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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 20, May 8, 2010

China’s Growing Influence in Nepal: Implications on Tibetan Refugees

Monday 10 May 2010, by Kriti Singh

There are more than 20,000 Tibetans residing in Nepal, living with no defined legal status as the Nepalese law does not recognise the rights of refugees under the principal treaties that govern their status under international law. Provided they have a Nepalese “refugee identity certificate” (RC), Tibetans who arrived before 1989 can remain in Nepal with certain limited rights. Most live in an uneasy state of subsistence, principally in a small number of isolated settlements in the Kathmandu valley and Pokhara. Tibetans residing in Nepal are essentially stateless. They are neither citizens nor refugees under the law, and they possess neither the legal status nor the rights with which to improve their welfare. Moreover, legally resident Tibetans cannot travel to certain “restricted” regions of Nepal, typically those near the border with China.1 Nepal has not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention, or its 1967 Protocol, and has no domestic asylum law. In the absence of formal refugee legislation, the Government of Nepal has embraced different approaches for different refugee populations.2

Given the present scenario, the state of Tibetan refugees’ condition in Nepal continues to be grim, more or less, due to the Chinese mounting pressure in the region. According to the latest United States State Department Human Rights Report for 2009,

Tibetans repatriated from Nepal reportedly suffered torture, including electric shocks, exposure to cold and severe beatings and were forced to perform heavy physical labour…Tibetan refugees in Nepal also witnessed curtailment of freedom of expression as police imposed restrictions on demonstrations and sometimes detained demonstrators.

As China continues to rise as one of the Asian giants and a superpower in the making, its dealings with the Tibetan movement has scaled the borders and one can observe the alteration in international political dynamics on this issue. Regarding Sino-Nepal relations, on the inter-national front there has been mounting concern over the growing economic relationship between Kathmandu and Beijing, and the escalating ignorance of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

In the beginning of March itself, when the Tibetan exiles marked the 51st anniversary of Tibet’s invasion by China, the Nepal Government deployed more than 500 policemen in Kathmandu. Also, the Chinese authorities snapped most links, including the Friendship Bridge, between the former Buddhist kingdom and its neighbour Nepal. It also insisted to control Nepal’s nearly 1800 km open border with India, to tab the Tibetans’ movement from this side. Moreover, the detainment of Thinley Gyatso by the Nepal Police also hit the news headlines. Gyatso is considered as the unofficial messenger of the Dalai Lama. In addition to this, recent months have witnessed the Nepal Police conducting raids in areas around the Tibetan religious shrine of Boudhanath, a major pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists. Besides, at least about 25 Tibetan refugees, imprisoned in Nepal for protesting against the Chinese occupation of their homeland, began a hunger strike, demanding their release. However, the Nepal authorities have made it clear that the ‘protests against friendly nations such as China will not be tolerated’.

China’s influence on Nepal is not a new issue, especially when it comes to the Tibetan question. Historically, the Nepalese royals used to have a close and cordial relationship with China. As per the historical records, in the eighteenth century China and Nepal signed the Sino-Nepalese Treaty, to put a halt to Kathmandu’s adventurism in Tibet. The accord was in itself marked by Chinese political domination in the region. During twentieth century, after a lot of crests and troughs in the relationship, both the countries concluded a treaty based on the “five principles of friendly relations”. In contemporary times, both the countries are working together to gain economic prosperity, and to contain India’s emerging status in Asia. The very foundation of Nepal’s policy towards China is to counter India’s influence in the region. Moreover, Nepal supports the ‘One-China policy’, which considers both Tibet and Taiwan as inseparable parts of China and forbids its territory to be used for anti-China propaganda. With the collapse of the Nepali monarchy under King Gyanendra in 2006 and the ascendance of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), Nepal has been constantly working on to cultivate deeper economic ties with China. One glaring example of Sino-Nepal relations and its influence on Tibetan refugees was witnessed during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the Nepal Government came down heavily on the Tibetan refugees’ protest against China.

Exhibiting a similar trend of Beijing’s escalating influence in Kathmandu, the International Campaign for Tibet Report 2009 brought to light the growing influence of China over the Nepali Government, judicial system, civil society and media. It further revealed how the Tibetans are experiencing a rise in harassment and extortion, more restrictions on their movements and greater difficulty in securing education and jobs than ever before. As the situation continues to remain the same, the United Kingdom’s 12th Annual Report on Human Rights has voiced its serious concern about the Tibetan refugees’ freedom of expression in Nepal. According to media reports, there is an increasing despair among the community in Kathmandu, particularly among the most vulnerable, that is, those without papers. The Nepali Government had made a decision that all Tibetan shops, restaurants and businesses be officially registered. To do that, one needs 50,000 Nepali rupees ($ 500) and proper residence status in Nepal.3


The issue of Tibetan refugees has always made headlines in the international community who look forward for the resolution of the issue. International entities like the United Nations (UN), United States (US), European Union (EU) and international donors are playing a vital role in providing relief to the Tibetan refugees. For over three decades and six presidential administrations, the US has remained steadfast in its “One-China” policy.4 Reiterating the one-China principle and recognising that Tibet is part of the China, the US Government under the leadership of President Barack Obama in 2009 supported the early resumption of talks between Beijing and representatives of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Moreover in 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed not to let human rights concerns hinder cooperation with China. However, in 2010 the US State Department singled out China alongside Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar as among the worst rights abusers in 2009, which led to a series of terse exchanges between the US and China. In February 2010, the Obama Administration invited the non-government al organisations to submit their proposals to run a one-year-long project supporting the Tibetan refugees in India, Nepal, and to a lesser extent, Bhutan. Proposals targeted solely or predominantly to the Tibetan refugee population in Nepal come to about $ 250,000. The programmes for Tibetan refugees focus mainly on protection, including prevention and response, to gender-based violence, health and nutrition, livelihoods and education, water and sanitation sectors in Nepal.5

Over the years, the European Parliament has followed events in Tibet closely. In 2009, the European Parliament has also urged China to negotiate and resume talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives with a view to bringing about a “positive, meaningful change in Tibet”, not ruling out autonomy for the region, a solution that Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) believe need not compromise China’s territorial integrity. In its key demand, the Parliament urges the Chinese Government

to consider the Memorandum for Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People of November 2008 as a basis for substantive discussion leading towards positive, meaningful change in Tibet, consistent with the principles outlined in the Constitution and laws of the People’s Republic of China.

The resolution called on the European Union (EU) Council Presidency to adopt a declaration on the same lines.6 Again in March 2010, the MEPs held a debate on the current situation of Tibet and voiced their concerns about the human rights situation. During the debate EU Commissioner and Vice-President of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic said:

The EU position does not leave any room for misinterpretation. Therefore, let me stress: the EU respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, including Tibet. We respect the ‘one China’ policy… However, we have always supported peaceful reconciliation through dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the representatives of the Dalai Lama. This dialogue has to be constructive and substantive, addressing all core issues such as the preservation of Tibet’s unique culture, religion and traditions and the need to achieve a system of meaningful autonomy for Tibet within the Chinese Constitution.7

China has played an important, if at times hidden, role in the Nepali Government’s crackdown on Tibetan demonstrations. The unusual number of statements from Nepali leaders reiterating the ban on “anti-China” activities suggests increasing pressure from Beijing. China has long claimed that the bedrock of its foreign policy is “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries. Yet it has directly involved itself in Nepali affairs. China’s ambassador has publicly exerted China’s influence on the Nepali Government through strong and frequent statements, calling for the arrest of protesters and urging the government to take strong action.8 With the Chinese influence creating deep impression on the Nepal’s politics, the Tibetans refugees in Nepal face another challenge for their survival.


1. According to the report by the Tibet Justice Centre.

2. As per United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010 operations profile.

3. “Tibetan refugees in Nepal are scared”, The Irish Times, March 27, 2009

4. “One China Policy With Taiwan: Implications For Future US National Security Strategy”, Lieutenant Colonel Jack O’Connor, US Army War College,Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, PA, May 3, 2004, 17013-5050.

5. “US announces $ 2.5 m fund for Tibetan refugees in South Asia”, The Himalayan Times, February 23, 2010 headline= US+announces+$+2.5m+fund+for+Tibetan+refugees+in +South+Asia&NewsID= 229465

6. “50th anniversary of Tibetan uprising: European Parliament urges China to negotiate”, European Parliament, March 12, 2009

7. “European Parliament Urges Mutually Acceptable Political Solution for Tibet Problems”, Tibetan Official Media, March 27, 2010

8. “Appeasing China; Restricting the Rights of Tibetans in Nepal”, Human Rights Watch, 2008, USA, ISBN: 1-56432-365-X.

The author is a Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail:

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