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America's obligation to Tibet

August 20, 2010

The US must not turn a blind eye to Chinese
pressure on Nepal to close its borders to fleeing Tibetan dissidents
Greg Bruno
Guardian (UK)
August 13, 2010

Man grieves in landslide-hit Gannan Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture, China A man mourns his
missing relatives in the landslide-hit Gannan
Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Gansu province,
China, 10 August 2010. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

As the death toll from this weekend's landslides
in the Tibetan-majority region of Gansu province
climbs above 1,100, the world is once again
turning its attention to the plight of China's most infamous minority.

But as rescue efforts continue in the "Shangri
La" of Gansu, a slow-motion disaster of a more
bureaucratic sort is unfolding in the nearby
Tibetan refugee capital of Nepal. And unless this
crisis is averted, the damage there could be more
lasting than the slurry of mud and rock scouring China's northwest.

In June, after years of adhering to an
UN-brokered agreement that allows Tibetan
refugees free passage through the Himalayan
nation, Nepal sent packing a group of three
Tibetans that had crossed the Tibet-Nepal border
illegally. They have since met stiff Chinese
justice: one, a monk, has returned to his
monastery, but the other two are reportedly
serving six-month prison terms in China.

At issue, rights groups say, is Nepal's failure
to adhere to a so-called "gentlemen's agreement"
in place since 1989, a measure meant to offer a
diplomatically tactful way of enabling Tibetans
escaping Chinese brutality. Mary Beth Markey,
whose organisation, the International Campaign
for Tibet, broke news of the deportation in July,
says "Nepal is duty-bound" to honour the spirit
of the agreement, and not to put Tibetans at
"risk of imprisonment and torture" at home.

Nepal is not alone in bearing responsibility: the
international community -- led by the US -- is
also duty-bound to urge the swift restoration of
the UN-backed agreement. Without it, Tibetans
escaping Chinese oppression would be left with no
avenue to escape religious and cultural
persecution that has dogged them for decades. But
to date, the United States has said nothing
publicly about the June deportation and ongoing
gentlemen's disagreement. The UN, meanwhile, has
expressed concern, but not with the force needed to alter Nepal's calculations.

There is one primary reason for the muted
responses, observers say: pressure from China.

Following protests across Tibet in March 2008,
Beijing moved to tighten the freedoms of Tibetans
within its borders in a bid to maintain internal
stability. China also called on nations hosting
exile communities to crack down on the political
activities of Tibetans abroad. Beijing often
blames Tibetans in exile for fomenting unrest at home.

Such pressure has had a visible impact on
governments hosting the Dalai Lama. Chinese
opposition is widely believed to have played in
role in President Obama's decision to postpone a
meeting with the exiled leader last year, for instance.

Yet nowhere has the pressure been more profound,
and transparent, than in Nepal, home to roughly
20,000 Tibetan refugees. In late July, Chinese
officials pressed Nepal to ban protests by
Tibetan refugees – a common occurrence among the
politically active exiles – arguing such
demonstrations posed a "threat to the sovereignty
and integrity of China". The demand was followed
by the announcement of $1.47m in grants meant to
improve Nepal's ability to police its Tibetan population.

Sadly, the west's response to this Chinese
campaign of cajoling has been nonexistent. As
long as the tenuous "gentlemen's agreement"
remained intact, international observers – the US
and UN included – remained silent on China's
aggressive anti-Tibetan policies abroad.

During my visit to Nepal in February and March as
a fellow with the Nation Institute's
Investigative Fund, a senior UN official warned
me not to jeopardise the agreement by challenging
the Nepali position on exiled Tibetans. The UN's
strategy, the official said, was to keep
criticism to a minimum while working behind the
scenes to ensure Nepal observed its obligation to
ensure safe passage to Tibetan escapees.

US officials have expressed similar sentiments,
noting that it was in Washington's core interest
to ensure that once Tibetans set foot in Nepali
territory, they are not sent back to China. Yet,
evidence that this "core interest" is being
defended in the court of public opinion is sorely lacking.

Nepal's permanent Tibetan population has already
suffered at the hands of Nepali acquiescence to
Chinese demands. Tibetans who do not transit on
to India, as the gentlemen's agreement is
designed to encourage, are not granted legal
status, and even those born to Nepali citizens
find it nearly impossible to work.

Arrests of Tibetans in Nepal are common, as are
bribes and threats of deportation. Despite a
shared ethnic and cultural heritage, Tibetans
there are fleeing a nation that once welcomed them with open arms.

The United States has been silent too long on the
plight of Tibetans -- in Nepal and elsewhere.
President Obama's point-person on Tibetan
affairs, Maria Otero, has said nothing publicly
on the issue for months, and her office remains
hobbled by vacancies. It's been over two years
since the American embassy in Kathmandu commended
the treatment of Tibetans on Nepali soil.

In a recent speech, congressman Frank R Wolf
(Republican, Virginia) implored the Obama
administration to find its voice on human rights:
on Tibetan issues specifically, he noted that the
administration's foot-dragging is "troubling and
at odds with congressional intent".

Wolf is right. Silence is tantamount to giving
China a pass on an issue Americans care deeply
about. Pushing Nepal to honour an agreement in
place since 1989 will ensure a vulnerable
minority at least one recourse to freedom from oppression.

While the world must rush to the aid of Tibetans
hit by the devastating recent natural disaster in
China, it should also speak up now in defence of
Tibetans in exile in Nepal. It is, after all, only the gentlemanly thing to do.
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