The wind-scoured desert valley just south of Tibet was once a famed transit point for Tibetan yak caravans laden with salt that lumbered over the icy ramparts of the Himalayas. In the 1960s, it became a base for Tibetan guerrillas trained by the CIA to attack Chinese troops occupying their homeland. These days, it is the Chinese who are showing up in this far tip of the Buddhist kingdom of Mustang, northwest of Kathmandu, Nepal.
Chinese officials are seeking to stem the flow of disaffected Tibetans fleeing to Nepal and enlist the help of the Nepalese authorities in cracking down on the political activities of the 20,000 Tibetans already here.
China is exerting its influence across Nepal in a variety of ways, most involving financial incentives. In Mustang, Beijing is providing US$50,000 in annual food aid and sending military officials across the border to discuss with local Nepalese what the ceremonial prince of Mustang calls “border security.”
Their efforts have borne fruit: Nepalese police regularly detain Tibetans during anti-China protests in Kathmandu and have even curbed celebrations of the birthday of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, Tibetan residents of Nepal say.
In the first eight months of last year, the number of Tibetan refugees crossing the Himalayas into Nepal was about 400, half as many as during the same period in 2011. Tibetans blame tighter Chinese security in Tibet, as well as Chinese-trained Nepalese border guards, for the reduced migration.
The Nepalese government has also refused to allow 5,000 Tibetan refugees to leave for the US, even though the US government has said it would grant them asylum.
“Nepal used to be quite easy for Tibetans, [easy] to get jobs here and integrate into the community,” said Tashi Ganden, a former monk and prominent political prisoner in China, as he sat on a cafe rooftop in the bustling Tibetan Boudhanath neighborhood in Kathmandu. “That was before the Chinese influence.”
Nepal is one of the world’s most impoverished countries, made poorer by a decade-long civil war between Maoist guerrillas and the Nepalese military that ended in 2006, and by the continuing instability of its government. The nation is bordered by India and China, and its leaders have sought to use China as a counterbalance to longstanding Indian influence.
The courtship between Nepal and China has gained momentum in recent years as China has poured in aid money, infrastructure expertise and, in Lumbini — believed to be the birthplace of Buddha — investment in Buddhist sites. Meanwhile, Beijing has also been assigning ambassadors to Nepal who have backgrounds in security work.
Former US president Jimmy Carter told reporters in Kathmandu on April 1 that Chinese pressure was making the journey of Tibetans to Nepal more difficult.
“My hope is that the Nepali government will not accede,” he said.
Nepalese Ministry of Home Affairs joint secretary Shankar Prasad Koirala, said in a telephone interview that Nepal had not turned its back on the refugees.
“The government of Nepal is assisting them and treating them on humanitarian grounds,” he said.
Other Nepalese officials have said that Nepal abides by a “one China” policy and does not tolerate anti-China separatist activities on its soil.
China’s campaign to block Tibetans from entering Nepal intensified in 2008, after a widespread Tibetan uprising. Since then, at least 110 self-immolations by Tibetans living under Chinese rule have further prompted Chinese officials to tighten security in Tibetan towns and along the border with Nepal.