By Rinzin Dorjee

May 26, 2016

“Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough”, said T.S Eliot. These are words I live by except that I also erase “Sometimes” from the quote because that gives me more strength and assures certainty in spite of myriad trials and tribulations. If you are a Tibetan refugee with an I.C. (Identity Certificate), R.C. (Registration and/or Refugee Certificate), or a travel document from any foreign government, and/or stateless without a passport, you know exactly what I mean. So, you see my point how difficult it can get if someone like me were to travel.

And, to make matters worse, then there are other everyday reasons—logistics-related, financial, document-wise, lack of interaction from the embassy, and travel restrictions due to natural disasters notably the earthquakes in Nepal—all of which culminated in my case, and I was unable to enter the Himalayan country for my project the whole of last year. So, on May 13th 2016, when my plane landed at Tribhuvan International airport in Kathmandu, my heart was overcome with inexplicable joy and relief. And then I was flooded with waves after waves of memories of this place, my childhood here, the faces of people I grew up with and departed from, memories of the sort that warm you in the inside and tear you apart simultaneously. My past started beating inside me like a second heart. Little did I notice the pungent smell of garbage in the air laden with dry dust, and the grey evening skies filled with dry wood termite swarmers until I was inside a tiny white Suzuki cab on my way to my hotel in Thamel, the commercial district in Kathmandu and a haven for tourists.

The first and last time I was in Nepal was in the year 1996. I was very young then and as both of my parents recall, things were very different, especially for Tibetan refugees residing in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital (we resettled in India from Nepal). It was a time when thousands of Tibetans (on average between 2500 and 3500) would make the dangerous crossing through the Himalayas to come into exile in India from Tibet, and Nepal was an important transit country for these refugees.

The view of the Boudha stupa, a UNESCO world heritage monument from the main gate (currently under renovation due the damages caused by the earthquakes).

The view of the Boudha stupa, a UNESCO world heritage monument from the main gate (currently under renovation due the damages caused by the earthquakes).

Things have changed now drastically. Within a few days of my 19 hour-flight from New York and in spite of a quite sickening jet lag (stomach-churning actually) and sheer sleep deprivation owing to loud and drunk American tourists singing through the night on the same floor as my room at my hotel, I accepted an invitation to circumambulate the Boudha stupa, a UNESCO world heritage monument. I visited the monument with Tashi, a student nurse with whom I attended boarding school in India. Tashi is 25-years-old now. She fled from her hometown in Tibet in 1999 with her family. Despite how dangerous of an undertaking that is, she said thousands of Tibetans do it at the risk of death in snow blizzards, losing their limbs to frost bite, or being mercilessly shot by Chinese border patrols (e.g. the Nangpa Pass shooting incident in Sept. 2006 when a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Namtso was shot dead while crossing the border in the Himalayas with a group of other Tibetan nuns and monks to come into exile. The video footage shot by a Romanian TV station is available here.

After her escape from Tibet, Tashi has been living in Kathmandu with her family. As we continued to circumambulate (the number of circumambulation should usually either be 13, or 113 on holy days, and it takes about 7 minutes to complete one), she explained to me how the situation for Tibetan refugees in Nepal has changed over the years.

Following China’s crackdown on the peaceful protests by Tibetans in Tibet in March 2008, the number of Tibetan refugees coming to Nepal decreased significantly. There are hardly any Tibetan who are able to make the journey from Tibet through the Himalayas because of increased border control and shoot-at-sight policies, and those who have made it to Nepal in the previous years continue to face repression as China’s influence on Nepal’s policies towards Tibetans increases.

Tashi talked about how Tibetan refugees are not allowed to be together in groups in communal places especially at the Boudha stupa area, wear T-shirts that have “Free Tibet” or “Save Tibet” or related slogans written on it, gather for prayers to celebrate the birthday of the Dalai Lama, and carry the Tibetan national flag or have it displayed in stores. This is despite the fact that Nepal’s constitution guarantees such rights as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to all persons, and Nepal’s Supreme Court has ruled that restricting Tibetans’ civil rights is illegal.

Tibetan Buddhists circumambulating the Boudha stupa (113 circumambulations on full moon day) to celebrate lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and Parinirvana). Tashi and I did 13 on our first meeting.

Tibetan Buddhists circumambulating the Boudha stupa (113 circumambulations on full moon day) to celebrate lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and Parinirvana). Tashi and I did 13 on our first meeting.

Violation of any of these “anti-Chinese activities” result in imprisonment where Tibetans are beaten by Nepalese police and are usually charged with a fine up to 25,000 NPR. Furthermore, the Tibetan Welfare Office, which was responsible for looking after the conditions of Tibetan refugees in Nepal and those transiting though Nepal to other countries for resettlement was ordered by the Nepalese authorities in January 2005 to close along with the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This means that foreign governments and NGOs abroad no longer have points of contact, or functional liaison in Nepal with knowledge and experience in dealing with the issues and plight of Tibetan refugees here.

The situation has indeed changed for Tibetans in Nepal since the year my family and I left for India. Every word that came out Tashi’s mouth about the condition here almost felt like a foreign language to me because historically, despite being geographically small and limited in resources, Nepal has supported Tibetans by providing them with political refugee status, and established emergency refugee relief programs with assistance from the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and the US Agency for International Development.

Nepal and Tibet go a long way back, and had close economic, diplomatic and cultural relationship as independent states, and even had treaties signed in 1645, 1789, 1792, and 1856. As I continued to listen to Tashi, I wondered more and more about what happened to the humanitarian sentiment that Nepal harbored for Tibetan refugees before? In December 2011, Jon Krakauer succinctly reported in The New Yorker almost everything that Tashi mentioned in detail. The report talked about how in 2009:

Beijing promised to promote tourism to Nepal, invest in major Nepalese hydropower projects, and increase its financial assistance by approximately eighteen million dollars annually. In return, Kathmandu pledged to endorse Beijing’s one-China policy, which decrees that both Taiwan and Tibet are inalienable parts of Chinese territory and to prohibit anti-Chinese activities within Nepal. Activities deemed unacceptable include gathering for prayers on the birthday of the Dalai Lama and displaying the Tibetan flag. The full report can be found here.

In the next few days, I interviewed a total of 9 Tibetans about which I will write in another update (of course, pseudonyms will be used to protect their identities). I met with Tashi again at Kori’s café in Boudhanath, where I had a refreshing iced Americano, quite the wine for my disoriented, still-jetlagged body. We continued with our conversation from before against the backdrop of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo title song, a hit Salman Khan Bollywood movie.

Picture3This time, Tashi took me to a dirt alleyway that led us away from the Boudha stupa, and to a tight clearing with several Tibetan-owned shops, all selling “laphing”, a spicy glass noodle dish, considered a street delicacy among Tibetan and Nepalese youth alike. I was invited to a laphing lunch with her friend, Dickyi who is also a student nurse. We ordered several different types of Laphing: dry, wet, rolled, white and yellow. Like Tashi, Dickyi also left Tibet when she was very young with her family. Dickyi was shy at first, but opened up as soon as we started talking about education for Tibetan youth in Nepal.

Dickyi talked about how in the past, the Nepalese government issued a “Refugee Identity Certificate” (RC) to every Tibetan refugee coming to Nepal. However, this was discontinued due to pressure from Beijing. The result was, without RC, Tibetan refugees cannot obtain a travel document that would allow them to go to other foreign countries for resettlement or to reunite with their families. It also means that they can be forcibly deported to China despite the fact that it is illegal under international law for Nepal to repatriate Tibetan refugees because of the risk of torture or persecution in China.

Later, a quick search online led me to a Human Rights Watch report from April, 2014 entitled, “Under China’s shadow: Mistreatment of Tibetans in Nepal”, which highlights significant concerns that Nepal may at times forcibly return Tibetan refugees to China. (The full report is available here). “Nepal continues to deny thousands of Tibetans, most of them born in Nepal, any legal existence by refusing to issue them any form of official identification. This fuels a pattern of marginalization and abuse of the Tibetan community at large”, said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a news article reported by Annie Padwick in Nov. 2014 for Contact, a monthly publication for Tibetan issue and community information. For Dickyi, the most important upshot of Nepal’s refusal to issue RCs to Tibetan refugees, especially students, is how it prevents them from getting opportunities for education and jobs in the long run.

This led to another related discussion on how in Sept 2005, when former U.S. President George Bush proposed a program to resettle Tibetan refugees including students from Nepal to the United States because of their extremely vulnerable conditions, the Nepalese government—who could not support the Tibetans fully themselves because of limited resources—still blocked the program. According to Dickyi, a letter written by three members of the US House of Representatives (James McGovern, Frank Wolf, and Joe Pitts) in December 2011 was addressed to the President and the Prime Minister of Nepal asking for the rights of the Tibetan refugees to be protected, and urging the Nepalese government to respond to US government’s programme to resettle Tibetan refugees in the United States. (The letter and a news article on this is available here).

It is now 2016 and Nepal still has not responded to this letter that reaffirmed the U.S. State Department’s commitment of resettling Tibetan refugees from 2005. The programme has hit a roadblock because of the failure of Nepalese government to cooperate with the U.S. It could have ensured protection and improved so many vulnerable lives.

I enjoyed my fill of laphing and meaningful conversation while I was having it with Tashi and Dickyi, and other Tibetans who also joined our animated discussion at the stall. I spent the next few days in bed on antibiotics, visiting the not-so-comfortable Indian-style toilet for the umpteenth time on a strict diet on bananas and Nuepa Sowae Menja (life-energy vitalizing traditional herbal tea) from Men-Tsee-Khang.

Also, did I mention that I survived seven earthquakes in the last ten days? On the bright side, at breakfast every morning, I am blessed with a beautiful view of the Boudha stupa. My days so far here have been enriching, and worth every minute. To keep it that way, I will make sure that I keep my distance from laphing, as delicious as it is, no one wants a second round of what I experienced. Stay tuned for the next update! I am working with a group of Tibetan students at an NGO to come up with a creative project to showcase different notions of Tibetan identity in Nepal.