China tests Nepal's loyalty over Tibet

Nepal is caught in a tug-of-war between India and China that threatens to tear it apart. 

The big picture is dominated by the rivalry of Asia's two great rising powers; but how and why that rivalry plays out in Nepal has a lot to do with the Tibetan issue and China's anxiety over the potential for increasingly militant Tibetan emigres in Nepal and India to cause problems for Beijing. 

A potentially exacerbating factor is the so-called "gentleman's agreement" that has informally governed the treatment of Tibetan refugees within Nepal for over a decade. 

India's Nepal policy has often been a counter-productive welter of anger, insecurity, and malice, born of the intimate and often oppressive cultural, security, and political relationship between the two states. 

In recent years, New Delhi's compulsion to meddle in Nepalese affairs has led to a vicious cycle of crisis, further interference, and intensified alienation between the Indian government and significant sectors of Nepal's elite. 

As relations between India and Nepal worsen, China has been in a position to advance its relatively modest goal: a Nepal that is reliably anti-Tibetan and not reflexively and dangerously pro-Indian. 

Despite India's determined efforts to confound, divide, and discredit its enemies, as of February 2010 Nepal is ruled by a relatively pro-China coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) aka CPN-UML and the Unified Communist Party (Maoist) under Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal. 

A high-profile official visit by Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Chief of Staff General Chen Bingde, leading a 15-person delegation to Kathmandu March 23-25, signaled China's desire to engage with a crucial, institutionally pro-Indian Nepalese institution - the Nepalese Army - as well as the government, in order to stabilize Nepalese politics in its current, favorable configuration. 

The timing of the visit was undoubtedly linked to the establishment of the ruling coalition after dreary months of negotiation, indecision, treachery, and cupidity, exacerbated by the determined resistance of pro-Indian political groupings including the Nepali Congress and the right wing of the CPN (UML), led by KP Sharma Oli. 

But it also occurred at a critical juncture: the announcement that the Dalai Lama would surrender his political role as leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a new leader would be chosen through elections in the Tibetan diaspora on March 20. 

The prospect that emigre Tibetan activism will evolve into militancy without the tempering influence of the Dalai Lama - Beijing's much-abused but determinedly conciliatory adversary - is a strong reason for China to ensure that the Nepalese government is firmly in its corner. 

Therefore, China dispatched its army chief to restate its insistence that Nepal not be used for "anti-Chinese activity"; declare that China would not accept any "third party interference" in Sino-Nepalese relations; request further efforts by Nepalese authorities to match measures by Chinese authorities to cut the flow of transit refugees from the the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of the PRC into Nepal; and attempt to introduce the concept of extradition into the handling of refugee cases. 

The Chinese mission also engaged with the Nepal Army in a high-profile manner, pledging the equivalent of $20 million (apparently a "colossal amount" in the impoverished republic) in medical and construction equipment to the army. [1] 

The Nepal Army is perhaps the least dysfunctional of Nepal's current institutions, no friend of the current ruling pro-Chinese communists, institutionally pro-Indian, but also the key to security and stability if unrest sweeps the republic. China's willingness to reach out to the Nepal Army is perhaps intended as a demonstration that, in contrast to New Delhi, Beijing supports a more inclusive and constructive approach to dealing with Nepal's political problems. 

The Nepalese government greeted Chen Bingde with an explicit reaffirmation of the One-China policy and assurances that it would not permit anti-Chinese activities on Nepalese soil. 

The willingness of the Nepalese government to endorse China's line has something to do with the persuasive carrots and sticks its immense northern neighbor can deploy, and the desire to develop an effective counterweight to the intrusive Indian presence; but it may also reflect an increasing weariness with its two-pronged Tibetan refugee problem. 

Nepal is home to 20,000 Tibetan refugees, the second largest Tibetan exile community; it is also a key link between the Tibetan diaspora and the Chinese-controlled homeland. 

Treatment of Tibetan refugees residing in and transiting through Nepal is the subject of a long-standing "gentleman's agreement" between the West, India, the UN, and Nepal. 

The "gentleman's agreement" allowed for the de facto refugee status for Tibetans fleeing the TAR. Per the agreement, Tibetans who make it across the border are supposed to be escorted by Nepalese police to Kathmandu, turned over to the Department of Immigration, passed on to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center in Kathmandu, processed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), and dispatched to India on a one-way transit visa. 

Nepalese policemen were paid a modest stipend funded by the UNHCR office (largely through the financial support of the United States State Department) for this time-consuming and - when the Maoist insurgency was at its height - dangerous duty through the Nepalese Department of Immigration, the DofI. 

As of 2008, after the embarrassment of mass Tibetan demonstrations in Nepal against its hosting of the Olympics, China significantly tightened its control of the border. It also became more demanding of Kathmandu, the Nepalese government became more compliant, and the Department of Immigration became less tolerant of refugees. Police interpreted the "border" more loosely, as a zone rather than a line, and began chivvying Tibetan refugees back to the TAR even if they were several days walk inside the borderline. This process, known as "refoulement" or forcible repatriation, is illegal treatment of acknowledged refugees; however, in the murky world of Nepalese immigration, the issue was not that clear-cut. 

In addition to tightened controls on the China side of the border and concerted Chinese pressure on the Nepalese government, the Chinese government allegedly deployed financial incentives: it was rumored to pay bounties to Nepalese policemen to take refugees back to the border instead of to Kathmandu. [2] 

The number of refugees appearing at the Kathmandu reception center has decreased significantly, from a peak of almost 3,000 per year in 2006 to 2008 (when the Maoist insurgency plunged border enforcement in disarray) to 770 in 2010. [3] 

In this fraught situation, friction has arisen between the Nepalese government and the UNHCR. By 2010, the majority of Tibetan refugees reaching the reception center were coming in directly, not through the Department of Immigration. According to an article in Republica, a leading local English-language paper, the UNHCR had taken to paying bounties of around $350 to policemen bringing Tibetan refugees to them directly, instead of through the DofI, perhaps to counter an unstated government tilt toward refoulement and to compete with Chinese bounty payments. [4] 

Presumably this did not sit well with the Nepalese government. From the perspective of the Department of Immigration, the UNHCR bounty was dividing the loyalties of the police and incentivizing a flow of Tibetan refugees that was diplomatically onerous to the Nepalese government, while depriving the DofI of a revenue stream. 

In April 2010, the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu detained nine Tibetan refugees and gave each a fine of 2,600 Nepal rupees for illegal entry - less than $40 per head. If the fine could not be paid, the nine would be detained for 107 days. However, it does not appear that the Nepalese government was prepared to deport the refugees back to China after the fine was paid or the period of incarceration ended. 

According to TibetInfoNet, a European advocacy and news site, the Chinese embassy took a close interest in the nine, indicating that China is engaged in enhanced, systematic intelligence gathering as part of its investment in intensifying and modernizing TAR border enforcement ... but found that cooperation from the Nepalese government still had its limits: 

A representative of the Chinese embassy, who presented himself as a security officer but wore plain clothes, visited the immigration office three times. On his first visit, he spoke with the Tibetans in Chinese, trying to convince them to go back to Tibet and promising them immunity if they did so. However, the Tibetans refused to speak to him or simply ignored him. On his second visit, the Chinese officer asked the Nepali immigration officers to copy photos and the files on the detained Tibetans onto a USB memory stick that he had brought especially for this purpose. This was refused to him. The Tibetans had, in any case, provided fake names to the Nepali immigration, as is common practice. On the third visit, the Chinese officer appeared with a camera and the intention of taking photos of the detained Tibetans. Also in this case, permission was refused to him. [5]

As the story made it into the key issue appears to have been resentment of the Department of Immigration towards the UNHCR. 

The UNHCR declined to pay the fine to spring the nine; instead of $360 for the DofI, an embarrassing wave of diplomatic pressure hit the Nepalese embassy in Washington: 

The detention evoked so much diplomatic pressure from Western countries, mainly the US, that the Tibetans were released after five days in jail. 

The pressure was so intense that officials at the Nepali embassy in Washington DC had to call up the Immigration Office in Nepal, asking it to release the arrested. 

Following the release, Nepali immigration authorities have not detained any more Tibetans though there is a sustained flow of Tibetans to Kathmandu. The DofI these days quietly hands over Tibetans illegally coming to Nepal to UNHCR-Nepal without taking legal action as it used to in recent years. [6] 

There is a barely suppressed note of indignation in the reporting that the Tibetans couldn't pay the $40 fine, even though they had reportedly each paid the equivalent of US$2,000 to get smuggled into Nepal for "the promise of a comfortable life". 

This intense US commitment toward maintaining a channel to Dharamsala for less than 1,000 Tibetan transit refugees per year invites scrutiny of another alleged element of the "gentleman's agreement": the West's apparent acquiescence to the Nepalese government's suppression of "anti-China" political activity by members of the 20,000 or so "resident refugee" Tibetan exile community. 

Tibetans who made it to Nepal before 1989 are given formal refugee status, distinguishing them from later arrivals, who fall under the "gentleman's agreement" as transit refugees. 

Formal refugee status has yield resident Tibetans in Nepal little more than the opportunity to reside on land in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Pokhara and other towns in the Kathmandu Valley arranged through the Swiss Red Cross - land that they cannot own - and to occupy a socially marginalized position as non-citizens in Nepalese society. 

Many Tibetans residing in Nepal fled Tibet as China took over in the 1950s. Some of the residents belong to families relocated from Mustang when the Central Intelligence Agency and the Dalai Lama shut down the secret war against the Chinese in Tibet in the 1970s. The community is organized by activist emigre groups like the Tibetan Youth Congress and Tibetan Women's Association; and it reliably turns out to condemn historical and current crimes of the Chinese government against the Tibetan people. 

An in-depth analysis of the plight of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, prepared in 2002 by the Tibet Justice Center, contained this admission by the US Embassy in Kathmandu: 

In the Embassy's view, the paramount objective of its policies in Nepal is to ensure that Tibetans can continue to escape persecution in China through Nepal, even if this sometimes means restricting the rights of Tibetan refugees who reside more permanently in Nepal. "... [I]t is more important morally to have the open border than to have every form of cultural freedom of expression." The tradeoff, in other words, is that Nepal will continue to permit the gentleman's agreement to operate provided the political expression of Tibetans within Nepal does not jeopardize Nepal's relationship with China. The gentleman's agreement therefore must remain low-profile. "Protesting in Nepal,"... is "counterproductive." [7]

In sum, the price of the "gentleman's agreement" appears to be a hands-off attitude toward Nepal's vigorous and frequently violent police action against this none-too-popular minority. 

This policy has not been publicly reaffirmed in recent years; however, the low-key Western response to highly visible clashes between resident refugee Tibetans and the Nepalese authorities in anti-Chinese protests implies it is still in effect. 

In the last month, Nepal has witnessed two incidents of forceful government suppression of resident Tibetan political activity in Nepal. 

On March 10, perhaps 1,000 Nepalese Tibetans gathered at a monastery in Kathmandu to hear the broadcast of a speech by the Dalai Lama on the 52nd anniversary of the anti-Chinese uprising in Lhasa. According to a photo-essay by Dharamsala-based journalist Rebecca Novick, the Nepalese government turned out 1,000 riot police (their high-tech equipment allegedly "a gift of the Chinese Embassy") to quash any political manifestations, including display of the Tibetan flag. [8] 

The Tibetan flag was defiantly displayed and the police duly moved in, triggering a series of angry confrontations. The police responded with South Asia's signal contribution to public order, the lathi (baton or stick) charge. 

Despite the presence of numerous international observers and some spectacular video footage, Western governments apparently were uninterested in making an issue out of the plight of Nepal's resident Tibetan refugees. [9] 

The Nepal government followed up on this incident with another apparently high-handed action against the resident Tibetan community on March 20: stopping Nepalese Tibetans from voting in the epochal elections for the new Kalon Tripa - prime minister - who will serve as the Dalai Lama's successor as the political leader of the Tibetan diaspora. 

There are 84,000 registered Tibetan voters worldwide; about 10% of these voters reside in Nepal, and have been successively disenfranchised to some extent in the national primary (October 3, 2010) and local (February 12) elections, as well as the national elections held on March 20 by Nepalese government interference in balloting. [10] 

In contrast to the rapid and massive application of pressure upon the Nepalese government in the virtually invisible matter of $360 in squeeze to free nine transit refugees, the wholesale and highly publicized thrashing of dozens of Tibetan activists in the streets of Kathmandu and, subsequently, the seizing of ballot boxes in the most important election in the history of the Tibetan diaspora, apparently at the behest of the People's Republic of China, excited little conspicuous official interest or comment from Tibet's traditional government defenders in Europe or the United States. 

One reason is that some of these clashes were, to some extent, political theater orchestrated by the Tibetan emigres at the expense of the Nepal government, which is still supported by the West and is engaged in the difficult job of trying to thread the security needle between the conflicting needs of China, India, the emigres, and the international champions of freedom in Tibet. 

A Western activist on Tibetan issues told Asia Times Online that young Tibetans have persisted in provocations on Nepalese soil to embarrass China even as that has put them on the wrong side of the Nepalese government and public opinion: 

2008 demonstrations [against China's hosting of the Olympic Games] were strongly advised against by Tibetan community elders and politically they were clearly a mistake. There was a perception in Nepal that Tibetans place themselves upon [sic] Nepali laws and feel able to because they have western support. Wherever you'd go, this is asking for troubles. With that Tibetans lost a lot of Nepali supporters. 

I personally experienced the ballot box issue. Clearly, here too, some Tibetans refused to respect the discretion which had been agreed with Nepal's government and refused to close the poll stations when they were advised to (just 1-2 hrs ahead of planned closure time), then only Nepali police came up and took the boxes away.

The fact that the younger generation of Tibetan resident refugee activists sometimes invite these clashes in order to gain publicity for their cause is not, of itself, an explanation for Western indifference. The US and EU like a good provocation as much as any government when it suits their geopolitical aims. 

A WikiLeaks 2010 cable from the US Embassy in New Delhi provides the basis for some intriguing speculation as to the higher (transit refugee) and lower (resident refugee) priorities of the West's Tibet policy. Over half of the Tibetans arriving in Dharamsala cannot, by any interpretation, be classified as genuine refugees. Why? Because after they escape from Tibet ... they go back to Tibet: 

XXXXXXXXXXXX [source blanked out in the cable] told PolOff on February 4 that an average of 2,500 to 3,500 refugees from Tibet typically arrive in Dharamsala each year, with most returning to Tibet after receiving an audience with the Dalai Lama. XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that from 1980 to November 2009 87,096 refugees were processed by the Dharamsala Reception Center (RC) and that 46,620 returned to Tibet after a short pilgrimage in India. Most of those who do stay in India are children who then attend schools run by Tibetan Children's Villages. [11]

That this reverse flow exists passes through Nepal is documented by the exasperated attempt of the Nepalese government to extract fines and fees from the ostensibly impoverished transit refugees they detain while passing through Nepal on their way back to Tibet, as the Tibet Justice Center's 2002 report notes: 

Finally, it should be noted that Nepalese officials emphasized that, today, the government's largest concern about Tibetan refugees is not necessarily those in transit to India; it is rather the growing number of Tibetans who return to Tibet through Nepal after visiting India and thus reenter Nepal from India. The government apparently fears that these Tibetans will remain in Nepal. Director-General Mainali said that Tibetans caught reentering Nepal from India, while eventually returned to UNHCR custody, at times will be arrested, fined, and jailed. 
In late 2000, the government detained 19 Tibetans for this reason, charging them with high fines and imprisoning them for inability to pay. On the basis of this "precedent," in August 2001, the government detained several other Tibetans seeking to return to Tibet after visiting India and assessed fines - totaling several thousand dollars, comprised of visa fees, late visa fees, and fines for each day of alleged illegal residence - on the presumption that these Tibetans had been resident in Nepal illegally for the duration of their visit to India. Because none of the Tibetans could afford to pay, the Nepalese Department of Immigration imprisoned them. 

UNHCR is reportedly negotiating with the Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure that this practice does not continue and to develop a means for "Tibetans coming from India [to] safely cross Nepal on their way to Tibet in [the] future." [12] 

This amazing exercise in religious tourism is, one would expect, rather suspicious to the Chinese government. 

Tens of thousands of Tibetans spend thousands of dollars apiece to smugglers, risk their lives crossing the Himalayas, endure the hostile ministrations of the Nepalese police, make it to Dharamsala, receive the Dalai Lama's blessing - and then run the same gauntlet of danger, abuse, and expense in reverse to return to the well-advertised living hell of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. 

Only the children stay, to be educated in Dharamsala. 

The intense Chinese interest in assembling detailed dossiers on the nine detainees in April 2010 was perhaps related to a desire to be able to identify them as anti-China activists inside Tibet for possible extradition requests. 

However, it does not appear likely that Nepal will agree to extradite Tibetan refugees back to the TAR in the near future. It would also not appear to be a priority to document who was leaving Tibet permanently to join the emigre community railing, for now impotently, against the PRC. 

It appears most likely that Chinese security wanted to know exactly who the nine detainees were because many of them were expected to return to Tibet after a visit to Dharamsala. 

Plans to return via Nepal - and the need to prevent unfriendly security services from acquiring their true identities - probably also explains why the detainees engage in the "common practice" of providing false identities to the Department of Immigration. 

A 2009 profile of refugees in Dharamsala in the Tibet Post International, while describing the mistreatment suffered with the TAR and the hardships endured along the route, also touched on the motivations of some refugees, and why the people leaving Tibet are assumed to be probable returnees and a threat to Chinese rule: 

Topjor's cot is next to 32-year-old Tenpa Dhargye, who arrived from Tibet three days ago. This is his second time in India, in 2000 he came for the first time and upon his return to Tibet was caught carrying political [sic], documents for which he received a four year and 10-month prison sentence. [13] 

The author also interviewed four 15-year old boys who made the arduous trek out of Tibet, reporting "They all plan to return to Tibet at some point in the future". 

The director of the reception center roughly confirmed the situation described in the cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, telling the Tibet Post, "Every year 300-400 refugees return to Tibet from India, but this too is dangerous, and the number changes based on the political situation inside Tibet and the security on the border area." 

The gentleman's agreement provides a humanitarian service by providing a path to freedom for Tibetans who find it impossible to continue to live under Chinese rule, and for young people seeking an education and environment more in keeping with their Tibetan identity than what they can get in the TAR. 

But a majority of the so-called "refugees" use the facility to pay brief visits to Dharamsala to obtain the blessing of the Dalai Lama before returning to the TAR; of these returnees, an unknown number are activists whose motives and mission for making the round trip are no doubt the subject of the most unfavorable speculation by Chinese security services. 

In the most generous interpretation, the United States supports the Nepalese facility so that every year a few hundred Tibetans from the TAR are able to achieve direct contact with their revered leader. 

In the worst case, China could envisage the Nepal conduit as a conveyor belt for activists transporting information, advice, and money between Dharamsala and Tibet - and delivering Tibetan youth for indoctrination in Dharamsala - a mechanism knowingly enabled by the United States through its diplomatic and financial support of the UNHCR operation in Nepal, and through its direct and intense pressure on the Nepalese government to protect the anonymity of these peripatetic refugees from attempts by China's security apparatus to learn their identities. 

The truth is perhaps somewhere in between, more towards the humanitarian end of the spectrum, since the Indian government is serious about discouraging anti-PRC activities by the Tibetan exile community within its borders. 

However, in an atmosphere of increased militancy by the new generation of Tibetan exile leaders, heightened rivalry between China and India, and the significant upgrading of the border patrol, intelligence gathering, and military presence on the Chinese side of the border, the Chinese government is likely to take an even more jaundiced and suspicious view of the Tibetan refugees trickling back and forth across the border - and take even more hostile and proactive measures against them. 

China may be able to draw on the quiet cooperation of the Nepalese government. Kathmandu apparently regards the gentleman's agreement on Tibetan transit refugees as an unwelcome and unremunerative burden that it bears in order to maintain good relations with the West; its obstreperous Tibetan resident refugee minority is a public order headache that could conceivably turn into a security liability once the moderating influence of the Dalai Lama is removed from the political equation. 

Certainly, if the new generation of emigre leadership eventually swings toward increased militancy, both the transit refugee channel through Kathmandu and the activism of the Tibetan resident refugees in Nepal will attract the elevated and suspicious scrutiny of both the Nepalese and Chinese governments. 

As these pressures converge on Nepal, it will be interesting to see how - and if - the gentleman's agreement survives. 

1. China army delegation supports Nepal Army with colossal amount: Media, Telegraph Nepal, Mar 24, 2011. 
2. China paying Nepal to nab Tibetan refugees: WikiLeaks, Times of India, Dec 19, 2010. 
3. More Tibetans sneaking into Nepal, Republica, Mar 25, 2011. 
4. Squeezed between China and West over Tibet, Republica, Jun 28, 2010.
5. By-passing the 'Gentleman's Agreement', TibetInforNet, May 28, 2010. 
6. Squeezed between China and West over Tibet, Republica, Jun 28, 2010. 
7. Tibet's Stateless Nationals: Tibetan Refugees in Nepal (p. 113), Tibet Justice Center, Berkeley, CA, 2002. 
8. Nepal's Violent Crackdown on Tibetan Anniversary, HuffPost, Mar 18, 2011.
9. Police clash with pro-Tibet protesters in Nepal, Telegraph, Mar 10, 2011. 
10. Nepal Police Confiscates Tibetan Ballot Boxes in Kathmandu, VOA News, Oct 4, 2010.
11. Viewing cable 10NEWDELHI32, WikiLeaks, released on Dec 16, 2010.
12. Tibet's Stateless Nationals: Tibetan Refugees in Nepal (pp. 109-110), Tibet Justice Center, Berkeley, CA, 2002. 
13. Receiving Tibetan refugees from China's jaws, Tibet Post, Feb 21, 2009.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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