One of the climbers summiting Cho Oyu, which is approximately 20 km west of Mount Everest at the border between Tibet and Nepal, said in an email communication by satellite that the shooting happened in the early morning of September 30: “I saw a line of Tibetans heading towards the start of the [Nangpa] pass – a common sight. Then, without warning, shots rang out. Over, and over and over. Then the line of people started to run uphill. Watching the line snake off through the snow, as the shots rang out, we saw two shapes fall. The binoculars confirmed it: two people were down, and they weren’t getting up.”
A second climber, a British mountain guide, told ICT that other climbers had witnessed one of the Tibetans getting up after they had fallen, indicating that one of the two might have survived, although it is not known if the person died later from their injuries. Mountaineers contacted by ICT did not wish to be named until they had left Chinese territory, and the full circumstances of what led up to the incident are not known.
Forty-three Tibetans from a group of more than 70 escaping from Tibet were apparently able to escape from the gun-fire and safely reach Nepalese territory, where they are now en route to the Tibetan Refugees Reception Center in Kathmandu. Most of the group, including children as young as ten as well as Tibetans in their twenties and thirties, are apparently from Kham in eastern Tibet. According to local sources, the Tibetans feared that there might be more than one fatality. The whereabouts of the more than 30 remaining Tibetans from the group is not known. A local Tibetan source said that these Tibetans might have been apprehended by Chinese security forces because Chinese military vehicles, including ambulances, had been seen at a motorable road close to the incident area on the same day. Another local Tibetan source said that members of the group had been forced to abandon the bullet-ridden body of the nun on the pass, because they feared that carrying it out of Tibet might lead to their arrest.
The British mountain guide, who was summiting Cho Oyu at the time, told ICT: “There could have been as many as 60 climbers at Advance Base Camp who witnessed the incident. They could see Chinese soldiers quite close to Advance Base Camp kneeling, taking aim and shooting, again and again, at the group, who were completely defenceless. We didn’t know what the targets were but the climbers could see they were human beings. A couple of hours later, a caravan of yaks came along the pass from Nepal and there was no shooting. Clearly distinctions were made between intended targets. This was a deeply shocking incident for all of us.”
The Nangpa Pass serves as a main trading route between Tibet and Nepal, and is commonly used as an escape route by Tibetans fleeing into exile. Tibetan refugees escaping from Tibet into Nepal have been fired upon before on both the Chinese and Nepalese side of the border, but this is the most serious incident for some years.
The shootings are likely to have been carried out by the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary unit formed from the PLA in the early 1980s, which is responsible for internal security, border control, and protection of state installations, including prisons. The PAP is the main body that patrols the high mountain passes where Tibetans attempt to escape into Nepal.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 Tibetans make the dangerous crossing through the Himalayas via Nepal to India each year, seeking refuge after repression in Tibet, simply to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama, or for other personal reasons. Approximately a third are children who are being sent to study in Tibetan exile schools. Many others are monks and nuns seeking a religious education that is not possible in Tibet due to the restrictions imposed in monasteries and nunneries.
Yak caravans and Tibetans escaping from Tibet are often seen by climbers in Cho Oyu’s Advance Base Camp, particularly at this time of year, which is a peak climbing season. ICT reported on a similar incident in October 2003, when a group of 34 Tibetan refugees were fired upon by Chinese border security while attempting to cross into Nepal over Nangpa La. One of the Tibetans in the group told ICT that only 17 members of the group of 34 had successfully made it over the Nangpa la while the others were caught by border security. It is not known if any of the 17 who did not make the journey were shot. (ICT report, China constructs road near Nangpa La to stem flow of Tibetan refugees to Nepal – December 3, 2003.)
In 2002, 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 Nepalese territory. Nepalese police in Namche Bazaar, the main trading village south of Nangpa La, told ICT that during their investigation of the border incursion, they collected at least a dozen spent rifle shell casings on the Nepalese side of the pass. No public reprimands of the Chinese were made by the Nepalese authorities at the time.
An American who lived and worked on the south side of the Nangpa La, and who has been to Cho Oyu base camp, said: “Sherpa and Tibetan traders from border villages on both sides of the pass are allowed to travel freely for purposes of informal trade, and those who transit the Nangpa La regularly say that it is not uncommon for the PAP (People’s Armed Police) to chase refugees well into Nepal – though never down as far as the Sherpa villages proper.” In at least two incidents in recent years, Western climbers in the area have been fired upon by Chinese border patrols.
There were more than 10 large expeditions at Cho Oyu at the time of the shooting on Saturday, and one source estimated that as many as 100 people could have witnessed the shooting on September 30. But most climbers refused to speak publicly until they were safely out of Chinese territory and in Nepal. Tom Sjogren from the online adventure portal Explorersweb Inc, who was in touch with some of the climbers on Cho Oyu at the time, said: “Right away, there was pressure at base camp by some commercial outfitters to keep this quiet. Rumours are circulating that the people shot was ‘smugglers’, and climbers are being told that they should keep quiet – at least until they are out of China. We believe there is absolutely no reason for western climbers to be afraid of the Chinese government if they speak up, other than a commercial risk for certain guiding operators, but even that is not likely.” There were several reports of a strong presence of Chinese security personnel at Cho Oyu’s advance base camp after the incident.
The risks for Tibetans transiting through Nepal have increased over the past two years due to increasing Chinese influence on the Nepalese government. In 2005, the office of the Dalai Lama’s representative in Kathmandu and the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office, both critical for the security and welfare of Tibetan exiles in Nepal, were given notice to close. Due to the volatile political situation and precarious security conditions, persons of concern to the UNHCR such as Tibetans fleeing into exile, are constantly under threat of losing their rights to protection.
Tibetans face dangers on both sides of the border. On the Nepal side, there are increasing risks of forced repatriation or refoulement (the return of persons to a country where they fear persecution). Towards the end of 2005, it became apparent that the Nepalese police were showing less restraint in capturing and detaining Tibetans traveling through the Nepalese border areas to Kathmandu. In October 2000, a Tibetan monk died on his way to hospital in Kathmandu after being shot by Nepalese police following his escape across the border into Nepal.
ICT calls upon UNHCR to ensure full protection for Tibetans
Mary Beth Markey, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The safety of the Tibetans who have just arrived in Nepal after this incident must be paramount. Weare seeking assurances from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to ensure full protection to those Tibetans in the group who are now in Nepal, noting previous incidents where refugees have been refouled from Kathmandu even after appealing to the UNHCR for protection.”
International law requires that the use of firearms by border patrols be done only as a last resort and when life is at risk. Reports indicate that the Chinese border patrols’ use of force in this case was both unlawful and disproportionate. The International Campaign for Tibet calls upon the United States and other members of the international community to make official complaints to the Chinese government condemning its flagrant violation of human rights which resulted in the shooting and at least one death.
- ICT’s Report, Dangerous Crossing 2005