Even as the post-conflict discussion in Nepal demands limiting the future size and scope of the country’s army, in early October a new security contingent went into action. Following on months of rumoured preparation, two teams of the paramilitary Armed Police Force (APF) moved north from Kathmandu to scout for what are to be permanent security posts along the Tibetan border, constituting the first time that such installations will have been established by the Kathmandu government. Eventually, APF security personnel are slated to staff five new checkposts in the northern borderland – at Tatopani of Sindhupalchok District (currently the only official crossing, where a security contingent is already in place), as well as, east to west, Kimathanka of Sankhuwasabha, Limi of Humla and Tinker of Darchula and Lo Manthang of Mustang. Ultimately, this undertaking will comprise the cordoning-off of the only Himalaya border between Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir that has not seen a security presence.
In fact, significant technical difficulties notwithstanding (as noted in the teams’ subsequent reports), this plan is at the moment being referred to only as the ‘first phase’. Ultimately, officials are promising a security presence in each of the 13 districts along the 1400-km frontier. While the uninformed observer would think this border force was being raised by Kathmandu to guard against threats from without, it is actually being done at the behest of the country across the border. Indeed, the real motivating ‘threat’ for the new APF set-up appears to be a concern of Beijing, with its continued anxieties over the Tibetans who have long streamed over the Nepali border in hopes of visiting Dharamsala.
Regionally, Sino-related discussion suddenly dominated weeks’ worth of Southasian news cycles in late October, leading up to the ninth trilateral summit between India, China and Russia in Bangalore. In the run-up, a public spat arose between New Delhi and Beijing, technically relating to the decades-old disagreement on the international border in Arunachal Pradesh. Such a focus was probably inevitable, given that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a much-scrutinised trip to Arunachal in October, followed by the more contentious visit to the state a month later by the Dalai Lama himself – as an official guest of the Arunachal state government. Despite a relatively amicable summit in Bangalore, on the Tibet issue the Indian government remained clear, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that the Dalai Lama remained India’s “honoured guest”.
Yet regardless of New Delhi’s ability to maintain its composure in the face of China’s fast-rising stature and strength, many other countries are countenancing stepped-up Chinese influence. Given Nepal’s position directly between India and China, and bordering Tibet, its government has been inevitably faced with this evolving situation more acutely than most. And while this newly energised bilateral relationship pushed by Beijing may not yet be affecting most of the people of Nepal, the same cannot be said of the country’s Tibetan community.
Technically, the new security arrangements along the northern border are part of a countrywide attempt to improve law and order in the face of years of conflict and growing impunity. The undertaking constitutes what is officially known as the Special Security Plan (SSP), which since its launch in mid-August has focused on strengthening the state’s security presence (and control) in response to the deteriorating law-and-order scenario that has accompanied Nepal’s stuttering peace process. Yet while such a re-appraisal would indeed seem desperately needed in certain parts of the country, the increase in monitoring in the north does not appear connected. Certainly there has been no escalation of any kind that would appear to back up the claim, put forth by an unnamed Nepal Army general earlier this year in the Nepali-language Dristi weekly, that attempts are afoot to “revive the Khampa rebellion”, a reference to the CIA-funded Tibetan resistance of the 1950s through the early 1970s. Indeed, Khampa-related discussion, inevitably focusing on the Mustang area that is likewise a focus of the new security undertaking, has for decades remained a unique Chinese obsession.
The decision to step up security along the northern border comes at the end of three years of build-up and evolution in the relationship between Kathmandu and Beijing. In fact, the story of that evolution needs to be traced slightly farther back, to the time of then-King Gyanendra’s takeover of the Nepali state in early 2005. With Gyanendra’s takeover of the Nepali state on 1 February 2005, he quickly found himself isolated on both the regional and international stage. And so, as New Delhi – traditionally Kathmandu’s closest ally – made its disapproval well known, the king simply turned to the north, looking for support that Beijing was happy to give. Indeed, China was the only country to publicly do so, support that ultimately translated into selling Gyanendra’s government tens of thousands of rifles and grenades, purportedly to fight the insurgency. That decision on the erstwhile king’s part was to prove to be the first step in a sea change in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Kathmandu.
Gyanendra was forced to step down with the People’s Movement of April 2006 and, after elections to the Constituent Assembly the following year, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led the new government. Inevitably, the new CPN (Maoist) ministers and politicians from other parties were eager to give continuity to the new relationship with Beijing – anti-Indianism, after all, having long been one of the party’s main rhetorical keystones. Given that the presence of Tibetan refugees in Nepal has in recent years been one of the primary bugbears in Beijing-Kathmandu relations, the country’s Tibetan community quickly came under the scanner.
This too had precedent. For Gyanendra, a quid pro quo of Chinese support had been the closure of the UN-funded Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office and the Kathmandu office of the representative of the Dalai Lama, both of which had been in operation since the 1960s. When the new Maoist government was formed in the summer of 2008, one of its first actions was to refuse permission for either to re-open. As if to drive home the larger point, the new Maoist prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’), used his first foreign state visit again to break with tradition: instead of travelling to the south, to New Delhi, he headed straight for Beijing, to attend the Olympics in August 2008.
Over the following eight months that it was at the helm in Kathmandu, the Maoist government seemed more than willing to see what Beijing had to offer. Yet it is important also to highlight that even the CPN (Maoist) turn towards Beijing had very little to do with an alignment with the party’s ostensible ‘ideological motherland’. Indeed, there are numerous examples of Maoist leaders (including ideologue and former finance minister, Baburam Bhattarai), prior to rising to the top of Kathmandu politics, having severely criticised China’s pro-capitalist ‘revisionism’. After all, China itself had been distancing itself from the legacy of Mao Tse-tung for decades. The Maoist party’s subsequent (and continued) embrace of China thus needs to be seen in a context similar to that during Gyanendra’s takeover: an ‘outsider’ element opportunistically looking for support, strength and legitimacy, each of which it was hoped Beijing could offer.
China’s expanded toehold in Nepal has remained firmly in place following the downfall of the Maoist government in May 2009 – an event that the Maoists continue to blame largely on interference by New Delhi. Indeed, many analysts today suggest that China has never been stronger in Nepal than it is right now. Evidence of this can be seen though an increasingly visible public-relations campaign in Kathmandu newspapers, and a newly released China-focused magazine aimed at English-speaking Nepali readers; the recent opening of some two-dozen Nepal-China Study Centres, enough to lead India’s intelligence services into a frenzy of suspicion in early October; and the steady expansion by the Chinese embassy in terms of its network and breadth of activities. Recent years have also seen the regular appearance of high-level Chinese delegations in Kathmandu, greeted by an oddly prominent China tourism billboard at the exit of Tribhuvan international airport.
Over recent months, the new government, led by CPN (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, has continued and even strengthened this new relationship with China in certain ways. More than anything else, this highlights the opportunism inherent in any state set-up as weak as that which is currently in power in Kathmandu; but it also underlines the inevitable hope of any small country to amass as many friendly sponsors as possible. Ironically, Prime Minister Nepal’s government (with its 22 political parties in coalition) gains a large part of its strength against the Maoists from steadfast support from New Delhi; yet it is equally keen to keep Beijing happy and do the latter’s bidding – as long as it does not anger New Delhi. Though Prime Minister Nepal has yet to make an official visit to Beijing, there has been a string of recent top-level visits by Nepali officials to China. This has included Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala’s trip in September, as well as two recent visits by Maoist Chairman Dahal, in August (to Hong Kong) and October – during the latter of which, described as “highly successful”, Dahal was able to meet briefly with President Hu Jintao.
What exactly is Nepal getting out of this newly invigorated bilateral relationship? To date, the changes on the ground are relatively few, but instead consist largely of the hope of future direct aid, support in international forums, and increased leverage vis-à-vis India. Foreign Minister Koirala’s parting words to journalists before flying to Beijing on 8 September were perhaps the best indication of the current government’s aspirations in the former regard. She would, she announced, be re-iterating a request made in July for around USD 1 billion in assistance for the construction of a new hydropower installation, a new international airport in the tourist town of Pokhara and new flyovers on the Kathmandu Ring Road (originally built in the mid-1970s with Chinese aid). In addition, Koirala was hoping for aid that would bolster bilateral border trade, including the construction of new facilities at the north-central border point of Tatopani, a special economic zone in the same area, and – in what has become one of Beijing’s most scrumptious (if rather unlikely) carrots – an extension of the Lhasa railroad to the Nepali border.
In the event, Foreign Minister Koirala met with Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, with whom she discussed options to “strengthen cooperation on border security”. Indeed, partially in order to increase security along the northern border, the possibility of continuing to focus on – including opening up – the northern borderland looks set to receive additional fillips in the coming days. Already one of the largest Chinese projects in Nepal today is the highly technical construction of a new road extending from the Tibetan border in the central border district of Rasuwa – a massive project that will eventually offer quick access from the plains of western Tibet to the Gangetic plain. (Ironically, the road construction in Rasuwa has reportedly confounded APF attempts to purchase land for its new security installation in the district, as property prices have risen in anticipation of an assumed economic boom once the road opens.) The Chinese government has also pledged to provide training and logistical support to the Nepali border-security personnel in the north. In addition, the long-stalled Kathmandu-Lhasa bus, which opened in 2005 only to close again in 2006, is said to be on track to restart by February 2010.
The promise of real money has also begun to bloom. In late October, Beijing announced that it would soon be increasing its annual assistance to Nepal by 50 percent, to nearly USD 20 million – a figure more important for its sudden dramatic swelling than for the final amount. Within days, and tapping into what is certainly one of Nepal’s most lucrative proto-sectors, in early November two significant new joint China-Nepal hydroelectric collaborations were also announced. First, the Chinese state-owned Exim Bank promised a ‘soft loan’ of USD 200 million for various infrastructure projects, 60 percent of which will go into a 61-megawatt hydro project in Nuwakot District. Three days later, the Nepal Electricity Authority announced the first-ever investment by a private Chinese company in a Nepali hydroelectric installation, a 50-MW project in Lamjung District estimated to cost some USD 138 million.
Such interest on China’s part is almost certainly an indication of future priorities, given that even as the Chinese are attempting to establish more industry in Tibet (particularly energy-intensive mining), power-generation remains a significant problem given natural features of the plateau. For the moment, however, whether or not the expanding Chinese largesse is due to its security concerns or the sheer magnanimity of an expanding giant, there is no doubt that the injection of money and projects come as a boost for an economy that has been hurt deeply by both the decade-long conflict and the continuing political instability since formal peace was established in 2006.
A working system
Beyond foreign-policy circles, government coffers and development goals, however, the ramifications of the strengthened Nepal-China relationship are being most readily felt by the relatively tiny Tibetan population (estimated in the low tens of thousands) that lives in Nepal, either legally or, in the case of those who arrived after 1989, illegally. Due to Chinese influence, members of this community, along with the 2000 to 3000 Tibetans who have generally fled the high plateau through Nepal every year, have always had a precarious time in Nepal. Depending on signals from Beijing, the Nepali authorities have at times been more lax, while at other times stricter or downright harsh.
Yet the Nepali system dealing with refugees worked fairly well for decades. Unlike Tibetan refugees who went to India, who prospered under the essentially welfare-state set-up of the Dharamsala government-in-exile, the Tibetan refugee story in Nepal has been one of successful capitalism. Today, while there is a larger discrepancy between rich and poor in Nepal’s Tibetan communities, many of the diaspora’s richest businesspeople are in fact in Nepal. The Tibetan rug industry brought enormous wealth to refugee entrepreneurs, before Nepali entrepreneurs joined in to reap the advantage. That Kathmandu has become a centre for Tibetan Buddhism in exile has led to a proliferation of monasteries, and Tibetan refugees as well as the larger economy have benefited from this. Nepali commentators say that they are proud that a country as small and vulnerable as Nepal has been able to provide refuge to Tibetan refugees, but also caution that Nepal clearly cannot allow the refugees to engage in ‘political’ activities given the obvious geopolitical vulnerability.
Beyond the original refugee population, those who arrived later preferred to use Nepal as a transit point en route to Dharamsala, where the government-in-exile has built up the infrastructure necessary to deal with new arrivals. On the whole, the transit system worked well for decades – with the full knowledge of the Chinese government, and with the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office acting as the support office for information-sharing with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the Nepali government. At the same time, though, over the past two decades even this has been done on an informal basis, on what is commonly referred to as a tacit ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between Kathmandu, UNHCR and Dharamsala.
These impediments notwithstanding, up until the time of Gyanendra’s decision to shut down the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office, the Tibetan community was rarely given much attention by Kathmandu officials. The Chinese embassy was for years fairly weak in Nepal, while the Indian embassy was by far the strongest in the country, in fact constituting India’s second-largest diplomatic outpost in the world. Despite the prohibition of Tibetans carrying out ‘political’ activities, even this was routinely circumvented, particularly for the annual rallies in commemoration of the 10 March 1959 uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule, the so-called Uprising Day, which precipitated the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. Furthermore, over the subsequent half-century the Tibetan community has set up a fairly high-profile existence, drawing significant attention by scholars and tourists for whom a veritable cottage industry has been set up supplying both trinkets and pamphlets.
Although the Beijing-Kathmandu relationship was already changing, undoubtedly the most significant catalyst for the renewed crackdown on the Tibetan community was the incidents surrounding the Uprising Day of 2008. At that time, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games the following August, demonstrations began taking place across the Tibetan plateau, followed by more in many parts of the world. Fuelled by what was taking place in Tibet, the Tibetan exile communities increased the fervency and frequency of their own pro-democracy demonstrations – and nowhere more so than in Kathmandu, where daily protests took place for some six months following March 2008, mostly near the Chinese embassy. While there was a security response from the Nepali state, initially this appeared to be relatively lax, with protesters being arrested quickly and released almost immediately, to be back on the streets the following day.
By all accounts, and unsurprisingly, this situation created a massive amount of pressure on Chinese embassy officials in Kathmandu from their superiors in Beijing. More than the threat to the Chinese state by way of Tibet, the anger of Chinese officials seems to have been directed at the ‘photo op’ provided by the protesting refugees to the world press, which lapped up the images of protesters being manhandled. Among the old-time refugees who have kept low profiles in the Nepali capital, there was some concern that more-radical activist groups, including from elsewhere, were using the Kathmandu platform to raise the temperature. Their worry was that the high-profile daily protests would make things hot enough for the Kathmandu government that it would eventually have to act to prohibit further protests. Nevertheless, the fact that Girija Prasad Koirala was prime minister during the initial period of the protests meant that he had the political clout and stature to resist a level of pressure to come down excessively on the demonstrators. His successors, Maoist Chairman Dahal and current Prime Minister Nepal, do not have such stature, nor the ‘old world’ grounding in the right to peacefully demonstrate.
In the face of an increasingly proactive Chinese embassy, the Nepali government has adopted a far more strong-armed approach to dealing with the Tibetan community – one that has often appeared to comply with neither international convention nor national law, not to mention one that would seem difficult for a sovereign government to accept. This crackdown has been relatively well documented by local media, international rights and advocacy organisations, and even foreign governments. It has also been clearly apparent to anyone walking down the streets of Kathmandu over the past year. Massive security precautions are taken around potentially ‘sensitive’ dates or during visits by Chinese officials, to the extent that streets surrounding the two Chinese diplomatic enclaves in the Nepali capital have been shut down to all traffic – vehicular, foot and otherwise – for days on end. Normally unobtrusive events have also been forcibly cancelled, including long-planned celebrations for the Dalai Lama’s birthday in early July 2009, despite having previously been given the green light by the requisite district official.
More insidious has been the pre-emptive approach that Kathmandu officials have increasingly adopted in the attempt to nip the situation in the bud. The use of preventive-detention powers began in the aftermath of the 2008 protests, when three Tibetans were held for the maximum 90 days allowable under law, including Kelsang Chung, the director of the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre. Prior to the one-year anniversary of the demonstrations in Tibet – also the 50th anniversary of the original Uprising Day – several more Tibetan community leaders were detained by Nepali security personnel. Simultaneously, the security presence, including policemen in riot gear, increased substantially in Tibetan communities, accompanied by allegations of warrant-less searches of private homes. On the Uprising Day itself, a planned week-long prayer vigil was disrupted by police; journalists attempting to cover events at a religious shrine were detained and had equipment taken from them, and at least one was accused by police of writing articles that were deemed ‘anti-China’. More recently, two Tibetans were detained for 30 days ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party of China’s founding in early October, during a raid that also arrested some 54 other Tibetans.
For decades, the Tibet issue in Nepal had been generally discussed, if subtly, as a humanitarian issue. But whether due to protesters going overboard or overreaction by Kathmandu officials, over the past year this has come to be seen as a law-and-order issue by Kathmandu officials. According to analysis included in a Human Rights Watch report released in July 2008 and elaborated upon by an International Campaign for Tibet report released in July 2009, the new Nepali security strategy comprises a ‘zero tolerance’ approach, and includes harassment, excessive force, and warnings that Tibetan exiles constitute a threat to Nepal’s stability. These allegations have been backed up by some within the Tibetan community who suggest that, unlike with regards to public demonstrations by Nepalis, the Home Ministry in Kathmandu appears to have given security personnel standing approval to forcibly break up Tibetan protests with no warning. The evolving situation was also noted in a report by the US State Department released in late October, which noted “a marked increase in the harassment of the Tibetan community”.
Inevitably, there have been larger ripple effects from these new policies, as the Nepali state’s attempts to distance itself from the country’s Tibetans have increased the vulnerability of this already exposed community. The ramifications go beyond being identified for harassment by state security. Nepal’s deterioration in law and order during the political transition of the past few years, coupled with the CPN (Maoist)’s political opportunism vis-à-vis China, appears to have made the Tibetan community into sitting ducks – first for Maoist-aligned groups, but subsequently for more-conventional criminal outfits potentially operating (even if falsely) under the Maoist banner, intent on extortion. Importantly, in such situations Tibetans say they have nowhere to turn for redress. Indeed, this coupled with declining margins in recent years and the constant difficulty of a labour force that is increasingly influenced by Maoist-affiliated unions, has forced some entrepreneurs to sell or lease their businesses to Nepalis and go abroad.
Thus, even as Nepal focuses on strengthening its own rule of law and democratic institutions, the country has increasingly become one in which simply being Tibetan can single one out for harassment or worse. The worry today is that the inevitable result of this could be a strategic ‘quieting’, both purposeful and otherwise, on the part of many in Nepal’s Tibetan community. This has already been seen in dramatically fewer participants taking part in traditional Tibetan festivals and celebrations, certainly in public. It has also been seen in a slight semantic shift, with the intent to de-emphasise ethnicity. For instance, during celebrations for Losar, the Tibetan New Year, in January 2009, attendees reported very few Tibetan participants at the main Boudhnath stupa outside of Kathmandu. But simultaneously, just off of the stupa’s premises, a monastery belonging to the Sherpa community (also a Buddhist, high-mountain ethnicity) was extremely busy with its own Losar celebrations
The younger Tibetan generations have clearly been taking a cue from such discrepancies. In preparation for a recent photo exhibition in Kathmandu organised by Tibetan youths, the potentially hot-button word Tibetan was eventually replaced in the exhibition’s title with the more generic Himalayan. (For the same reason, Sherpa is also used as a substitute at times.) For many in the older generations, this and similar incidents underline an issue with which they are already familiar. Yet for a refugee community that is already concerned with how to keep its identity strong while in exile, a situation in which markers of identity are being specifically targeted for harassment is clearly problematic. At the same time, after the spike in public nationalism on the part of Nepal’s Tibetans during 2008, there is the possibility that identity-assertion is simply again moving towards the integrational – perhaps even being subsumed in parts by stronger identity assertion elsewhere in today’s Nepali socio-political landscape. Some suggest that a greater prioritisation on integration from within the Tibetan community could even be a positive thing, though clearly such a process would need to come from within the community rather than from without.
Still, in the end, the most significant worry is perhaps merely that Nepali official capitulation in terms of complicating the lives of Tibetans could all be for naught, anyway. While the compunctions of sphere-of-influence politics will inevitably push both Beijing and New Delhi to attempt to increase their toehold in Nepal as its political transition drags on, the fact remains that a stable neighbour ultimately has more to offer both of these countries. As for China, the long-term process of continuing the newly strengthened relationship with Nepal could hardly be held hostage by lingering anxiety over the latter’s small resident community of Tibetans. Indeed, such political calculations would make sense for neither side.
~ Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist attached to the University of Bonn. He is the former director of the defunct Tibet Information Network, and is now director of TibetInfoNet, its successor. The views expressed in the article are his own. Carey L Biron is Desk Editor at Himal Southasian.