Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Thin Ice on the Horizon for Tibetans in Nepal

October 13, 2009

TSERING PASSANG makes some personal observation
on the situation of Tibetans in Nepal with a special reference to Mustang.
Nepal Monitor
The National Online Journal
October 3, 2009

The ancient kingdom of Lo, also known as the
forbidden kingdom of Mustang, is situated in a
spectacular location on a high plateau in central
Asia, hidden behind an almost impassable wall of
the high Himalayas. Originally part of Ngari in
western Tibet, Mustang became an independent
kingdom in the 14th century, but is today part of
Nepal. However, its culture, Buddhist religion
and language have long been shared with the
people of Tibet. Its people, known as the Lo-pa
(ethnic Tibetans), speak a dialect of Tibetan and
are devout Buddhists. The population of
approximately 8000 is made up of a hardy, self
sufficient people with a great respect for their natural surroundings.

When Tibet was invaded by the People’s Republic
of China in 1950, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was
forced to flee Tibet into exile, after the failed
Tibetan National Uprising in Lhasa in March 1959.
Some 80,000 Tibetans followed their leader to
India. Over the following years, more Tibetans
fled into the neighbouring countries including Nepal and Bhutan.

A contingent of dedicated Tibetan freedom
fighters, over 2000 volunteers, was regrouped in
exile to launch resistance against the China’s
illegal rule in Tibet. In the 1960s and early
‘70s, Tibetan resistance fighters, popularly
known as “Khampa Guerrillas”, based their covert
operation in Mustang, funded by the CIA, from
where they conducted military raids into Tibet. A
majority of the Tibetan resistance fighters and
their families are now resettled in Pokhara and
Kathmandu valleys where they have lived since the
end of their resistance movement in Mustang in
1974. Mustang is also home to several hundred
Tibetan refugees with most of them based in the
Lower Mustang (known as Lo-Tserok) Namgyal Ling Tibetan Refugee Settlement.

Local and International Efforts -- Preserving Tibetan Culture

As a result of China’s occupation of Tibet, the
Tibetan culture faces the danger of extinction.
The situation is dire and unless efforts are made
to preserve it in other areas of the Himalayas –
like Mustang – it may be lost forever. This is
why children from Mustang are often sent to
Tibetan schools and monasteries in the lowlands
of Nepal and in India, where they receive
traditional Tibetan and modern education.

An increasing number of foreign donor and aid
agencies are in partnership partnering with the
local Nepalese NGOs, who are making great efforts
towards the preservation work of Tibetan Buddhist
cultural heritage in the region. Huge credit must
be paid to the people of Mustang for their
initiative, to Tibetan refugee friends for
providing the Buddhist knowledge, and to donor
agencies for their continued generous financial support.

Sadly, such sincere efforts sometimes draw
criticism from the local Nepalese media,
including misreporting, and often bring suspicion from the Chinese authorities.

The successful Mustang Teaching and Learning
Programme I describe briefly below provides a
very positive example of a local Nepali NGO,
educational developers from abroad and a British
development agency working effectively together
in response to a local initiative. In this case
the initiative came from Tibetan refugee and
local teachers who asked for a training
programme, designed to meet their particular
needs. The long term aims of the resulting two
stages. Programmes are to make a contribution to
the progress of the Mustang region and to help
meet the aspirations of its people. I am
fortunate enough to be part of this Programme
team and to be able to contribute towards realising these aims.

Teaching & Learning (Teachers Training) Development Programme in Mustang

The initial idea to provide this training
programme was conceived in autumn 2008, following
my personal visit to Mustang, where I met several
Tibetan refugee teachers. The need was identified
then and following a further survey earlier this
year, it was finally implemented in June.

This intensive training programme was prepared
and delivered by two highly experienced
professionals -- Roger Catchpole (British) and
Michèle Laouenan (French). They built on their
past experience including their teaching and
learning project in Eastern Tibet, where they
worked with Tibetan and Chinese teachers.

Roger has had a long career as a teacher and as
an educational developer at the University of
Plymouth. He has also worked on a wide range of
educational projects in the UK, Asia and Southern
Africa. Roger has carried out consultancy and
development work for organisations including
UNHCR, the British Council and the EU Education
Office in Nepal. Michèle has also had a long
career as a lecturer at Plymouth University and
also as a languages advisor with Cornwall County
Council. She continues to lead EU Educational programmes.

This Teaching & Learning Development Programme,
said to be the first of its kind ever delivered
in Mustang, was conducted under the auspices of
London-based Tibet Foundation. Maitri Ratna
Nepal, a Kathmandu-based Nepalese NGO, cooperated
with providing the local logistics.

In addition to providing the required practical
skills to the teachers, the programme was also
aimed at confidence-building and introducing
creative and interactive learning in their teaching.

Twenty-five teachers participated including 19
Tibetan refugees, 5 ethnic Tibetans and 1
Nepalese. These teachers had never received such
training in their lives apart from the few
Nepalese Government-funded teachers. Most of
these Tibetan refugee teachers are teaching in
the Upper Mustang (special permits are required
for foreigners), which is several days on
horse-ride/trek from Jomsom, the district
Headquarters. They are working in schools across
Mustang, which are run and supported by the local
and foreign NGOs, the Buddhist monasteries and the Nepalese Government.

Since these schools do not fall under the
jurisdiction of Tibetan refugee community in
Nepal the Tibetan teachers do not receive any
training opportunities from the concerned
authorities. The Nepalese Government provides
necessary training to its citizens but the
Tibetan refugees do not qualify for such schemes.
Despite lack of training, these young Tibetans
believe in power of education. They are very
dedicated and curious to learn and try new
things, and also to find out news from the
outside world. Tibetan culture and religion form
a very important aspect in their lives.

This short intensive training was primarily
targeted for the Tibetan refugee teachers, who
are disadvantaged in these ways, as part of
capacity-building programme. Invitations were
also extended to ethnic Tibetan as well as the
Nepalese teachers, who teach in the
Government-run schools in the region. The young
Tibetan refugee teachers, who were born in Nepal
(mostly in their 20s and 30s), migrated from the
settlements in Pokhara valley, where nearly 3000
Tibetan refugees live. With the steady growth of
Tibetan population in exile, the younger people
are often finding difficult to get jobs in their
refugee settlements. So they journey to bigger
cities like Kathmandu or to where there are more
demands such as rural Mustang region. They do
this despite the difficulties they endure by
leaving their families back in the settlements
and the hardships they often encounter working at
higher altitudes. It is interesting that many of
these young Tibetans have some connections with
Mustang and its people because their parents had
previously lived there and few of them were even born there.

Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Rigzin, the Abbot of Pal
Ewam Namgyal Thupten Dhargyeling Monastery, Upper
Mustang, who sent three Tibetan refugee teachers
from the same monastic school for the training,
addressed the closing ceremony, saying, “The
people of Lo-Mustang has not been able to produce
qualified teachers to teach [Tibetan Buddhism and
language] to the younger generation.” Echoing the
Tibetan Spiritual Leader’s concern, (he lives in
India and is deeply revered by ethnic Tibetans of
Mustang and other Himalayan regions), the Abbot
added, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often
said, and also more recently re-emphasised during
the Kalachakra teaching, that the people of the
Himalayan region have extra responsibility to
work towards preserving the Tibetan Buddhist
culture, which we the people of Lo-Mustang share with the Tibetans.”

With his own personal experience of difficulties
in recruiting and retaining Tibetan refugee
teachers especially in Upper Mustang, Khenpo
Tsewang Rigzin, who follows the Sakya tradition
of Tibetan Buddhism, called for patience from the
Tibetan refugee teachers by saying, “Mustang is a
remote place and it is very difficult to get
things here that we could easily find in Pokhara,
so please be patient with us. As teachers you
have a very important responsibility to assist us
towards the ultimate goal of preserving Tibetan
Buddhist culture.” Whilst thanking the trainers
and organisers for the intensive training, the
native Buddhist Lama, speaking in a local Tibetan
dialect said, “I offer these scarves (Tibetan
greeting) on behalf of all the people of Mustang,
not just from the Namgyal Monastery, for helping
us towards achieving our goals.”

It was certainly encouraging and worthwhile to
work with the local partners towards the
development and preservation of their ancient
Buddhist culture, which the native people in the
region continue to cherish. Venerable Khenpo
Tsewang Rigzin’s appeal for continued assistance
and cooperation from the Tibetan refugee
community towards the preservation of ancient
Buddhist culture and Tibetan studies should not
go unheard. The Tibetan refugee community and
other partner agencies including the Nepalese
Government should enhance their practical support
to the local people, and encourage their
initiative and effort. It also reminds us of the
importance of providing the necessary training
for teachers so that they are well equipped to
assist the younger generation in developing their knowledge and skills.

Tibetans in Nepal -- The Current Situation

I am very familiar with the situation of Tibetans
in Nepal because I was born and grew up there. As
a student, when entering Nepal from India/UK, I
encountered physical and verbal abuse from the
Nepalese authorities at immigration checkpoints
both at the land-border and the airport. I can
certainly imagine worse treatment for the Tibetan
refugees fleeing from Tibet into Nepal, who
neither speak the local Nepalese nor English
languages, at the hands of the border security
personnel. We hear reports of beatings and
harassments including sexual and even rapes in
certain cases, treatments that refugees do not deserve from the authorities.

The Office of UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights, Geneva was submitted a report by ICT
Europe, on 25 April 2007, which documented:

"In February 1997 it was reported that a 22-year
old Tibetan woman was raped twelve times by a
group of Nepalese men led by a police officer in
December 1996 after she escaped across the border
to seek an education in India, according to
accounts provided by the victim and corroborated
by other Tibetans who were with her. Three other
Tibetan women, including one nun, are said to
have been sexually assaulted by Nepalese police
in an incident in western Nepal in November 2006,
and in January that year police officers in
north-eastern Nepal are alleged to have demanded
the sexual services of a girl in another group of
Tibetan refugees in return for an offer of safe
passage. The 22-year old Tibetan was travelling
in a group of seven Tibetans who left the border
town of Dram by foot on 12 December 1996. They
walked for three days to successfully enter Nepal
but were caught by seven Nepalese men wearing
police and military-style uniforms and carrying
police identity cards. The woman was told that if
she did not comply with the men's wishes she and
the group would be deported to Tibet."

I was equally curious to find out from other
sources what people make of the situation being
faced by Tibetans in Nepal. So, I went to meet
the US Refugee Co-ordinator (responsible for
India, Nepal and Sri Lanka), based at the
American Embassy during my latest trip. The
American official fully understands the real
situation that Tibetan refugee community faces in
Nepal and expresses sincere concern. At the same
time, it’s very reassuring to learn that the
international agencies from various countries are
closely monitoring the situation that is being
faced by Tibetan refugee community in Nepal.

Despite the ongoing Chinese pressure (both overt
and covert), I was encouraged to learn that the
Nepalese Officials are trying their best to
resist their neighbour’s pressure but with the
ongoing unstable political climate in Nepal, the
Tibetan refugee community continue to face a very uncertain future.

A growing number of Nepalese human rights
activists and organisations in Nepal are also
playing very positive roles to uphold the rights
of the people in the country. The Sambhad Nepal
organised a public forum on 3rd August 2008 (19th
Shrawan, 2065) in Pokhara – “49 Years of Tibetan
Refugees in Nepal.” While speaking at the forum,
Mr Achut Acharya of the National Human Rights
Commission (NHRC) of Nepal, Regional Office in
Pokhara, said, “We have not been able to treat
the refugees (Tibetan and Bhutanese) equally. We
don’t pay much attention to the Bhutanese
refugees because Bhutan doesn’t have much
influence on Nepalese politics. Tibetan refugees
should be able to access the justice system of Nepal, if needed.”

Tibetan refugees do not receive any financial
support from the Nepalese Government. Obtaining
funds from abroad in the name of Tibetan
organisations in Nepal is almost impossible. If
one doesn’t possess Nepali citizenship or a
Refugee Certificate (RC), Tibetans are not
allowed to work in Nepal legally. Unemployment,
and resorting to drugs and alcohol, are a growing
concern to the refugee community there. A Tibetan
businessman told me, “We can’t employ Tibetan
refugees who have no proper documents under the
government’s regulation as we can get into
trouble.” Concerned Tibetans have suggested that
the Tibetan Government in Exile takes the younger
generation to India to admit them in the Indian
Army. Then there is the Indian RC issue (another
problem). They have also requested that younger
Tibetans be sent abroad under the UN Refugees Programme.

China’s Strategy and Nepal’s Cooperation
China’s strategy towards the Tibetan refugee
community is quite obvious. The Chinese
authorities do not want the Tibetans to develop
up, not just politically but economically. They
like to see the Tibetans in exile being paralysed
completely so that they don’t challenge the Chinese Leadership.

Some thirty to forty years ago, the Tibetan
business community in Kathmandu had established
highly successful carpet trading. The income from
the export of high quality of Tibetan carpets
brought in the much needed foreign exchange
(dollars) to Nepal. This revenue was the major
foreign earning for Nepal at one time. The carpet
industry employed thousands of Nepalese and
Tibetan workers. In the past decade a number of
these carpet factories were closed down,
primarily because of the growing unpredictable
political climate in Nepal, and the less
favourable attitude towards the Tibetan refugee community.

The successive Nepalese governments overtly
befriended with the Chinese Leadership in
Beijing, which provided the much needed aid and
money for Nepal. In return, the authorities
agreed to ban Tibet protests, what they call
“anti-Chinese activities,” on Nepalese soil.

The Nepalese authorities are also reluctant to
issue exit permits for Tibetans to go abroad. The
US Government’s offer to accept Tibetan refugees
from Nepal received no cooperation from the
Nepalese authorities. However, the Nepalese
Officials are allowing the Bhutanese refugees (of
Nepalese origin) to leave for America, as part of
the US Government’s same offer to accept refugees
from Nepal. So, there is no reason to doubt that
the successive governments in Kathmandu are under
considerable pressure from Beijing.

Referring to the treatment of refugees by the
Nepalese authorities and the US Government’s
offer to accept refugees from Nepal, Mr Sudip
Pathak, President of Human Rights Organisation of
Nepal (HURON), said, “Refugees in Nepal are not
treated equally. The Tibetan refugees are
arrested and handed back (to the Chinese
authorities) but not the Bhutanese. The
Government helped the Bhutanese refugees (of
Nepalese origin) to travel to the United States
of America but in the case of Tibetans, they
haven’t done so.” Mr Pathak told the gathering,
organised by The Sambhad Nepal on 3rd August 2008
(19th Shrawan, 2065) in Pokhara, who presented
his paper along with other speakers, published in
‘Regarding Refugee’, a Nepalese language publication.

The Chinese authorities fear that if the Tibetan
refugee community becomes economically
self-reliant then they are more likely to sustain
their political freedom movement. In a nutshell,
the Chinese authorities want to make the lives of
Tibetans very difficult. They have started this
in Nepal, including planting Tibetan (Chinese)
agents in the Tibetan refugee community.

In Mustang, the Chinese authorities including the
border security personnel regularly visit
Lo-Manthang and the surrounding villages via Kora
La, a pass which borders with Nepal and Tibet at
that point. During their visits, the Chinese
authorities query the Tibetan’s presence in the
region. Last year, a Tibetan was reportedly
arrested in Lo-Manthang for no single good
reason. Tibetans continue to experience such
harassments from the local Nepalese authorities.
The Tibetan refugee teachers were often asked
about their stay in the region and queried on the
contents of Tibetan textbooks from which they teach the children.

Dalai Lama’s Birthday Celebration Cancelled

The recent 74th Birthday Celebration of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama, planned for 6th July in
Kathmandu was given the go ahead by the Chief
District Officer (CDO), as long as the Tibetans
observed it quietly near the Tibetan Reception
Centre, and that they didn’t sing their national anthem.

In the beginning of July, the Nepalese media
reported negatively on the visit (June 2009) of a
Nepalese Parliamentarian delegation to
Dharamsala, where they met His Holiness the Dalai
Lama and other Tibetan officials. After a high
level internal meeting among the Nepalese
Government Officials, the Tibetan Chief
Co-ordinator for Nepal, who is based at Tibetan
Refugee Welfare Office, Kathmandu, was summoned
on 5th July and told that they were no longer
allowed to celebrate the planned birthday event.

This is the sad reality of today’s political
situation in Nepal being faced by the Tibetan
refugee community there. They are living on thin ice, on the brink of melting.

A Way Forward: Providing Assistance to Tibetan Refugee Community in Nepal

1. International Agencies & Governments: Increase
the concerted efforts that the international
agencies continue to put in, especially by
various national governments, in order to monitor
very closely the treatment of Tibetan refugees in
Nepal by the Nepalese authorities.

2. Nepalese, Ethnic Tibetans and the Himalayan
Buddhist Community of Nepal should play proactive
roles: In their hour of need, the ethnic
Tibetans, the Himalayan Buddhist Community and
the Nepalese people, in solidarity with the
Tibetan refugee community, should enhance their
support and play proactive roles by lobbying
their Nepalese Government for assurance that the
Tibetan refugees’ rights will be protected and
that they won’t be returned back to Tibet, in
accordance with the national and the
international laws. They should reject any
Chinese pressure that may be imposed on Nepal in
relation to the Tibetan refugee community.

3. Tibetan refugees in Nepal should be allowed to
work: The Tibetan Buddhist culture, which the
ethnic Tibetans and the Himalayan Buddhist
Community of Nepal share with the Tibetan people,
must be preserved and developed, with the ongoing
assistance from the Tibetan refugees and without
any political interference from China. The
Chinese authorities might put pressure on the
Nepalese Officials to ban Tibetan refugees
working in the rural border areas, including
Mustang. The international agencies and local
Nepalese NGOs must monitor such moves very
closely and ensure that the Tibetan refugees are allowed to work in Nepal.

4. Foreign Donors & NGOs: Need to invest more in
human resources by, for example, training Tibetan
refugees in the Nepalese law and through other
Continuous Professional Development (CPD)
programmes, such as the Mustang Teaching and Learning Programme.

5. Establish a High Level Special Committee for
Tibetans in Nepal: The Tibetan authorities in
Dharamsala should urgently make resources
available including forming a dedicated High
Level Special Committee for Tibetans in Nepal,
comprising knowledgeable local Tibetans, to
effectively protect the interests of Tibetan
refugees living in the unstable country.

Born and raised in Nepal as a Tibetan refugee,
Tsering Passang currently lives in London, UK.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank