Exiled Tibetans Face Uncertain Future as China Makes Inroads
NEPAL Namche Bazaar - Singing a hypnotic chant, the line of Tibetans led by a Lama, all holding candles, file past into the small bazaar below. It is moving sight. They are holding a pooja (prayer meeting) for the Panchen Lama, it is his eighteenth birthday, though he not present, still his whereabouts kept secret by the Chinese government.
Kidnapped by the Chinese state shortly after he was proclaimed a tulku (reincarnation) of the Panchen Lama at a very young age, and is second only in Tibet’s spiritual hierarchy to the Dalai Lama himself.
These Tibetans are among some of thousands in Nepal who fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 or in the years preceding when the Chinese first sent soldiers to Tibet in 1951.
The local Nepali Sherpas are blood relatives of many Tibetans from Tingri, family relations cross over the high Himalayas into what is politically these days, China. Tenzing Norgay, the famous “Sherpa” mountaineer who first summited Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, was in fact born in Tibet and married a Sherpa from the Khumbu Himal (Everest region). Only later did he become a Nepali citizen.
Strange then, the security clampdown on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest, with police telling pro-Tibet supporters to remove armbands and the like during a visit by Chinese bigwigs to Khumbu last week.
The Tibetans and those Sherpas who are sympathetic to the plight of the Tibetans refused to do so and diplomatically, the bigwigs did not see much of the centre of town, flying instead to the Nepali Everest Base Camp to review security precautions for the relay of the Chinese Olympic Torch to the summit of Mount Everest due in a few day’s time.
Defiantly, the armbands are still there and one or two graphic political posters about human rights abuse. Local Tibetans are eager for news and the American-funded Washington-based Tibetan-language radio is a good source for many.
Few Dopka Tibetans from Tingri are to be seen in Namche, as it appears the Chinese have sealed the border, denying access to these shepherd-traders who bring Chinese goods over the Nangpa La to sell in Namche. Some are stranded in the nearby village of Thame, unable to cross the border and go home.
Most Tibetan refugees who cross the high Himalaya into Nepal end up in India or elsewhere. The Tibetans of Namche Bazaar came largely in the early 1950s and were not ordered on to Kathmandu and out of the country, like many Tibetans who have braved the formidable Nangpa La (Nangpa Pass) and others like it, for asylum elsewhere.
In 2005, King Gyanendra’s government closed down the Tibetan political offices in Kathmandu and the coalition government of the eight party alliance continued this policy and indeed has moved much closer to China since the king’s government courted them during a period of international isolation.
Now the Chinese have an influence in Nepal comparable to northern Burma. During recent pro-Tibet demos in Kathmandu, Armed Police Force (APF) officers were seen beating demonstrators with lathis (bamboo canes) with Chinese security officials watching.
Indeed, the recent expulsion of journalists from the Nepali Everest Base Camp proves China’s new clout in Nepal. Many point to a soft loan of millions of Euros and similar forms of aid, as the motivating factor for the Nepalese government.
This and the recent victory of the Maoists in the Constituent Assembly polls does not bode well for those ethic Tibetan refugees currently residing in Nepal. Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists has said he supports a “one China” policy, with some noting wryly that Nepal may soon be part of it.
This adds up to an uncertain future for Nepal’s Tibetan refugees, many of whom lack formal papers, despite years of residency in Nepal. Many of the younger generation of this group were of course, born on Nepali soil and some consider themselves these days more Nepali than Tibetan. Many of them have seen little of their homeland, aside from short trips.
Like the Khumbu district, the high Himalaya in Nepal is closely linked to Tibet by culture and trade. While seemingly forming an impenetrable barrier the high Himal is full of passes between Tibet and Nepal. During calmer periods, the Chinese allow communities on the Nepali border to cross into northern Nepal and sell goods. Nepalis are also allowed into Tibet, though through the main border posts and not the remote mountain passes.
These Tibetan traders also often become involuntary spies, being forced to report information on movements in Nepal when the re-enter Tibet.
More worringly perhaps, China has reportedly began work on extending the controversial railway line from Lhasa to the current border point at Khasa, 60km northeast of Kathmandu. This is intended, the Chinese say for “trade” and some roads are also under construction, like the one from Pokhara through the remote Himalayan Kingdom of Mustang and into Tibet.
Soft power, for sure. Though will all this change in the future? Looking into the arms supply of the Maoist rebels during the insurgency, a lot of old British Army weapons are evident, Bren guns, .303 Lee Enfield rifles and old Sten sub-machine guns. Many times the Nepalese Army intercepted trains of Yaks on mountain passes in Tibet bearing this kind of weaponry.
Following the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, the British Raj continually sent large consignments of weapons to the Tibetan government. Which does beg the question of how much are the Chinese foreign intelligence covertly supporting the Nepali Maoists? It is difficult to do anything illegal in Tibet, so how did these arms get from Tibet to Nepal without Chinese collusion?
Another situation which points to widespread Chinese support for the Nepalese Maoists is the explosion in the Heroin trade within urban areas of Nepal. Known locally as “brown sugar”, Heroin is now commonplace in many Nepalese cities, with little education about it’s dangers, it is sewing a pandemic of AIDS and addiction.
Heroin has been around in Kathmandu for some time, though not much outside of the darker areas of the capital. This Heroin likely originates in Pakistan or Afghanistan and is presumably brought through western Tibet to western Nepal - a heavily Maoist area of the country. Again, this does make one wonder how much the Chinese are involved in this smuggling and to what extent the Maoists also, are involved?
The newly-elected rebels usually raise funds by extortion and some say drug trading and other red-light activities. This may change now that they have access to Nepali tax funds and are more or less running the government.
As for Nepal’s traditional ally, India, it seems the Indian government is in shock at the election result and still dithering on it’s Nepal policy, while China’s aggressive diplomatic moves into Nepal have stolen a march on their southern neighbour in many respects.
The United Kingdom may also be not so happy about recent political developments in Nepal. Baburam Battarai - the deputy Maoist leader tipped to be Nepal’s next Prime Minister - said last week that he will ban Nepalis from enlisting in the Indian and British Gurkha regiments.
Hence, some analysts suspect that China’s interest in Nepal is more than merely cordial. China stated last year that the Communist Chinese government alone have the right to pick Lamas or tulkus of famous Lamas - a practice usually decided by Tibetan Buddhist Lamas.
Almost a decade and a half after his kidnap, the Panchen Lama is still hidden from the world - his fate unknown. In his place, the Chinese picked a simple monk, as almost an insult to the very office of the Panchen Lama.
The Dalai Lama meanwhile, has said he will put his successor - theoretically another reincarnation of himself - to a popular vote among the “free Tibetans of the Himalaya”. Hence it may be no surprise that the Chinese are trying to strengthen their position in these Himalayan countries whose Buddhists would undoubtedly accept the Dalai Lama’s chosen successor.
This is a thorn in the side to the Chinese plans to dominate the Tibetan Buddhist church and it hopes, the Tibetans and their diaspora elsewhere. If this happens, then Tibetan Buddhism will receive a further blow from the Chinese and a new Dalai Lama appointed by atheists in Beijing is surely to be something of a caricature at best.
All of this is back-dropped by increased defence spending in recent years by the Chinese. Western military observers say China’s armed forces are now stronger, better-equipped and have a good syncronicity on the battlefield between the various forces. They say that China’s military is not yet on a level with the US defence forces, though will be in the coming years.
Among this modernisation is a large number of amphibious assault vessels - far more than would be needed to invade a place like Taiwan - which raises further questions about China’s foreign policy in the future. Another example is the long-range strategic bomber base built in western Tibet.
A worrying scenario then for Nepal’s Tibetans, though many try not to think about it too much, preferring instead to continue with their daily lives. Meanwhile, as China consolidates it’s position in Nepal and in Tibet as is the case with the rest of China, the torture and repression goes on.
Tags: Nepal , Tibetans , Refugees , Migration , Politics , Olympic , Torch , China , Human , Rights
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