Nepal's Tibetans pressured by China's growing influence

Some in Nepal fear that China is stirring up tensions between their countrymen and the Tibetan refugee population
Alexander Sehmer
24 December 2009

In his office in Kathmandu, Trinlay Gyatso, the chief co-ordinator at the Office of Tibet in Nepal, is particularly angry at what he sees as China's agents operating in Nepal.

"Nowadays I am very much irritated by local newspapers," fumes Gyatso, pointing to a sheaf of letters he has written in complaint both to the papers concerned and to Nepal's press council.

A number of Nepali-language press reports in November claimed that Gyatso visited the country’s northern Mustang province to “provide training” to Tibetans at the refugee camps there and that he spoke to them "about the past crackdown in Tibet". Gyatso insists that he was nowhere near Mustang province at the time.

The papers also claim Gyatso held “a secret meeting” with Nepal's deeply unpopular former-Crown Prince Paras, who was heir-apparent until the monarchy was brought to an end in 2008.

"I've never met him in my life," Trinlay says impatiently, waving the allegation away with his hands.

"This is all propaganda to create problems in Nepal. I think the local papers are being used to create tensions between Nepalis and Tibetans. We've had good relations for over 50 years, but I think the local papers are trying to create problems by writing this false news."

He believes Chinese agents are using the newspapers to stir up trouble between Nepalis and the country's 20,000 Tibetan refugees. An English translation of one of the newspaper reports attributes its  story to a “secret source”.

Later the press council confirms Gyatso's correspondence and one of the papers, Janadisha, acknowledges that it received Trinlay's complaint, but says it had no plans to print a retraction since he had not requested one.

While Tibetans have prospered to a degree in Nepal, their position has always been precarious. Nepal officially stopped receiving Tibetan refugees in 1989 and those arriving since have been funnelled out into India, home to some 100,000 Tibetans, with the help of the United Nation refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Tibetans who arrived before 1989 are allowed to stay for which they require identity papers, renewable each year, from the government. In practice many do not have them.

"Getting it depends on the ruling government. If they don't issue ID cards then we are staying illegally," says Gyatso.

"Even those who are born and brought up in Nepal don't always get them. And if the Maoists get into government again, then there is no chance."

For over a decade Nepal was locked in a civil conflict between the Maoists, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda as he is known, and the army under the command, ultimately, of the king. But in 2006, with the help of international mediation, the war came to an end and the Maoists joined the political system.

To the surprise of many in Kathmandu, the Maoists - whose support came mainly from the countryside - polled extremely well in the subsequent elections of 2008, winning over 40% of the vote and establishing a five-party coalition government. In the end, their spell in power turned out to be relatively short lived, ending in May this year when they pulled out of the government amid a row with their coalition partners over their attempt to sack the army chief of staff, General Rookmangud Katawal.

Since they left the government, Maoist cadres have staged a series of strikes and protests across the country and Nepal's peace process has entered an uneasy stalemate as all sides attempt to establish their political footholds.

Nepal's civil conflict cost the lives of more than 13,000 people and the 2006 peace deal came as a huge relief for Nepalis, but for the Tibetans it was tempered by the fact that the Maoists, and separately the Communist Party of Nepal (usually distinguished from the Maoist’s party by the suffix Unified Marxist-Leninist) which remains in the ruling coalition, have such close ties to China.

"The Maoist and the Marxist parties especially are close to the Chinese government and the Chinese government is trying to use these links in Nepal," says Gyatso.

"In India or in the States, we have a lot of support groups - even in government circles - which is wonderful. But here, if any support group is set up, the Chinese government will kill it. At present it's not possible to form any sort of a support group.”

At Beijing's request, Nepal cracked down on Tibetan political activities ahead of the Beijing Olympics last year, breaking up demonstrations and taking protesters into custody. Then, when China marked 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic in October, Tibetan refugees again demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy and again scores were arrested.

Beijing's influence on the treatment of the Tibetan movement has grown outside of Nepal too, as China’s rise on the world stage prompts a shift in international political priorities.

The movement has traditionally played well in the West, where the UK’s Free Tibet movement has benefited from celebrity endorsements by the likes of Michael Stipe, Nitin Sawhney and Damon Albarn. Elsewhere, Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys have lent their support to the Tibetans.

But the movement's Chinese critics argue Western popular support for a 'Free Tibet' springs from a misguided, romantic notion of Tibet as a mist-shrouded, mountain-top Shangri-La populated by bell-ringing Buddhist devotees. They say it disregards the huge investment in infrastructure and social development that China has made in the region. Tibet today, under China, is not nearly as isolated as it once was.

China also routinely criticises world leaders for meeting the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, once so popular with the West's political and entertainment elite, who China characterises as a separatist and trouble-maker. He says he is seeking only greater autonomy for Tibet.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France met him in December last year, Beijing was quick to lodge a complaint with Paris and increasingly Western political leaders have taken notice of China’s demands.

Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister, who once noted "significant human rights problems" in Tibet, recently decided against meeting the Dalai Lama. Also this year, South Africa denied the Tibetan leader a visa to attend a conference in Johannesburg, apparently under pressure from Beijing.

US President Barack Obama, who was in China in November, called for dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, but he too put off a meeting with him ahead of his visit and subsequently came under criticism from activists at home for not pressing the issue of Tibet more firmly.

In contrast, India, China's regional rival, has been more combative.

Dharamsala, in northern India, is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile and tensions rose earlier this  year when India sanctioned a visit by the Dalai Lama to a Tibetan monastery at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a province in India that China claims as its own.

India also has its own political ties to Nepal – the ruling Congress party has close links with the Nepali Congress.

A report in the Times of India around the time of the Dalai Lama's Tawang visit referred to Nepal as a “new front” between the two countries, or as Gyatso characterises it: “These are two giant counties trying to play with Nepal.”

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