizes as “anti-China” activities in Nepal, most notably protests and vigils by Tibetans driven by anguish and anger at the repression in Tibet. Following the crackdown in Tibet from March, 2008 onwards, Tibetan exiles in Kathmandu engaged in a series of almost daily protests for several months. In 2009, these protests continued less regularly. The Nepalese authorities adopted what some describe as a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to Tibetan protestors, and Nepalese police on occasion employed excessive force against the protestors (Human Rights Watch report).

In the few days prior to the 2009 anniversary of Tibet’s National Uprising Day in 1959, several Tibetans suspected of playing a leading role in the 2008 demonstrations were rounded up by the authorities. Nepalese police went to Tibetan people’s homes and in some cases conducted searches without showing warrants. Planned seven-day prayer vigils in the main Tibetan community centers were prevented, and police in riot gear were deployed in Tibetan communities. During this period, the security presence around the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center in Kathmandu was visible. (ICT report, An uncertain welcome: how China’s influence impacts Tibetans in Nepal).

This year, the Chinese authorities again stepped up pressure on the Nepal government in the buildup to the March 10 anniversary. On February 6, Nepal’s Home Minister Bhim Rawal led an eight-member delegation on a week-long visit to Lhasa and Beijing to discuss border control and preventing so-called “anti-China” activities by Tibetans on Nepalese soil (IANS news service, February 6, 2010). The report said Rawal, accompanied by the chiefs of Nepal Police, Armed Police and state intelligence agency National Investigation Department, would discuss security cooperation along the Tibet-Nepal border areas with his Chinese counterpart.

At the Kathmandu airport, planes bound for Lhasa were grounded on the tarmac on March 5 as the Tibet Autonomous Region was effectively closed to foreign tourists until after March 10, and the border crossing between Tibet and Nepal at the Friendship Bridge was effectively closed for this period.

ICT monitors reported that in the week prior to March 10, Nepalese police started searching guest-houses almost every night in the Boudhanath area – which is the main centre of the Tibetan community in Kathmandu. A site of religious pilgrimage for centuries, the Boudha stupa is ringed by Tibetan stalls, shops and temples, and many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are located in the immediate vicinity. A number of Tibetans who did not have legal papers to be in Nepal were taken into custody and only released upon payment of a bribe, often of around 10,000 Nepalese Rupees ($134).

In one typical incident 14 young Tibetans (five females and nine males) were detained by Nepalese police early in the morning of February 17 in a noodle café in Thamel, at the heart of Kathmandu’s tourist area. One of the Tibetans told ICT: “Suddenly a group of police with a truck came and told us get into the truck. They did not give us time to ask why; they were using wooden sticks and started beating us. They were very aggressive. At the police station, they locked us in a cell for the rest of the night. They started asking us about our identity cards and where we were going. They thought we were going to do a protest. They searched our bodies but found no evidence such as a Tibetan national flag. Later we managed to contact our families and friends. But in order to secure our release we had to pay 10,000 Nepalese Rupees ($134) between the 14 of us.”

The Human Rights Organization of Nepal (HURON) recorded a total of 29 Tibetans detained within a period of 5 days from February 4-9, 2010. According to HURON, which expressed concern about the number of detentions in a statement on February 15, many of those were accused of illegally entering and living in Nepal without proper documentation. Five of the 29 were detained in a search of the Boudhanath Guest House in the Boudhanath area in the middle of the night. Most were released upon payment of fines by HURON.

On March 7, Thrinley Gyatso, a prominent member of the Tibetan exile community in Nepal, was taken to the Home Ministry by Nepalese police for questioning about Tibetan activities for the anniversary. The Chief District Officer gave him a warning that if Tibetans attempted to protest inside the ‘restricted zone’ around the Chinese embassy, Nepalese police would be instructed to open fire on demonstrators.

Thrinley Gyatso gave the following detailed account to ICT about what happened after he received a call from a Nepalese police officer about plans by the Tibetan community for March 10. He told ICT that he invited the police officer to the office, where he arrived with around six fully armed police in a van. The police officer said that Thrinley Gyatso was required to accompany them to the Hanuman Dhoka police station, which is also a detention center. Thrinley Gyatso says that he told his staff to alert the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and others, and he was taken in the van to the police station at nearby Durbar Marg. He said: “It seems then that the police started receiving calls, probably because my staff had alerted international organizations. So the police took me away from the police station to meet the Chief District Officer at the Home Ministry, who asked what our program was for March 10 (Uprising Day). I told him about the official program at Boudha and Samtenling Monastery, saying that the Tibetan community gathers at 9.30 am around His Holiness’ photograph, and that there is a prayer ceremony by lamas before I read out His Holiness’ annual March 10 statement. I told them every detail of the official program, and they asked about whether people would demonstrate from March 14 onwards [the second anniversary of the day that peaceful protests turned to rioting in Lhasa for a short period].”

Thrinley Gyatso, who acts as the representative of the Tibetan exile government in Nepal since the closure in 2005 of the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said that he was “informed that the Nepalese government needed to peacefully cooperate with China due to the ‘one China’ policy, to which I replied that we know your position, and we have been advising youngsters not to protest. He told me that I had to take full responsibility for demonstrations in or near the restricted area around the Chinese embassy, and said that: ‘If there are any protests in the restricted area I may have to ask my men to shoot.”

Nepal’s Supreme Court rules pre-emptive Tibetan detentions ‘illegal’

On March 9, the day before the anniversary, three young Tibetan men, Sherap Dhondup, Sonam Dhondup and Kelsang Dhondup, were detained in the Boudhanath area and imprisoned. On March 22, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered the Nepalese government to release the three Tibetans, ruling that the detention was against Section 3(1) of the Public Offense Act, 1989. The Court instructed the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Police Headquarters and the Kathmandu District Police office of Hanuman Dhoka to release the Tibetans.

This Supreme Court ruling can be seen as an encouraging indication of the continuing autonomy of Nepal’s legal institutions at this level, despite pressure from the Chinese authorities. ICT has also received indications that there are concerns among the professional elite in Nepal about the level of Chinese influence in their country.

The Tibetans had been accused of ‘posing a threat to Nepal-China relations’, with the police also claiming they found weapons on the Tibetans, an allegation that the Tibetans denied while talking to reporters, saying it was “totally fabricated.”

Following Tibetan New Year (Losar) in February and in the buildup to March 10, increased numbers of police in riot gear were posted in the three main areas where Tibetan communities are based in Kathmandu, Boudha, Jowalakhel and Swayambhu. ICT monitors on the ground reported that it was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the Chinese embassy for the last weeks of February and early March.

One senior Nepalese police officer was quoted as saying: “We wont spare any pro-Tibetan if found guilty of provoking anger. They will be immediately arrested and handed over to the Department of Immigration for deportation.” (Deputy Superintendent of Police Pradhumna Karki, quoted in the Himalayan Times on March 8). The Himalayan Times also quoted Deputy Inspector General of Nepal Police as saying: “We will take stern action against the Tibetans if they dare to stage anti-China demonstrations [this week].” (“Security beefed up for 51st Tibetan uprising anniversary,” March 8, 2010.) ICT monitors also learned that Nepalese police officers who were transferring Tibetans from one jail to another after a peaceful protest in March taunted them by saying that they were taking them to the Chinese embassy.

On March 14, ICT monitors noted the presence of around 100 Nepalese police in riot gear around the Chinese embassy, and beyond the ‘restricted zone’ that encircles it. The riot gear was new and provided by the Chinese authorities, according to informed sources in Kathmandu.[1] The riot police remained lining the road when around eight Tibetans emerged from several taxis, and shouted free Tibet slogans, and “China, talk to the Dalai Lama!” Within seconds the small group of Tibetans were surrounded by riot police and bundled quickly into a waiting police truck and into custody. They were held until the next day.

A total of 23 Tibetans were detained in Kathmandu on March 10 and 14 following the protests at the Chinese embassy. Although a 90-day jail sentence under a security law that allows detention without trial was imposed on 18 of the Tibetans, they were released after 20 days following dialogue between HURON, the human rights organization, and the Nepalese authorities. The group of 18 was brought to the Kathmandu District Court (Babar Mahal) on March 29 where they signed a release paper issued by the Chief District Officer to the court under the provisions of the 90 day administrative detention law. The activists were deemed to be no longer a threat and released, Kathmandu chief administrator Laxmi Dhakal was reported as saying (Associated Press, March 29). Norbu Dorje, one of the protestors, said: “We will continue our non-violent protests against China demanding there should be talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.”

According to an ICT monitor in Kathmandu: “This group was in the process of filing an appeal to the Supreme Court and were waiting on a delay in the paperwork, until the minister removed the grounds for appeal by approving their release. Presumably the delay of the legal process until yesterday was not accidental. March 28 was the deadline specified by the Chinese embassy, which made sure that police and armed police were deployed in sensitive locations on the so-called ‘Serf Emancipation Day,” despite the fact that this date has no real significance for Tibetans and no protests or assemblies were planned or attempted.”

Also during the sensitive anniversary month of March, more than 150 Tibetans trying to cross back into Nepal from India after an important religious teaching by the Dalai Lama were stranded at the border. It is likely that this was the case because the authorities feared they might get involved in protests against China, although there was no evidence that this would be the case. The Tibetans were only allowed to return to Nepal following the intervention of the Nepalese human rights organization, HURON, who made it clear that the Tibetans were pilgrims and not intending to be involved in demonstrations.

Nepalese President pressured after invite to celebration at Tibetan Buddhist monastery

In a further development just prior to the March 10 anniversary, the Nepalese President failed at the last-minute to attend a ceremony celebrating the centenary of the birth of a famous Tibetan lama, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The Chinese embassy had expressed anger and dismay over the invite of Nepal’s President Ram Baran Yadav and Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala to the ceremony at Shechen Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu.

The embassy sent a written statement to the Nepalese government saying that any acceptance would be regarded as a gross violation of Nepal’s avowed commitment to the ‘One China’ policy, according to a report in Indo Asian News (February 23). Chinese Military Attaché Col. Cheng Xizhong met Foreign Secretary Madan Kumar Bhattarai to express his government’s displeasure about a scheduled visit to the Tibetan monastery by the president and a senior entourage. (eKantipur, Invite that had Beijing riled).

Those present at the ceremony said that the change in plan was at the eleventh hour – the Nepalese President’s helicopter was seen circling the monastery before it was suddenly diverted in the other direction.

Death by a thousand cuts

An estimated 156,000 Tibetans live in exile, a majority of them in India and Nepal. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Appeal 2010-11, there are 20,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal, mainly in the Kathmandu valley and Pokhara in western Nepal, with an additional 1,500 Tibetans living in “refugee-like situations,”[2] although the real number is likely to be closer to 30,000 or more.

The Chinese authorities have stepped up outreach to Nepal’s civil society, and increased trade and cultural exchanges. As a result of this political influence and other factors, the Tibetan community in Nepal is vulnerable and demoralized. An official in Kathmandu who did not wish to be named described the ongoing pressure on the Tibetan community combined with their lack of status as “death by a thousand cuts”.

Political science Professor Kapil Shrestra, a former National Human Rights Commissioner who had been invited to speak at the cancelled birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama on July 6 last year told ICT that this marginalization has developed despite long-standing cultural and religious ties between the Himalayan communities. In addition, he said: “Tibetans have helped to transform the Nepali economy. There would be far less tourism without Tibetans, and the Tibetan carpet industry has helped to expand business in Kathmandu. The Tibetan community has a legitimate place in today’s Nepal and its rights should be respected. A small, disenfranchised minority like Nepal’s Tibetan community may be an easy target, but a denial of Tibetan rights will ultimately degrade the rights and legal recourse of all Nepali citizens.”

Nepalese civil society activists and human rights monitors who are supportive of Tibetans stress the close historic, cultural and religious ties between the Nepalese and Tibetans that date back to the 6th century. The Buddha’s birthplace is in Lumbini, Nepal, 300 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu. The Himalayan Sherpa, Tamang, Dolpo, Mustang and other Himalayan people share the same devotion to the Dalai Lama and practice Tibetan Buddhism.

The government of Nepal permits Tibetans who sought refuge before December 31, 1989, and their descendants, to remain in Nepal. These Tibetans are eligible to receive a government-issued refugee [identity] certificate (RC), which allows them to remain in Nepal with certain limited civil rights. However, Nepal has been unreliable in the issuance of RCs, and thousands of Tibetans who are eligible have been waiting for years for processing to resume and are left with no defined legal status. Tibetan refugees who have arrived or will arrive in Nepal after 1989 have been allowed to stay only in transit.

This means that thousands of Tibetans in Nepal are undocumented and therefore ‘illegal.’ While many of them are well educated, most of them born since 1989 have no right to work or travel.

A 19-year old Tibetan from the Ngari area of western Tibet who took part in the 2008 protests in Kathmandu against Chinese repression in Tibet told ICT: “These days, I always feel that my life is unsafe and I cannot go anywhere without worrying, especially because the Nepali political situation has become tense. In the last five years of my life in Nepal, I have had this experience living without legal papers, but I understand it is not only me, there are thousands of us Tibetan refugees living in Nepal without proper documents. I think I am a very hard worker and determined. But I can see that there is no future for me in exile in this condition and I cannot go back to Tibet without taking a great risk. It is simply because of the Chinese invasion, and I cannot live where I was born with my parents in Tibet. When I speak to my parents, they always say that it will cause problems for them if I go back to Tibet because they are working for the Chinese government. This difficult situation makes me want to fight for Tibet. When I see what has happened in Tibet since March 14 [2008], my sadness and despair motivated my involvement in protests in Kathmandu. I thought it was important that our desperation could be seen by the rest of the world.” (ICT report, An uncertain welcome: how China’s influence impacts Tibetans in Nepal).

Tibetans without citizenship are not allowed to register any businesses such as shops, restaurants, and guest-houses. Sometimes Tibetans are not allowed to register businesses even if they have valid papers and money, according to several anecdotal reports from Kathmandu. Nepalese people typically partner with Tibetans in business ventures so they can be registered and occasionally offer Tibetans employment.

Although they acknowledge that the Nepalese government is only partially acceding to Chinese demands, educated Tibetans in Nepal often refer to the difficulty of envisaging a future for the new generation of Tibetans in Nepal. Economics as well as political factors play a part. Once a staple industry for Nepal’s Tibetan community, carpet weaving has suffered greatly due to global economic conditions and harassment of the Tibetan business community including extortion. A decrease in exports and the tourist trade, in addition to demands by local officials for “fees,”[3] has contributed to the closure of nearly 500 factories, most of which occurred in 2008-2009.[4]

There has also been a steep drop in the enrolment of children in schools and nurseries in Tibetan settlements, as more young men and women seek to leave Nepal. In one settlement, Tashi Ling Tibetan Settlement, which is about 120 miles west of Kathmandu and houses about 500 refugees, the number of school aged children has declined by nearly a tenth in the last two years, according to research by Greg Bruno (GlobalPost, April 12). Yeshi Choedon, Tashi Ling’s secretary, said that in the last three years, 14 percent of Tibetans at the smaller camp between 18 and 32 left the settlement. Some headed south to India, though most went west, to the United States and Canada.

ICT’s report: Dangerous Crossing: conditions impacting the flight of Tibetan refugees 2009 update »

[1] The Chinese authorities also provide funds and training to the Nepal’s Armed Police Force (APF) in the border areas.

[2] UNHCR Global Appeal 2010-2011, p. 34,

[3] ‘Unraveling of a Livelihood,’ Washington Post, July 29, 2009,

[4] ‘Tibetans fear for their future as new regime adopts harder line on exiles,’ August, 8, 2009, Sunday Herald, Scotland,