Thin Ice on the Horizon for Tibetans in Nepal

A personal observation on the situation of Tibetans in Nepal with special reference to Mustang

By Tsering Passang (First published by The Nepal Monitor on 3rd October 2009)

A brief history – Mustang and Tibet connection

The ancient kingdom of Lo, also known as the forbidden kingdom of Mustang, is situated in a spectacular location on a high plateau in central Asia, hidden behind an almost impassable wall of the high Himalayas. Originally part of Ngari in western Tibet, Mustang became an independent kingdom in the 14th century, but is today part of Nepal. However, its culture, Buddhist religion and language have long been shared with the people of Tibet. Its people, known as the Lo-pa (ethnic Tibetans), speak a dialect of Tibetan and are devout Buddhists. The population of approximately 8000 is made up of a hardy, self sufficient people with a great respect for their natural surroundings.

When Tibet was invaded by the People’s Republic of China in 1950, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet into exile, after the failed Tibetan National Uprising in Lhasa in March 1959. Some 80,000 Tibetans followed their leader to India. Over the following years, more Tibetans fled into the neighbouring countries including Nepal and Bhutan.

A contingent of dedicated Tibetan freedom fighters, over 2000 volunteers, was regrouped in exile to launch resistance against the China’s illegal rule in Tibet. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Tibetan resistance fighters, popularly known as “Khampa Guerrillas”, based their covert operation in Mustang, funded by the CIA, from where they conducted military raids into Tibet. A majority of the Tibetan resistance fighters and their families are now resettled in Pokhara and Kathmandu valleys where they have lived since the end of their resistance movement in Mustang in 1974. Mustang is also home to several hundred Tibetan refugees with most of them based in the Lower Mustang (known as Lo-Tserok) Namgyal Ling Tibetan Refugee Settlement.

Local and International Efforts – Preserving Tibetan Culture

As a result of China’s occupation of Tibet, the Tibetan culture faces the danger of extinction. The situation is dire and unless efforts are made to preserve it in other areas of the Himalayas – like Mustang – it may be lost forever. This is why children from Mustang are often sent to Tibetan schools and monasteries in the lowlands of Nepal and in India, where they receive traditional Tibetan and modern education.

An increasing number of foreign donor and aid agencies are in partnership partnering with the local Nepalese NGOs, who are making great efforts towards the preservation work of Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage in the region. Huge credit must be paid to the people of Mustang for their initiative, to Tibetan refugee friends for providing the Buddhist knowledge, and to donor agencies for their continued generous financial support.

Sadly, such sincere efforts sometimes draw criticism from the local Nepalese media, including misreporting, and often bring suspicion from the Chinese authorities.

The successful Mustang Teaching and Learning Programme I describe briefly below provides a very positive example of a local Nepali NGO, educational developers from abroad and a British development agency working effectively together in response to a local initiative. In this case the initiative came from Tibetan refugee and local teachers who asked for a training programme, designed to meet their particular needs. The long term aims of the resulting two stages. Programmes are to make a contribution to the progress of the Mustang region and to help meet the aspirations of its people. I am fortunate enough to be part of this Programme team and to be able to contribute towards realising these aims.

Teaching & Learning (Teachers Training) Development Programme in Mustang

The initial idea to provide this training programme was conceived in autumn 2008, following my personal visit to Mustang, where I met several Tibetan refugee teachers. The need was identified then and following a further survey earlier this year, it was finally implemented in June.

This intensive training programme was prepared and delivered by two highly experienced professionals – Roger Catchpole (British) and Michèle Laouenan (French). They built on their past experience including their teaching and learning project in Eastern Tibet, where they worked with Tibetan and Chinese teachers. Roger has had a long career as a teacher and as an educational developer at the University of Plymouth. He has also worked on a wide range of educational projects in the UK, Asia and Southern Africa. Roger has carried out consultancy and development work for organisations including UNHCR, the British Council and the EU Education Office in Nepal. Michèle has also had a long career as a lecturer at Plymouth University and also as a languages advisor with Cornwall County Council. She continues to lead EU Educational programmes.

This Teaching & Learning Development Programme, said to be the first of its kind ever delivered in Mustang, was conducted under the auspices of London-based Tibet Foundation.  Maitri Ratna Nepal, a Kathmandu-based Nepalese NGO, cooperated with providing the local logistics.

In addition to providing the required practical skills to the teachers, the programme was also aimed at confidence-building and introducing creative and interactive learning in their teaching.

Twenty-five teachers participated including 19 Tibetan refugees, 5 ethnic Tibetans and 1 Nepalese. These teachers had never received such training in their lives apart from the few Nepalese Government-funded teachers. Most of these Tibetan refugee teachers are teaching in the Upper Mustang (special permits are required for foreigners), which is several days on horse-ride/trek from Jomsom, the district Headquarters. They are working in schools across Mustang, which are run and supported by the local and foreign NGOs, the Buddhist monasteries and the Nepalese Government.

Since these schools do not fall under the jurisdiction of Tibetan refugee community in Nepal the Tibetan teachers do not receive any training opportunities from the concerned authorities. The Nepalese Government provides necessary training to its citizens but the Tibetan refugees do not qualify for such schemes. Despite lack of training, these young Tibetans believe in power of education. They are very dedicated and curious to learn and try new things, and also to find out news from the outside world. Tibetan culture and religion form a very important aspect in their lives.

This short intensive training was primarily targeted for the Tibetan refugee teachers, who are disadvantaged in these ways, as part of capacity-building programme. Invitations were also extended to ethnic Tibetan as well as the Nepalese teachers, who teach in the Government-run schools in the region. The young Tibetan refugee teachers, who were born in Nepal (mostly in their 20s and 30s), migrated from the settlements in Pokhara valley, where nearly 3000 Tibetan refugees live. With the steady growth of Tibetan population in exile, the younger people are often finding difficult to get jobs in their refugee settlements. So they journey to bigger cities like Kathmandu or to where there are more demands such as rural Mustang region. They do this despite the difficulties they endure by leaving their families back in the settlements and the hardships they often encounter working at higher altitudes. It is interesting that many of these young Tibetans have some connections with Mustang and its people because their parents had previously lived there and few of them were even born there.

Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin, the Abbot of Pal Ewam Namgyal Thupten Dhargyeling Monastery, Upper Mustang, who sent three Tibetan refugee teachers from the same monastic school for the training, addressed the closing ceremony, saying, “The people of Lo-Mustang has not been able to produce qualified teachers to teach [Tibetan Buddhism and language] to the younger generation.” Echoing the Tibetan Spiritual Leader’s concern, (he lives in India and is deeply revered by ethnic Tibetans of Mustang and other Himalayan regions), the Abbot added, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often said, and also more recently re-emphasised during the Kalachakra teaching, that the people of the Himalayan region have extra responsibility to work towards preserving the Tibetan Buddhist culture, which we the people of Lo-Mustang share with the Tibetans.”

With his own personal experience of difficulties in recruiting and retaining Tibetan refugee teachers especially in Upper Mustang, Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin, who follows the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, called for patience from the Tibetan refugee teachers by saying, “Mustang is a remote place and it is very difficult to get things here that we could easily find in Pokhara, so please be patient with us. As teachers you have a very important responsibility to assist us towards the ultimate goal of preserving Tibetan Buddhist culture.” Whilst thanking the trainers and organisers for the intensive training, the native Buddhist Lama, speaking in a local Tibetan dialect said, “I offer these scarves (Tibetan greeting) on behalf of all the people of Mustang, not just from the Namgyal Monastery, for helping us towards achieving our goals.”

It was certainly encouraging and worthwhile to work with the local partners towards the development and preservation of their ancient Buddhist culture, which the native people in the region continue to cherish. Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin’s appeal for continued assistance and cooperation from the Tibetan refugee community towards the preservation of ancient Buddhist culture and Tibetan studies should not go unheard. The Tibetan refugee community and other partner agencies including the Nepalese Government should enhance their practical support to the local people, and encourage their initiative and effort. It also reminds us of the importance of providing the necessary training for teachers so that they are well equipped to assist the younger generation in developing their knowledge and skills.

Tibetans in Nepal – The Current Situation

I am very familiar with the situation of Tibetans in Nepal because I was born and grew up there. As a student, when entering Nepal from India/UK, I encountered physical and verbal abuse from the Nepalese authorities at immigration checkpoints both at the land-border and the airport. I can certainly imagine worse treatment for the Tibetan refugees fleeing from Tibet into Nepal, who neither speak the local Nepalese nor English languages, at the hands of the border security personnel. We hear reports of beatings and harassments including sexual and even rapes in certain cases, treatments that refugees do not deserve from the authorities.

The Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva was submitted a report by ICT Europe, on 25 April 2007, which documented:

In February 1997 it was reported that a 22-year old Tibetan woman was raped twelve times by a group of Nepalese men led by a police officer in December 1996 after she escaped across the border to seek an education in India, according to accounts provided by the victim and corroborated by other Tibetans who were with her. Three other Tibetan women, including one nun, are said to have been sexually assaulted by Nepalese police in an incident in western Nepal in November 2006, and in January that year police officers in north-eastern Nepal are alleged to have demanded the sexual services of a girl in another group of Tibetan refugees in return for an offer of safe passage. The 22-year old Tibetan was travelling in a group of seven Tibetans who left the border town of Dram by foot on 12 December 1996. They walked for three days to successfully enter Nepal but were caught by seven Nepalese men wearing police and military-style uniforms and carrying police identity cards. The woman was told that if she did not comply with the men’s wishes she and the group would be deported to Tibet.

I was equally curious to find out from other sources what people make of the situation being faced by Tibetans in Nepal. So, I went to meet the US Refugee Co-ordinator (responsible for India, Nepal and Sri Lanka), based at the American Embassy during my latest trip. The American official fully understands the real situation that Tibetan refugee community faces in Nepal and expresses sincere concern. At the same time, it’s very reassuring to learn that the international agencies from various countries are closely monitoring the situation that is being faced by Tibetan refugee community in Nepal.

Despite the ongoing Chinese pressure (both overt and covert), I was encouraged to learn that the Nepalese Officials are trying their best to resist their neighbour’s pressure but with the ongoing unstable political climate in Nepal, the Tibetan refugee community continue to face a very uncertain future.

A growing number of Nepalese human rights activists and organisations in Nepal are also playing very positive roles to uphold the rights of the people in the country. The Sambhad Nepal organised a public forum on 3rd August 2008 (19th Shrawan, 2065) in Pokhara – “49 Years of Tibetan Refugees in Nepal.” While speaking at the forum, Mr Achut Acharya of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Nepal, Regional Office in Pokhara, said, “We have not been able to treat the refugees (Tibetan and Bhutanese) equally. We don’t pay much attention to the Bhutanese refugees because Bhutan doesn’t have much influence on Nepalese politics. Tibetan refugees should be able to access the justice system of Nepal, if needed.”

Tibetan refugees do not receive any financial support from the Nepalese Government. Obtaining funds from abroad in the name of Tibetan organisations in Nepal is almost impossible. If one doesn’t possess Nepali citizenship or a Refugee Certificate (RC), Tibetans are not allowed to work in Nepal legally. Unemployment, and resorting to drugs and alcohol, are a growing concern to the refugee community there. A Tibetan businessman told me, “We can’t employ Tibetan refugees who have no proper documents under the government’s regulation as we can get into trouble.” Concerned Tibetans have suggested that the Tibetan Government in Exile takes the younger generation to India to admit them in the Indian Army. Then there is the Indian RC issue (another problem). They have also requested that younger Tibetans be sent abroad under the UN Refugees Programme.

China’s Strategy and Nepal’s Cooperation

China’s strategy towards the Tibetan refugee community is quite obvious. The Chinese authorities do not want the Tibetans to develop up, not just politically but economically. They like to see the Tibetans in exile being paralysed completely so that they don’t challenge the Chinese Leadership.

Some thirty to forty years ago, the Tibetan business community in Kathmandu had established highly successful carpet trading. The income from the export of high quality of Tibetan carpets brought in the much needed foreign exchange (dollars) to Nepal. This revenue was the major foreign earning for Nepal at one time. The carpet industry employed thousands of Nepalese and Tibetan workers. In the past decade a number of these carpet factories were closed down, primarily because of the growing unpredictable political climate in Nepal, and the less favourable attitude towards the Tibetan refugee community.

The successive Nepalese governments overtly befriended with the Chinese Leadership in Beijing, which provided the much needed aid and money for Nepal. In return, the authorities agreed to ban Tibet protests, what they call “anti-Chinese activities,” on Nepalese soil.

The Nepalese authorities are also reluctant to issue exit permits for Tibetans to go abroad. The US Government’s offer to accept Tibetan refugees from Nepal received no cooperation from the Nepalese authorities. However, the Nepalese Officials are allowing the Bhutanese refugees (of Nepalese origin) to leave for America, as part of the US Government’s same offer to accept refugees from Nepal. So, there is no reason to doubt that the successive governments in Kathmandu are under considerable pressure from Beijing.

Referring to the treatment of refugees by the Nepalese authorities and the US Government’s offer to accept refugees from Nepal, Mr Sudip Pathak, President of Human Rights Organisation of Nepal (HURON), said, “Refugees in Nepal are not treated equally. The Tibetan refugees are arrested and handed back (to the Chinese authorities) but not the Bhutanese. The Government helped the Bhutanese refugees (of Nepalese origin) to travel to the United States of America but in the case of Tibetans, they haven’t done so.” Mr Pathak told the gathering, organised by The Sambhad Nepal on 3rd August 2008 (19th Shrawan, 2065) in Pokhara, who presented his paper along with other speakers, published in ‘Regarding Refugee’, a Nepalese language publication.

The Chinese authorities fear that if the Tibetan refugee community becomes economically self-reliant then they are more likely to sustain their political freedom movement. In a nutshell, the Chinese authorities want to make the lives of Tibetans very difficult. They have started this in Nepal, including planting Tibetan (Chinese) agents in the Tibetan refugee community.

In Mustang, the Chinese authorities including the border security personnel regularly visit Lo-Manthang and the surrounding villages via Kora La, a pass which borders with Nepal and Tibet at that point. During their visits, the Chinese authorities query the Tibetan’s presence in the region. Last year, a Tibetan was reportedly arrested in Lo-Manthang for no single good reason. Tibetans continue to experience such harassments from the local Nepalese authorities. The Tibetan refugee teachers were often asked about their stay in the region and queried on the contents of Tibetan textbooks from which they teach the children.

Dalai Lama’s Birthday Celebration Cancelled

The recent 74th Birthday Celebration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, planned for 6th July in Kathmandu was given the go ahead by the Chief District Officer (CDO), as long as the Tibetans observed it quietly near the Tibetan Reception Centre, and that they didn’t sing their national anthem.

In the beginning of July, the Nepalese media reported negatively on the visit (June 2009) of a Nepalese Parliamentarian delegation to Dharamsala, where they met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan officials. After a high level internal meeting among the Nepalese Government Officials, the Tibetan Chief Co-ordinator for Nepal, who is based at Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office, Kathmandu, was summoned on 5th July and told that they were no longer allowed to celebrate the planned birthday event.

This is the sad reality of today’s political situation in Nepal being faced by the Tibetan refugee community there. They are living on thin ice, on the brink of melting.

A Way Forward: Providing Assistance to Tibetan Refugee Community in Nepal

  1. International Agencies & Governments:Increase the concerted efforts that the international agencies continue to put in, especially by various national governments, in order to monitor very closely the treatment of Tibetan refugees in Nepal by the Nepalese authorities.
  2. Nepalese, Ethnic Tibetans and the Himalayan Buddhist Community of Nepal should play proactive roles: In their hour of need, the ethnic Tibetans, the Himalayan Buddhist Community and the Nepalese people, in solidarity with the Tibetan refugee community, should enhance their support and play proactive roles by lobbying their Nepalese Government for assurance that the Tibetan refugees’ rights will be protected and that they won’t be returned back to Tibet, in accordance with the national and the international laws. They should reject any Chinese pressure that may be imposed on Nepal in relation to the Tibetan refugee community.
  3. Tibetan refugees in Nepal should be allowed to work:The Tibetan Buddhist culture, which the ethnic Tibetans and the Himalayan Buddhist Community of Nepal share with the Tibetan people, must be preserved and developed, with the ongoing assistance from the Tibetan refugees and without any political interference from China. The Chinese authorities might put pressure on the Nepalese Officials to ban Tibetan refugees working in the rural border areas, including Mustang. The international agencies and local Nepalese NGOs must monitor such moves very closely and ensure that the Tibetan refugees are allowed to work in Nepal.
  4. Foreign Donors & NGOs: Need to invest more in human resources by, for example, training Tibetan refugees in the Nepalese law and through other Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programmes, such as the Mustang Teaching and Learning Programme.
  5. Establish a High Level Special Committee for Tibetans in Nepal: The Tibetan authorities in Dharamsala should urgently make resources available including forming a dedicated High Level Special Committee for Tibetans in Nepal, comprising knowledgeable local Tibetans, to effectively protect the interests of Tibetan refugees living in the unstable country.

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