Sunday, October 16, 2005

Nepal Cracks Down on Tibetan Refugees

By Sudeshna Sarkar, Indo-Asian News Service

Kathmandu, October 15, 2005 -- King Gyanendra's government cracked down on Tibetan refugees afresh, hitting two of them with jail terms, contrary to its earlier practice of allowing them to travel to India.

The Nepal government's move follows closing down of the local office of the representative of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader.

Sonam Tsering, an 18-year-old Tibetan, was arrested by Nepal police Friday after he entered the capital and headed for Swayambhu, the area in the city housing the Swayambunath temple, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines and home to a large number of Tibetans. Nepal's police, usually slow to move, however acted with speed in Tsering's case, handing him over to the immigration department, who promptly fined the teen 27,000 Nepali rupees (about $375).

Since the boy was unable to pay the fine, stiff by Nepali standards, he was handed down a three-year imprisonment and sent to the Dilli Bazar Jail in the capital. Rights activists said both police and immigration officials had moved so uncharacteristically fast to take advantage of the weekend and the ensuing week-long holiday for Dashain, Nepal's largest festival.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has an office here that, among its other functions, facilitates the forward journey of Tibetans escaping from the Chinese control to India, where the Dalai Lama has his seat in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

Earlier, Nepal's role had been to hand over fleeing Tibetans to the UNHCR. However, following a growing closeness between Beijing and King Gyanendra, Nepal has been cracking down on the refugees.

International Campaign for Tibet, an NGO with offices in the US and Europe, last month published a report, "Dangerous Crossings", which said, as relations between Beijing and King Gyanendra's government warmed up and Nepal sought to please its northern neighbour, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Tibetans to flee to Nepal.

Last month, another Tibetan exile, 25-year-old Norbu Tsering, was arrested at the Nepal-Tibet border while trying to return to his native village in Kyidong in Shigatse in Tibet. He too was handed over to the Nepali Immigration Department who fined him 28,651 Nepali rupees.

Tsering too failed to pay the fine and was sentenced to three years and three months in the same prison.

In 2003, Nepal deported 18 Tibetan refugees, including women and children, to Tibet under pressure from the Chinese Embassy here despite massive international appeal. The action resulted in tremendous criticism, especially in the US, one of Nepal's major donors.

Consequently, the Nepali government has been resorting to fining and jailing the refugees. Tibetans fear after they serve out their jail term, Nepal might quietly deport them to China where they are likely to face punishment.

China says there are no Tibetan refugees, only illegal immigrants who should be punished accordingly.

Though it says Tibet is an integral part of China, Tibetans flee the communist republic in hundreds every year to escape Chinese curbs on Tibetan customs, especially rituals in honour of the Dalai Lama.