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    Greater China
     Feb 25, 2011

US pressures Nepal on Tibetan exiles
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - A trip to Tibetan refugee centers in Nepal by a high-profile United States diplomat could be seen as part of the United States' "soft spot" for Tibet, or it could be seen as Washington defying China over human rights.

Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Mario Otero, who also serves as the White House's special coordinator for Tibetan issues, visited Tibetan refugee centers in Nepal and southern India last week during a week-long trip to South Asia. During her visit, Otero showed the US's solidarity to Tibetan exiles, even pressing Nepalese authorities to soften their stance on refugees. She also held bilateral meetings with senior government officials in New Delhi, Nepal and Bhutan.

Otero was accompanied with Scott H DeLisi, the US ambassador

to Nepal, and other US diplomats. They met with Nepalese Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal and raised issues relating to challenges faced by Tibetan refugees. "We made it clear that this is an important issue for us," Otero told Nepalese media.

The envoy called on the Nepalese government to honor the United Nations-brokered "gentlemen's agreement" between Nepal and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide safe transit to Tibetan refugees who wish to travel through Nepal to Dharamsala, India, the capital of exiled Tibetans. She also raised the issue of free passage for refugees from Tibet who face problems in Nepal due to their lack of identity cards. "There is a stable practice while dealing with Tibetan issues which ensures providing them free passage to India," the US envoy was quoted by Kantipur online.

Otero urged the Nepalese government to allow Tibetan refugees free passage to India without restrictions. She also pledged the continued support of the US government for the safety and welfare of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

She highlighted the problems faced by Tibetans in the Himalayan region, according to Milan Thuladhar, the foreign relations adviser to the Nepalese prime minister. He said Khanal told the US guest that his government was dealing with the issue in accordance with its international human-rights obligations.

The US undersecretary also visited a Tibetan reception center in Kathmandu to meet and talk with newly-arrived refugees. Earlier in her trip in India she visited Bylakuppe, the Tibetan settlement in southern India, where she held an interactive session with students, monks and nuns. She was hosted by the Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari, and officials from the government-in-exile.

Visits by US officials have always been regarded as of much value among Tibetan exiles. "Undersecretary Maria Otero expressed the United States' continued support for the safety and welfare of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, and said she would carry their message back to Washington," said Todd Stein, director of government relations at the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). "Her visit signals that concerns for Tibetans, both the refugees and vulnerable long-staying population, remains a key interest in US relations with Nepal."

The ICT, a US-based Tibet lobby group, also said the act was an "indication of the United States' commitment to a negotiated resolution on Tibet that preserves the distinct religious, cultural and linguistic heritage of the Tibetan people".

Nepal has launched many crackdowns on Tibetan exiles. About 20,000 Tibetan refugees live in Nepal, according to government statistics, but thousands more live as illegal migrants. Nepal repeatedly vows not to allow anti-China activities on its soil, and strictly observes a "one China policy" that holds that Tibet is part of China.

The Chinese pressure has been such that Nepal has refused to recognize refugees who arrived after 1989, significantly limiting their social, economic, political and civil rights. It is also known that Tibetan refugees are also not allowed to register marriages and the birth of children. Recent US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks have also revealed Nepal's stringent policies treating Tibetans who fled from Tibet to Nepal.

China pays Nepalese police to arrest Tibetan refugees as they cross over the border to escape persecution. However, the Chinese government contends that Tibetans arriving in Nepal are illegal migrants and has sought their repatriation. Presently, the Chinese influence is so strong that Nepal, which was once supportive of the Tibetans, is now turning away Tibetan refugees and handing the newly arrived refugees over to the Chinese.

"The link between China's aggression against Tibetans and Nepalese police actions has contributed to an environment of fear and insecurity in Nepal's Tibetan communities," the ICT said.

As China frowns on any country hosting and supporting Tibetan exiles in any capacity, especially the iconic monk the Dalai Lama, the recent support shown by the United States in visiting Tibetans in Nepal would upset Beijing, which is witnessing warming Sino-US relations.

During Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington in January, where he was hosted with a state dinner, the two sides agreed to build a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect. Most importantly, they discussed issues related to human rights.

Obama said during a joint news conference, "As I've said before and I repeated to President Hu, we have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly - that we think are very important and that transcend cultures."

Interestingly, Hu admitted that on human rights "a lot still needs to be done" and that Beijing was willing to have dialogue as long as it was based on mutual respect and non-interference in China's internal affairs. The US, he said, must recognize that Taiwan and Tibet are "issues that concern China's territorial integrity and China's core interests".

Experts believe Hu's visit has advanced Sino-US relations, with each side better understanding the other. "Hu's visit was very important for both sides to have realistic, pragmatic, stable expectations of the other and to understand not only what are the problems in the relationship, but also to understand how those problems look from the other side," Kenneth Lieberthal, the director of the John L Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said.

"We have too many overlapping interests and goals that are of significance bilaterally, regionally and globally. The visit made progress on those issues and those issues are ones that always need constant work," he added.

Regarding Tibet, Nepal finds itself in a bind, pressured both by the world's two largest economies. The latest US gesture was Otero's pledge to provide US$850,000 in assistance to the Nepal police to improve its security capability.

"The US government has a robust partnership with the Nepal police because we understand that improving law and order in Nepal and protecting Nepalis' security are essential tasks for a country coming out of the insecurity of a long conflict," Otero said.
Nepal now is in a difficult position. On the one hand, it is under enormous pressure from China, its neighboring giant, to block Tibetan refuges and to bar anti-China activities by Tibetan refugees. On the other hand, it faces growing pressures from the West to protect the human rights of refugees.

Tsering Namgyal, one of those refugees, has closely watched Nepalese government policies. He says his family is still in a refugee center in Nepal, where it is not safe. "It will be too early to say that US government pressure will have any affect on the Nepalese government, as China may get tougher."

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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