Asia China’s influence bears down on Nepal’s Tibetan population

China’s influence bears down on Nepal’s Tibetan population

President Xi
President X Jinping

(AA) – In Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel, China’s rising power is apparent.

Amid the seedy dance bars and backpacker haunts, an array of services catering to upwardly mobile Chinese tourists has emerged. Chinese bookshops selling Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China exist alongside restaurants turning out steaming plates of kung pao chicken and peking duck. The multi-hued knitwear of the low-budget set is being replaced by the soft power of oolong tea.

As tour operators cash in, increased people-to-people contact has coincided with closer official ties.

 “We have been enjoying excellent bilateral relations,” said Rajan Bhattarai, former foreign policy adviser to the prime minister and Constituent Assembly member. “We are trying to update relations in line with our national priority agendas by promoting trade and cultural ties. China has been emerging as the leading power and we have been trying to explore and maximize the opportunity offered by China.”

Though security remains a core concern for China in its dealings with Nepal, its interests are increasingly diverse and the role it plays is believed to give it increasing sway in Nepali society, especially in relation to the Tibetan diaspora who, on March 10, mark the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising against Chinese “liberation.”

Along with an agreement in mid-2013 that the two countries would deepen existing defense and security ties, China has invested large sums in a series of road-building and dry port projects that will provide the world’s second largest economy direct land access to the emerging markets of South Asia.    

In December 2014, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced a five-fold increase in aid to Nepal, while President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the country later this year to celebrate 60 years of bilateral relations.    

“In the past, China has left this region for Indian influence. This century we will experience it a little bit differently,” said Bhattarai. He explained, “Here in Nepal, if you look at past activity – the exchanges and visits, the bilateral relations, the connection between the two countries, the flights and investments – it has increased phenomenally. That is the product of China emerging as a power.” 

While Chinese interests may have broadened, the ramifications for Nepal’s Tibetan diaspora are of note.

After riots broke out in Lhasa and Kathmandu in the lead up to Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, Tibetans in Nepal have come under increased state surveillance and have been denied basic civil rights.

According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, preventive detentions and restrictions on public gatherings have become common place for the country’s 20,000 strong Tibetan community, which comprises Nepali citizens as well as those with legally ambiguous “refugee certificates” or no documentation at all.

Ahead of March 10, the Nepalese state has boosted security in and around Tibetan settlements to ensure “anti-China activities” are neutered.

“When they protest they get arrested by the police,” said Karma Rapten Mugum, a book vendor in Boudha, Kathmandu’s largest Tibetan settlement. “Every time Uprising Day comes, security is tighter. It is not good because monks get distracted by the police on that day.”

According to Dorje Sherpa, a monk of Nepali origin: “It causes a lot of difficulties for the monks when they [pro-Tibetan activists] protest. The police come and they say ‘where is your passport? Are you Nepali or not? Are you Tibetan?’”

Another Boudha resident, fearing his Tibet-based business would be compromised if identified, said that this Uprising Day, as in the past few years, festivities will be limited to monasteries, where monks will celebrate behind closed doors: “They are monitoring Tibetans very strictly and they are not allowed to take to the street,” he said.

According to Bhattarai, the clampdown on public displays of pro-Tibet sentiment must be understood in the context of the 2008 riots in Lhasa and across the Himalaya.

“What had happened in Kathmandu is that there was a long wave of activities related with that riot, and I think Chinese authorities began to realize that if the problem went beyond their borders they had to register their concern,” he said.

While Bhattarai dismissed talk of direct Chinese pressure being marshalled against Nepal’s leaders, he nonetheless acknowledged the country’s increased clout: “China itself has emerged as a global power. When a country becomes more powerful it is usual for it to expand its influence beyond its borders.”

Leaders across Nepal’s political spectrum, who are currently attempting to draft a constitution more than eight years after the end of a decade-long Maoist insurgency, remain resolute in their commitment to the “one China” policy.

The extent to which they are willing to fulfil this commitment is of concern.

In recent years, Nepal’s security forces, partially funded by China, along with other countries, have been accused by human rights organizations of repelling Tibetan asylum seekers from the country’s northern border.

Since 1989, Nepal has operated under a “gentleman’s agreement” allowing Tibetan refugees to pass through Nepal en route to India with the aid of the UNHCR.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said that though the gentleman’s agreement remains largely intact, there is reason to be vigilant.

“Chinese pressure on Nepal to return Tibetans is significant and creates a dangerous environment for Tibetans in the border areas. There are concerns about lack of information from the border areas of Nepal, where Tibetans are vulnerable to extortion and possibly refoulement,” he said.

In response to Human Rights Watch accusations that Nepalese security agencies had turned away refugees at the border, in April 2014 Nepal’s government reiterated its commitment to the principle of non-refoulement, while at the same asserting that it is neither a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 additional protocol.   

“The report is ill-founded, provocative and malicious in intent as well as an unnecessary meddling into the friendly relationships between the two close neighbors,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a public statement.

According to Mecacci, authorities must work to ensure the legitimate presence of the Tibetan community in Nepal, saying that this would be a positive assertion of Nepal’s sovereign interests and integrity and would prove beneficial to the country’s long-term stability.

Given Nepal’s complex geostrategic scenario, the challenges for human rights defenders, as well as statesmen looking to assert Nepal’s sovereignty in new ways, are clear.

“In the last 60 or 70 years of Nepal’s history, each and every regime has been very much of the view that, despite their quarrels on other issues, when it comes to issues related to China or India regarding territorial or security matters, it is of the utmost concern,” said Bhattarai.

According to Bhattarai, this is unlikely to change anytime soon: “There is a national consensus on this issue. The Nepali government will not allow the free flow of whatever activities the Tibetan community would like to do here. Obviously Nepal is a free society and an open society and Tibetans have been allowed to do some activities in a limited manner, but if they go beyond this, I doubt it will be allowed.”

This Uprising Day, the extent to which Nepal’s Tibetan community tests these boundaries and defies official strictures remains to be seen.

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