The practice of protest by self-immolation has reached Kathmandu, making Nepalese officials even more anxious about the Tibetan issue. In February, Drupchen Tsering, a 25-year-old Tibetan monk, died after setting himself on fire near a revered Buddhist stupa in Boudhanath.
Tibetans in the area asked for the monk’s body, but local officials had it cremated in the middle of the night late last month, saying no family members had claimed it, and later posted notices warning against public ceremonies, said the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group based in Washington.
There has been a clampdown on open religious celebrations in recent years, with some Tibetans being detained for days. Those celebrations include festivities close to the birthday of the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India and had a representative in Kathmandu until the office was shut down by the government in 2005.
One young man with a Tibetan father, Tsering, said he went to a monastery in Kathmandu in April last year for a birthday ceremony, only to find the Nepalese police blocking the area. The gathering was moved to an assembly hall.
“We can’t even celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday,” he said. “Things have changed a lot.”
Tashi said dozens of Tibetans were pre-emptively detained in January last year, when then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) made an unannounced four-hour visit to Kathmandu.
Wen had scheduled a visit for the previous month, but it was canceled because of concerns over protests by Tibetans, locals said. During his visit, Wen agreed that China would give Nepal US$1.18 billion in aid over three years, among other support.
The earliest Tibetan refugees arrived in Nepal in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and settled in refugee camps, of which there are still 13. A Tibetan enclave sprang up around Boudhanath. Some Tibetans became rich by making carpets and handicrafts, and prominent Tibetan monasteries amassed wealth and purchased prime real estate in the Kathmandu Valley.
The population was bolstered by more recent political refugees, like Tashi. The Tibetans used to be given refugee cards that guaranteed them some rights, but Nepal ended that practice in 1998.
Now, refugees pay about US$5,000 to smugglers to get them to Nepal. They generally stay six to eight weeks at a transit center in the Kathmandu Valley run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, then board a bus for India. In India, the Tibetans hope to get an audience with the Dalai Lama. Some are pilgrims who eventually try to make their way back to Nepal and then Tibet. There is suspicion among longtime refugees that some of the newer refugees are spies for China.
Before the Tibetan uprising five years ago, between 2,000 and 4,000 refugees reached the transit center each year. That dropped to between 500 and 600 in 2008, as Chinese security forces locked down Tibetan towns, and crept back up to 850 the next year. It has remained low ever since.
For decades, there had been an understanding that Nepalese border guards would allow refugees they encountered to continue on to a sanctuary, but now Tibetans suspect that the low numbers of refugees reaching Kathmandu could be in part a result of guards sending back Tibetans they catch, especially since China is now involved in border security training programs.