Contrary to this first-hand account, official statements by the Chinese authorities to concerned Western governments claimed that the children were treated well and released immediately, and that opening fire on the group of unarmed Tibetans crossing the Nangpa Pass en route into exile was part of ‘normal border management’. One official asserted that the Tibetan children in the group had been sent to be trained by the ‘splittist’ Dalai Lama, and then would be sent back to China to carry out his instructions.
An earlier precedent to the Nangpa Pass shooting of September 30 has also been confirmed with eyewitness accounts of Chinese troops opening fire on another group of Tibetans traveling into exile in mid-October, 2005. Two Tibetan women from the group have said they were fired upon when they tried to cross the border into exile in mid-October 2005, and then beaten and interrogated when captured.
Tibetan children taken into custody during Nangpa shooting incident
A group of international climbers and expedition staff observed and photographed the Tibetan children in custody of the PAP on September 30 last year, when they were escorted through advance base camp of Mount Cho Oyu, which overlooks the Nangpa Pass, one of the routes into exile. The Tibetans were part of a larger group escaping into Nepal, and part of this group was fired upon by the PAP, resulting in the death of 17-year old Tibetan nun Kelsang Namtso. Climbers described the children as looking bewildered and scared.
The US and European Union governments raised concern for the welfare and whereabouts of the children in custody, and criticized China for the actions of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in opening fire on the Tibetans. The US Ambassador in China, Clark Randt, delivered a demarche (official complaint) to China in Beijing on October 12, 2006 while the European Union delivered a demarche to China on human rights including the Nangpa shooting on December 19.
According to one of the Tibetans from the group, who is now in exile, following their capture the group was taken by the PAP to a detention center in the Tibetan town of Dingri, close to the border with Nepal. The young Tibetan said that the older teenagers and adults in the group were beaten with rubber batons and electric-shock prods. The approximately 13 children in the group aged under 15 were not beaten but were interrogated. They were asked whether they knew who the Dalai Lama is, why they escaped from Tibet, and also questions about the identity of the guides who were helping them to attempt the border crossing. After a few days, the group was taken to another prison to the southwest of Shigatse (Chinese: Xigaze), the so-called ‘Snowland New Reception Center’ (known locally as ‘Shigatse new prison’), which was opened in 2003 specifically to receive Tibetans caught attempting to escape to or returning illegally from Nepal or India.1
During their period in detention, the children were required to carry out cleaning work, and were allowed to play outside the prison for an hour at the weekend. The older Tibetans were assigned to construction work.
Parents of children in the group were allowed to collect them upon payment of a fine, although those who were not collected were held in detention for several months. Fines ranged from 100 yuan ($12) for those held in Dingri to at least 500 yuan ($60) for those being collected from Shigatse. It is possible that some Tibetans from the group are still in detention.
The Tibetans in the group fired upon were representative of many Tibetans crossing the Nangpa Pass into Nepal; a high percentage of monks and nuns, seeking a blessing from the Dalai Lama and to practice their religion in monasteries and nunneries in India, and a large number of children, sent by their parents to obtain an education in schools run by the exile Tibetan government.
Second group fired upon while escaping into exile: new account
New information has been obtained about the circumstances of the shooting of a second group of Tibetans escaping into exile, a year before the September 30 incident on the Nangpa Pass. In mid-October 2005, a group of more than 20 Tibetans fleeing into exile suffered beatings and interrogation after they were fired upon and then detained by soldiers in Dingri county, en route to the border with Nepal.
According to the new reports, a group of around 50 Tibetans had traveled by bus towards the border from Lhasa, and then walked at night for several days. As the group arrived near the Nangpa Pass, at around six in the evening, they were spotted by PAP personnel at a distance who opened fire. One of the group, who is now in exile, told ICT: “The Chinese opened several rounds of gunfire on us. We thought they were just trying to scare us by shooting in the air. But then we realized the shooting was serious. Our group scattered and I have no idea about where the others are, maybe they went back where we had come from, or managed to escape. After continuous shooting for some time, many of us stopped running away and 23 of us were arrested by the Chinese soldiers.” According to the same source, none of the Tibetans detained were injured by the shooting.
The interviewee could not recollect exactly how long the shooting lasted. She remembered that the soldiers were wearing ‘green uniforms’ and that “one of them had a pistol and the others had long arms” (the latter is likely to be a reference to the long, narrow barrels of assault rifles). A monk from the group who apparently managed to hide from the shooting was found and detained a few days later. When he was taken into custody, according to the same source, he could not walk properly due to an injury sustained when he fell while trying to escape. Others from the group of more than 50 Tibetans were captured later as they continued to try to escape. Both Tibetans from the group said that they were shocked by the shooting as they had never heard of it happening before. They believed that it could possibly have been because of the large size of the group making the escape attempt.
According to the same sources, the group of Tibetans was handcuffed and taken into detention where they remained for several months. The males in the group, mainly monks, were particularly badly beaten by electric shock prods, according to the same account. One of the Tibetan women from the group said: “We were handcuffed one by one by the soldiers. I think there were about 20 of them, and more came. They were all carrying machine guns2 and walkie-talkies. Since the soldiers didn’t bring enough [handcuffs], they tied some of our friends with rope and then took all of us to a place where they had parked their vehicles. We were loaded into the vehicles and taken to the army camp. We saw our guide and other monks later brought to the prison. When the soldiers were trying to catch us, the monks had tried to escape. We could see bruises all over their faces as a result of beatings when the soldiers caught up with them. We did not know where our guide was taken after that. We could see the view of the Nangpa Pass from the place where we were arrested.”
The Tibetans said that the women were badly beaten but not as much as the men, who were hit with electric-shock prods: “female inmates were mainly beaten with belts.” Most of the group was held in detention for four months – for just over 13 days in Dingri, and then for the remaining period in Shigatse ‘new’ prison. One of the Tibetan women said: “We were treated like criminals. We were described as supporters of ‘separatism’.” She was fined 3000 yuan ($385) upon release.
ICT has received many similar reports of maltreatment of Tibetans caught in the border areas, mainly on the Nangpa Pass or near the Chinese-Nepal Friendship Bridge border crossing. According to Tibetans detained at the Shigatse prison for trying to leave Tibet without papers, there are generally no judicial procedures prior to or during their detention. Many are held for periods ranging from several days to three to six months and are generally fined before release.
It is clear from reports about Tibetans’ experiences of escaping into exile that PAP troops have instructions to apprehend Tibetans who are attempting to cross the border, and this incident in October 2005 sets a precedent for the shooting of Tibetan nun Kelsang Namtso on September 30. According to Chinese criminal law, Tibetans who cross the border illegally violate Article 322 and are subject to imprisonment for “secretly crossing the national boundary.”
Following the shooting on the Nangpa Pass last September, the number of Tibetans leaving Tibet for Nepal along this route appeared to decrease in the winter months of 2006. According to sources in the area, more Tibetans appeared to be traveling by alternative routes. One nun who escaped into exile late in 2006 told ICT: “One friend told me that her parents advised her not to run away if Chinese soldiers try to arrest you and your group on the way into exile. Otherwise, they may open fire and may kill you like the nun Kelsang Namtso.”
1 The literal signage posted in front of the prison is ‘Snowland New Reception Center’ (Tibetan: ‘khangjong nelenkhang sarpa’). The name for the reception center in Kathmandu and in Dharamsala, India, of the Tibetan government in exile is ‘Tibetan Refugee Reception Center’ (Tibetan: ‘bhoeme kyabjol nelenkhang’). The prison is located to the southwest of Shigatse, and was once used as housing and office headquarters for a Chinese construction company. Soon after the prison’s opening in 2003, former inmates reported to ICT that there were approximately 300 prisoners in detention, with nearly all of them caught attempting to escape, or trying to enter Tibet again from Nepal without papers.
2 Likely to be assault rifles, copies of AK-47s, with an automatic capacity