In Kathmandu yesterday, December 10, more than 2,000 Tibetan school children, monks, nuns, and laity gathered at the Boudanath Stupa to celebrate the anniversary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Under the watchful eye of Nepali police, some in riot gear with batons, the Tibetans chanted, sang, and danced for more than three hours. There were no violent incidents reported.
However, on Dec. 4, Nepal police baton charged more than 5,000 Tibetan school children, monks and others who tried to celebrate the 50 year anniversary celebration of the Dalai Lama’s assumption of state power. ICT condemns these actions and calls on the Nepalese government to honor democratic principles outlined in their constitution, including freedom of expression and peaceful and lawful assembly.
On another front, there have been problems with Tibetans crossing the border between Tibet and Nepal, raising other issues. Julia Taft, the State Department’s Special Coordinator on Tibetan Issues was just in Nepal and discussed these problems with Nepalese authorities. Mary Beth Markey, ICT’s Director of Government Relations was also in Nepal leading a delegation of Congressional staffers this week and was able to learn quite a bit about the situation. Below are some of our informal observations based on discussions with a range of authorities in Nepal, including ones from the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, the Nepalese government, the Office of Tibet and others.
Concerning the issue of Nepal’s mistreatment of Tibetans trying to enter the country from Tibet, officially the Tibetans are not refugees as determined by the UNHCR, but rather asylum seekers or simply pilgrims. The current un-written procedure is if the Tibetans are caught at the border and they do not have the necessary papers, they are denied entrance and turned back, sometimes directly to the Chinese border authorities. If the Tibetans make it across the border, they have entered illegally and there are Nepali laws that deal with such offenses. However, the procedure is that if they are caught on Nepalese territory, Tibetans are detained and then taken to the Tibetan Reception Center in Kathmandu where they are interviewed by the UNHCR to determine if they are deemed “of concern.” “Of concern” is a broad determination that essentially means the UNHCR is trying to ascertain why they are seeking asylum. The Tibetans currently entering from Tibet are not, as generally misunderstood, officially refugees and the UNHCR does not interview for “refugee status determination.” Thus, these Tibetan are treated simply as in-transit asylum seekers (or pilgrims) and Nepal is seen as a transit post (possibly a lessening of responsibility for the UNHCR and Nepali authorities). The UNHCR see themselves primarily as assisting in this transit with the discreet coordination by Nepali and Indian authorities. When the Tibetans arrive in Nepal, they receive no document from the UNHCR or Nepali authorities to carry with them that identifies them as refugee, asylum seekers, etc. They are only given an Exit Permit out of Nepal, which is taken at the border of Nepal and India.
There have been two important events in the last year, unrelated to the Tibetans, which have very much effect the Tibetans coming from Tibet recently. The two events have been a review of the 1950 Border Treaty Act between Nepal and India, and the Indian Airlines Hijacking in Kathmandu. Broadly speaking the 1950 Border Treaty Act provided for free border access for Nepali and Indian citizens traveling between the two countries. However, in October of this year, a 50-year review was taken up and the Act was amended which resulted in a more stringent border control which has affected the Tibetans wishing to exit or enter Nepal. The air highjacking in December last year was one of the instigating factors of the review of the Border Treaty Act.
Finally, the issue that will undoubtedly become more problematic in the future, especially considering the above mentioned border access is that of Tibetans, who do not have proper Chinese documents, wanting to return to Tibet through Nepal. As we know, Tibetans arriving in India from Tibet do not receive any official status in India. Hence, when they arrive in Nepal from India, they are once again illegal. Nineteen Tibetans, including one woman, were recently arrested and remain in jail in Kathmandu, as they were trying to return to Tibet. They have been given very large fines (reportedly between $200 -300) and if they remain in jail until the fine is exhausted, they will sit in jail for over two years.
>Another significant incident, as some UNHCR officials point out, was how Nepal felt embarrassed by the Karmapa situation, as they were unaware of his movement through Nepal. This situation has had unwanted consequences for the UNHCR, and in the end, the Tibetans coming from Tibet. The UNHCR has for the last 5 years conducted missions to remote parts of Nepal where Tibetans cross into Nepal. After the Karmapa’s escape, the Nepali authorities no longer granted them access to go on these missions. The UNHCR said the reason they would go there would be to renew instructions to the (always changing) Nepali border police about the policy on asylum seekers (i.e. not to send them back to the border but take them to Kathmandu).