Thu 22 October 2020

Steve Shaw reports on a new agreement under which Tibetans crossing into Nepal to escape China’s oppression will be forced to return to the Communist country.

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For decades, Nepal has been the gateway to freedom for Tibetan refugees who flee oppression in their home country, but a new agreement signed between Nepal’s Government and the Chinese Communist Party could be bringing that era to an end.

With passports confiscated and movement monitored, Tibetans wanting to live in relative freedom often have no choice but to run away from their homes and cross the border into Nepal. Some choose to stay and live among the 20,000-strong Tibetan community in Nepal, while others journey onwards to north India where they make a home in Dharamshala – the home of the Tibetan Government in exile and the Dalai Lama.

Nepal guarantees safe transit to India through an informal agreement between the Government and the United Nations. But it has been revealed that when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the country in October, agreements were signed that could completely undermine refugee safety and put Tibetans in serious danger.

The first agreement, dubbed the “Boundary Management System”, commits both governments to return “persons found while crossing border illegally” to their home country within seven days. US-based NGO, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), told Byline Times that this could see Tibetans being sent back with no legal assistance to face imprisonment and torture.

“If Tibetans are handed back to Chinese authorities, they often face interrogation, imprisonment and torture,” explained a spokesperson. “Crossing or attempting to cross a border without official papers ranks as a serious offence under Chinese law. In fact, even Tibetans who were able to travel abroad with a valid Chinese passport have been facing severe persecution in recent months.

“In December 2016 and January 2017, Chinese authorities launched a major operation to persecute Tibetans attending a religious teaching by the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, India. Many Tibetans who had travelled to India and Nepal on pilgrimage were forced to return home before they could receive the teachings from the Dalai Lama.”

Other clampdowns, according to ICT, have resulted in Tibetans with legal permission to travel disappearing for weeks or even months after they have returned home. Many were sent for ‘re-education’ in military camps.

“Many of the Tibetans who faced those punishments in the past had legal permission to travel abroad,” the spokesperson added. “Therefore, you can imagine how much more severe the punishments would likely be for Tibetan refugees who are forcibly returned to Chinese control under China’s new and potential future agreements with Nepal.”

The agreement has been signed less than a year after former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly praised Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli for providing “reassurance” that “individuals will not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or their religious, cultural and linguistic freedoms”.

It will also boost China’s already heightened security policies on border areas in the Himalayas. Byline Times has previously revealed that these policies have resulted in the number of refugees successfully making it out of Tibet falling from a steady high of between 2,500 and 3,500 before 2008 to an unprecedented low of just 18 in 2019.

The second agreement signed between Beijing and Kathmandu was the “Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters”, which formally hands China the power to intervene in Nepal over matters relating to Tibetans, a move that the ICT said poses risks for “Tibetans who express their political views or cultural identity” – something already banned in Tibet.

Shortly after it was signed, Gopal Krishna Shiwakoti, former chairperson of the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network, told the press in Nepal: “There is visible discrimination towards Tibetan refugees in Nepal. We need to treat every single refugee group equally on humanitarian grounds. Safeguarding Tibetan refugees’ rights is wrongly perceived as annoying the Chinese, which is not true. That mindset needs to change in our politicians and bureaucrats.”

Indra Prasad Aryal, chairperson of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal, also warned that the treaty is the prelude to an extradition treaty that will allow China “to take Chinese political and religious dissidents from Nepal and punish them in their own country”.

But Mr Oli has given assurances to the Chinese President that Nepal would now oppose any “anti-China activities” on its soil. The Chinese President told his counterpart that “anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones”. 

The agreements appear to lay bare the growing influence Beijing has over Kathmandu since the country joined China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative in 2017. The ambitious scheme promises Nepal – one of the least developed countries in the world – massive Chinese investment in Nepali infrastructure, in exchange for the country joining a trade corridor of 68 countries which will roughly equate to the old silk road that connected the East to the West by land.

Among the infrastructure improvements and energy projects is a plan to build a $5.5 billion railway line through the Himalayas, linking the Tibetan border town of Kerung with the Nepali capital, Kathmandu. The 170 km railway is expected to help boost Nepal’s economy, bringing 2.5 million Chinese tourists to the country each year but there are also fears that it could be a ‘debt trap’ that will leave Nepal heavily indebted to China and forced to push through polices even more favourable to Beijing.

“Relations between China and Nepal are facing new development opportunities,” President Xi Jinping declared during his visit, adding that it was time both sides started to “take care of each other’s core interests”.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has been contacted for comment.

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