The Chinese government has recently completed construction of a paved road to Gyaplung, just 6 kilometers from the glaciated Nangpa La (Nangpa Pass) on the Nepal-Tibet border in its effort to stem the flight of Tibetans from Tibet, according to ICT sources in the region. Nangpa La, at over 19,000 feet above sea level (5,716 meters), is the primary escape route into Nepal used by Tibetan refugees fleeing Tibet.
Gyaplung is poised to become the highest elevation Chinese border patrol station at over 16,000 feet above sea level. The new road to Gyaplung will allow easy transport of infrastructure building materials to this high mountain region. Currently, border security personnel must pitch tents in the area when patrolling, as there are no permanent structures. Gyaplung, itself, is a traditional Tibetan encampment made of low-rise stone huts used by traders along the historical yak caravan trading route.
Road construction was completed within the last three months and the road reaches the rocky encampment of Gyaplung at the foot of the Nangpa La glacier, according to traders in the region. In order to bring in heavy road-making machinery, a bridge was constructed at Dzibuk village last year.
Road construction was a joint effort of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), according to local reports. The PAP is a paramilitary unit formed from the PLA in the early 1980s, and is responsible for internal security, border control, and protection of state installations, including prisons. The PAP is the primary body that patrols the high mountain passes where Tibetans attempt to escape into Nepal.
The main PAP border patrol station is currently located at Tragmar, some 25 kilometers to northwest of the Nangpa La. Tibetan refugees most often negotiate the Tragmar-Nangpa La area (2-3 days) by night to avoid the border patrols. They have usually walked for four days to a week before arriving in the Tragmar area. Last year, the Tragmar patrol station installed flood lights to illuminate the area when security personnel are patrolling in the area, traders and refugees have recently reported to ICT.
At Tragmar border stations, small concrete cells are used to hold Tibetans caught trying to flee into Nepal. Reports from Tibetans who have been held in Tragmar indicate that they are usually kept for 2-3 days before being transferred to Nyari prison in Shigatse where they spend two to three months. The reports come to ICT after the refugees have made a successful re-attempt to flee into exile.
Chinese security along the Nepal-Tibet border has tightened significantly in the last two years. Specifically in the Nangpa La region, security personnel are known to fire on Tibetan refugees trying to flee over the mountain terrain.
On January 2, 2002 The Tibet Information Network quoted a Xinhua report saying, “During the Strike Hard campaign, officers and men of the Tibetan border patrol units have had to brave freezing conditions and extreme discomfort in order to carry out their duties of preserving stability in the border regions of the Motherland. As a crossing point, Nangpa-La mountain pass has always been a ‘golden route’ for people trying to steal across the border. Patrolling the mountain pass at Nangpa-La is a duty that has to be carried out every night by the officers and men of the unit and involves a two-hour walk from the unit’s temporary station to Nangpa-La. Wearing leather hats and thick padded greatcoats, they have to wade through three waist-deep streams and traverse two mountains that are snow-capped even in summer.”
Last year, there were separate eyewitness reports by Western mountain climbers of Chinese border police firing upon Tibetan refugees as well as pursuing refugees across Nangpa la into Nepal territory. Nepalese police in Namche Bazaar, the main trading village south of Nangpa La, spoke frankly to ICT human rights monitors last year shortly after a shooting incident.
“During our investigation of the Chinese border incursion, we collected at least a dozen spent rifle shell casing as far south as Khanjung on our side of the pass,” a police official in Namche told ICT human rights monitors. No public reprimands of the Chinese were made by Nepalese authorities at the time.
In mid October of this year, a group of 34 Tibetan refugees were fired upon by Chinese border security while attempting to cross into Nepal over Nangpa La. The incident took place two kilometers above Gyaplung at the glacial lake of Tso Tangyura where the group of refugees was spotted by border patrols.
“When the machine gun fire started hitting around us, we ran in all directions,” a 25-year-old refugee told ICT in Kathmandu. “We ran back where we came from just trying to avoid the army. After hiding from the gun blasts for many hours, we climbed over Nangpa La in the middle of the night and walked the entire day on the Nepal side as we were so scared.”
The same 25-year-old individual told ICT that only 17 members of the group of 34 successfully made it over the Nangpa La while the others were caught by the border security. It is not known if any of apprehended 17 were shot.
In early September of this year, a 17-year old girl died after evading the border police at Tragmar by falling in a crevasse on the Tibet side of Nangpa la.
“We decided it would be safer to move at night but we lost our way,” a companion of the deceased girl told ICT after arriving in Kathmandu in October.
“My friend slipped and fell into the deep ice crack. We all tied our belts and shirt together attempting to pull her our but the makeshift rope kept snapping. After some time, we couldn’t hear her voice coming from the ice crack anymore.”
On November 14, 2003 China’s ambassador in Nepal, Sun Heping, reiterated his government’s stance that it would do what is necessary to stop Tibetans from fleeing Tibet. “There is no Tibetan refugee problem between us (China and Nepal) but those who have been creating problems are illegal immigrants crossing over to Nepal,” AFP quoted Sun as saying.
The Chinese envoy was further quoted in the pro-Chinese Nepalese journal, The People’s Review, as saying Tibetan refugees entering Nepal do so “forcibly and without any valid reason and have already become an international nuisance and problem all over the world.”
Approximately 2,500 Tibetans annually escape from Tibetan enroute to India. Approximately a third of those refugees are children under 18 years who are seeking a Tibetan language education unavailable to them under Chinese rule. Approximately one quarter of the refugees who successfully escape Tibet are monks and nuns who flee due to Chinese repression of religious beliefs and practices.