China tests Nepal's loyalty over Tibet
By Peter Lee
Nepal is caught in a tug-of-war between India and China that threatens to tear
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
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. 
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
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
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. 
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
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. 
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:
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. 
As the story made it into the key issue
appears to have been resentment of the Department of Immigration towards the
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
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
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. 
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
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
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
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." 
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
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. 
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)
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. 
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. 
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
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:
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
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
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
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. 
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]
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
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. 
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
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.