By Mary Kay Magistad
For many Tibetans, March 10th is a date to remember. It's when the Dalai Lama fled to India, in 1959, to escape Chinese attempts to co-opt him.
Exiled Tibetans in Kathmandu are no exception. They gathered this year — as they do often — to protest China's continuing crackdown on Tibet. A petite 36-year-old woman named Tsering Golker still has a bruise on her arm, where a Nepalese policeman beat her before dragging her off for a night in detention.
"I'm used to getting beaten up and detained," she said with a shrug, at an outdoor café in a Tibetan neighborhood of Kathmandu. "I've lost count of how many times it's happened. It's been worse for other people. Some have suffered broken arms. Anyway, I keep protesting, because I want the world to hear how desperate we feel about the situation in Tibet."
Jolker was born in Tibet. She says she went to a Chinese school, had Chinese friends, and didn't think much about politics until, as a teenager, she saw Chinese tanks and military police putting down a protest.
A similar crackdown has been happening over the past month at the Kirti Tibetan monastery in Sichuan province, ever since a 20-year-old monk there self-immolated in protest over Chinese authorities' attempts to get the monks to denounce the Dalai Lama, and the government's insistence that Tibetan children now go to school in Mandarin Chinese.
The monks of Kirti have been known for their activism. In the Tibetan uprising of March 2008, which started in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and spread to ethnic Tibetan areas throughout much of western China, Kirti monks joined the protests. When protests started again in March, military police moved in, with helmets and shields and military trucks.
Elderly civilians tried to shield the monks. Human rights groups report that at least two of those civilians were killed, and many more injured, before 300 monks were hauled away and detained on April 21st.
Many exiled Tibetans, like the 15,000 or so in Nepal, say such treatment of Tibetans in China is nothing new — that as Han Chinese migrants have flooded into Tibet, Tibetans have been under increasing pressure to assimilate into Han culture, and distance themselves from the Dalai Lama.
Crossing the Himalayas
For years, this caused some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans a year to flee across the Himalayas — usually in the winter, when it would be harder for Chinese guards to follow them — and to transit through Nepal to Dharamsala in India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.
Some would bring their children there for an education in the Tibetan language. Others left to see and hear the Dalai Lama; still others, fleeing persecution. Since the March 2008 Tibetan uprising, and the Chinese crackdown that followed, and continues, that number has shrunk to about 800 a year. And those who do make it to Nepal, are finding that authorities there are becoming less tolerant of the exiled Tibetan community's frequent protests against China.
And China's crackdown on Tibetans has spilled across the border into Nepal, says Tsering Dhondup, a settlement officer for a Tibetan community refugee office in Kathmandu.
"There's a more uneasy feeling," says Tsering Dhondup, settlement officer for the Tibetan Refugee Community Office in the Kathmandu neighborhood of Bouda-Jorpati. "They're stopping our prayer sessions. Police are coming. They're stopping us a lot."
And as a long-term Tibetan exile in Kathmandu, he believes he knows why.
"China frequently sends delegations to Nepal," he said. "Every time they come in, they raise the issue that the Nepal government should stop the Tibetans doing anything against China in Nepal."
One of the most recent delegations was headed by China's top general, who brought a generous offering of military aid. Prashant Jha, a political columnist for the Nepali Times newspaper, says China has been strengthening ties with Nepal in multiple ways.
"I think what's clear over the past few years is that China's engagement with Nepal has been growing across the spectrum," Jha said. "China has sent multiple high-level delegations, both political and military. The number of Chinese joint ventures here has exponentially increased. In fact, the number of Chinese joint ventures here last year were higher than the number of Indian joint ventures.
"China's links across political parties has increased. China's links, and penetration and influence, including the army, but not exclusive to the army — the police, and other security forces, ahs also increased."
Jha says this trend has accelerated since 2008 — the year the Maoist party won elections and formed a short-lived government in Nepal, and the year that protests broke out in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and in Kathmandu.
"And even when protests were quelled in Lhasa, they continued here, and images were beamed across the world, and that was quite embarrassing for China," Jha said. "And China decided they could not just take Nepal's commitment to the one-China policy at face value, that they had to keep hammering this point to each successive Nepali administration, that China had grave interests here, and they wanted the Nepali government to be serious about it."
And the Nepalese government has heard the message, says former Home Minister, and current Member of Parliament Bhim Rawal.
"Nepal is in a very difficult geopolitical situation," Rawal said. "We have two big neighbors. We have to maintain a delicate balance. We are, ourselves, in a very difficult, sensitive transition. Despite these difficulties, we are providing asylum to those refugees. The Nepal government has to ask every refugee, including the Tibetan refugees, to live quietly according to our rules and regulations in Nepal. Because Nepal cannot afford to let any refugee use our soil against any neighbors. Because it's not in the interests of Nepal and the Nepali people."
What is in Nepal's interests, the government feels, is to tap into some of China's economic success. Some Nepalese politicians also see China as a useful counterweight against India's long-standing influence, and they don't want the 15,000 Tibetan refugees now in Nepal to get in the way of that relationship.
The future of refugees
Many of those refugees are neither registered nor have papers that would allow them to work legally — the Nepalese government has refused to give out such status since 1994. The Bush Administration offered in 2005 to take 5,000 of them; the Nepalese government replied that the United States should first take some of the ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan, who have been living in refugee camps in Nepal for almost 20 years. It's now doing so.
Whatever the long-term future of Tibetan refugees now in Nepal, Nepalese politicians know if they want to get a piece of China's economic action, they'd do best to keep Tibetans now on their soil quiet.
That extends from protests on the street to having a voice through the ballot box. When the rest of the exiled Tibetan community around the world cast their votes in recent weeks for a new leader-in-exile, Nepalese police forbade Tibetans in Nepal from joining them.
Even that was considered an act against China.