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Tibet: A New Diplomacy War

March 8, 2009

Sudeshna Sarkar
International Relations and Security Network (Switzerland)
March 6, 2009

A Tibetan sprays 'Free Tibet' on the Chinese Embassy gate in Nepal, defying a ban. Image: Phayul/ISN

Five decades ago, China consolidated its grip on Tibet after suppressing a last-ditch revolt. Now it has begun a new diplomatic war in the neighborhood to keep its booty, Sudeshna Sarkar writes for ISN Security Watch

By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch

Fear, mistrust and caution pervade the Tibetan community in Nepal ahead of the 50th remembrance of the failed uprising in Tibet that saw the consolidation of Chinese rule in the Buddhist kingdom and the flight of its god-king, the 14th Dalai Lama, to India.

Last year, defiant Tibetans, including monks and nuns, kept up persistent protests in Nepal, the tiny Himalayan republic south of China that has been used as a transit route for Tibetans seeking to flee from China-controlled Tibet and reach Dharamshala in northern India, the seat of the Dalai Lama's government in exile.

This year however, after a renewed crackdown by both the Chinese and new Nepali governments, the activists demanding Tibet's freedom from Chinese rule are scattered. Many have left Nepal and some have gone underground. New voices answer the phones in homes that once belonged to protesters who defied Nepal's security forces to stage sit-ins before the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu last year. When they hear the words "Tibet" and "protests," the phones are quickly disconnected.

China's new playbook

The Tibetan camp in Kathmandu valley's Jawalakhel area, established in 1966 with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, is a center for the lucky refugees who have official documents allowing them to live in Nepal. While there are about 14,000 people with legal papers, about 6,000-7,000 live on the razor's edge, with no documents and under the shadow of imprisonment or deportation.

In the past, even after diplomatic ties between Nepal and China began growing stronger and Nepal pledged to follow Beijing's "One China" policy that Tibet and Taiwan are inalienable parts of the Chinese republic, the camp was used as a polling station for the Tibetan government in exile.

Now, however, there is a change. "What election?" say the women in consternation, stopping work at their looms, where they weave the famed Tibetan carpets that made Nepal a much-sought-after carpet exporter in Europe in the 1960s.

"We don't know about any election."

"The situation has changed drastically," says a Kathmandu-based correspondent of Radio Free Asia, a private corporation that runs news services in nine Asian languages and has contacts in Tibet despite the tight Chinese censorship. "The risks have increased, both in Tibet and Nepal and there is reinforced security along the China-Nepal border to stop the flight of Tibetans," he tells ISN Security Watch.

The lengths to which China will go to stop Tibetans from escaping via Nepal was revealed in 2006 when Chinese border patrols fired on a fleeing group, comprising mostly nuns and children, killing a 17-year-old nun. The incident triggered international outrage. Beijing is now trying a different tack: a full-scale diplomatic offensive in Nepal.    

It started last year after Nepal's Maoist guerrillas, who had fought a 10-year civil war against the state drawing inspiration from Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, were successful in national elections. Since then, Beijing, which had in the past distanced itself from the party and accused it of tarnishing Mao's name, has begun wooing the Maoist-led government.

In August 2008, within a week of taking oath of office, Nepal's first Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda" set tongues wagging by visiting China, ostensibly to attend the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games. Since then, Nepal's Maoist Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Information and Communications Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, his party colleague, have also visited China. Prachanda is scheduled for a second trip this summer, during which he is expected to sign a new agreement.

"The draft of the China-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty is under discussion," says Om Sharma, media advisor to the Nepali PM. "China pledges that it will respect Nepal's sovereignty and territorial integrity and not take up arms against Nepal. [We] will follow its policy of respecting the One China policy and not allowing its soil to be used for anti-China activities," Sharma told ISN Security Watch.

Tibetans worldwide fear the proposed treaty could lead to further curbs in Nepal.

"Whether China is one or many [is] different from the issue of Tibetans," Tibet Government in Exile Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche told the Kathmandu Post, Thursday. "We are willing to be integrated with the People's Republic of China provided that China implemented the constitutional provision of national regional autonomy for all minorities."

Nepal: Looking out for its neighbor

Beijing is also trying to unite the different communist parties in Nepal so that there is one monolithic party, like its ruling Communist Party of China.

"When Nepal had a multi-party government before the election, led by the democratic Nepali Congress  (NC) party, China tried to persuade it to take stringent measures against Tibetans to stop their demonstrations for a Free Tibet," Yugnath Sharma, an NC sympathizer who is also the editor of the Commander daily, told ISN Security Watch. "However, being a democratic party, the NC could not be ruthless. So China is now trying to unite the communists so that there is one strong ruling party that will do its bidding."

This year, Sharma's prophecy came partially true with the Maoists merging with a fringe communist party and setting the great unification juggernaut rolling.

The Maoist government has also put its administrative machinery to work to stamp out fresh "Free Tibet" protests this year, when new tumults are anticipated as Tibetans observe the 50th anniversary of their uprising against the invading Chinese army.

Nepal's home ministry has banned protests near the Chinese Embassy, its visa office and the surrounding areas. In addition, the Maoist government is pushing for the deportation of all protesters who do not have valid documents. Since January, the immigration authorities have detained 46 Tibetans, including women and children, who crossed over into northern Nepal through nearly inaccessible snowy mountain passes. The government is asking the UN refugee agency to take charge of the fugitives and send them back to the places they came from.    

The change in the government policy, along with the stricter vigilance along the China-Nepal border, has caused the number of fugitives to fall drastically.

According to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, in previous years, around 2000 refugees would make their way to India through Nepal. However, in 2008, only 627 Tibetans entered India, the majority of whom had arrived before the uprising anniversary in March.

India stays out of the picture

But Beijing is still not content. It now wants the open border region between Nepal and Nepal's southern neighbor India controlled on the suspicion that the protesters are coming from Dharamshala.

Both Maoist Defense Minister Thapa and communist Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam favor tripartite talks with India and China to resolve border disputes. However, New Delhi is not ready to assent.

During a visit to Nepal in February, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon ruled out a threesome with China, stating that while Nepal as a sovereign country was free to cultivate ties with whichever government it wanted, its affairs with third countries were its internal matters, in which India would not interfere.

Despite the new diplomatic offensive, the Tibetan spirit of protest continues to burn in Nepal. On 25 February, the beginning of their new year (Lhosar), a group braved the ban to paint "Free Tibet" on the gate of the Chinese Embassy and plant the Tibetan flag atop the barbed wire fencing.

"We will also hold mass prayers in Nepal from Monday," a Tibetan who did not want to be named told ISN Security Watch. "The week-long prayers would be a tribute to the hundreds of people who died in Tibet in the past and especially last year."

Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.
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