KATHMANDU, Nepal -- On the morning of Feb. 13, Drupchen Tsering, a Buddhist monk from Tibet, walked out of a restaurant here in Nepal’s capital, dripping with gasoline. In front of the Bouddhanath Stupa, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the world, he lit himself on fire.
Nepalese police put out the fire and rushed him to a hospital, but Tsering could not be saved. He died a few hours later, with burns on more than 90 percent of his body. The 25-year old monk was one of dozens of Tibetan Buddhists who have set themselves ablaze over the past months to protest what they say is Chinese oppression of Tibet, but his case quickly became an international cause célèbre.
Self-immolation is not an uncommon form of protest around the world, but in the Tibetan context, it has become the gruesome symbol of a desperate people reacting to Chinese oppression, some argue, by taking the power to decide life and death away from the state. His death triggered mourning across the Tibetan diaspora, but it was what happened after it that really got the world’s attention.
While Tsering’s body was kept frozen in a Kathmandu hospital, a tense standoff between Tibetan activists and Nepalese authorities mounted. Who could claim the body? How would it be treated? The question would ordinarily be a simple one to answer. Relatives or friends take the body; funeral rites are conducted; life goes on, until the next immolation (112 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past four years, according to the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, and that’s in China alone).
But Tsering’s body was a threat to China. And China carries a lot of weight in Nepal, a country with a weak government that depends on aid, much of it from Beijing.
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Monks, Spies And Cops
Nepal, wedged between two big, powerful neighbors -- the other one is India -- is home to some 20,000 Tibetans, many of whom fled Tibet after the 1959 invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Until the mid-1990s, Nepal issued Tibetans refugee papers, which allowed them to live in the country legally.
That has changed. These days, Tibetans who arrive in Nepal across the Himalaya’s high, thinly guarded passes are handled by the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), which operates a reception center in Kathmandu under an informal agreement with the government. Most of them go on to India. Those who choose to remain permanently in Nepal live in legal limbo, and in constant fear. They know China is watching them.
As Chinese pressure on Nepal’s rickety government has risen, life for Tibetans here has become increasingly polluted by rumors, fear of Beijing’s spies, and security crackdowns.
So much so that when Tibetans agree to speak with journalists, they often do so anonymously or giving only their first name, like Tenzin, who lives in a small room accessed through a warren of narrow alleys behind the Stupa. The pressure to stay silent, he said, has increased dramatically in recent years.
“It has gotten to the point where we have to choose: Be patriotic and love Tibet, or live a normal and quiet life,” he said, explaining that street protests are no longer an option because of constant threats of arrest and the high cost of bail.
Tibetan community leaders do talk regularly with Nepal’s police and government, and even with Chinese embassy officials. The interactions, Tenzin said, usually occur before Tibetan holidays, and result in Tibetan leaders urging the community to stay inside and quiet.
Many Tibetans know better than to skirt that advice. “At the stupa, there are cameras and there are police and spies (…) We don’t know who we can socialize with, we have to be very careful,” Tenzin said.
China has a lot of tools it can bring to bear against them. State media has accused some Tibetan advocacy groups of being terrorist organizations. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetans’ spiritual and erstwhile political leader, has never condemned self-immolations, but repeatedly says they make him sad, while denying China’s allegations that he instigates them. Yet Beijing portrays him as something akin to a terror leader. Internet advocacy groups have documented cases of Chinese hackers targeting Tibetans. Kathmandu Tibetans report they feel as if they are under constant casual surveillance, echoing Chinese domestic security measures the New York Times called “the soft fingertips of Beijing’s iron fist.”
“A Litmus Test For Nepal”
Tibetan activists say that repression got worse during the preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when China wanted to look as “harmonious” as possible -- an adjective often used by the Beijing government -- in front of the world. That is when it rolled out intensified, pervasive, diverse security measures targeted at Tibetans in Nepal.
That year, on March 10, police in Kathmandu violently disbanded an assembly of Tibetans gathered in solidarity with the uprising inside Tibet, arresting hundreds. Activists claim Nepal police made more than 8,000 arrests of Tibetans in the subsequent five months.
The security regime in Kathmandu mimics that in China, where the government has routinely flooded ethnic Tibetan areas with extra forces in the wake of demonstrations and self-immolations. But it’s happening in a sovereign nation of 27 million people, albeit one hat has lurched from one political crisis to the next since the end of a decade-long civil war in 2006.
China isn’t alone in being accused of meddling in Nepalese affairs: India is too. But China is unique in its preoccupation with controlling Tibetans, or what Nepalese officials have dubbed compliantly “anti-China activity.”
That preoccupation was reflected in the fate of Tsering’s body.
Weeks after the monk’s self-immolation, newspaper notices failed to attract any of his family members to claim the corpse. Nepalese law dictates that the government can hand a body over only to a proven relative, and if it remains unclaimed for 35 days, it becomes state property.
Tibetans asked that the government respect their religious traditions and hand the body over to the community so that proper funeral rites could be conducted. While some activists and diplomats held closed-door discussions with government officials, others signed online petitions.
In a March 15 op-ed piece, Tendor Dorjee, the director of Students for Free Tibet, raised the stakes by calling the decision about Tsering’s body “a litmus test for Nepal.”
The government said it would wait the legally mandated 35 days. Observers speculated that China was pressuring Nepal to squelch any potential for a martyr’s funeral. And on March 25, the government cremated the body, in the middle of the night, at a site for unclaimed corpses.
The litmus test had failed.
“The cremation being carried out in such a hasty, secretive manner reflects poorly on the Nepalese authorities,” said Kate Saunders, director of International Campaign for Tibet.
“It speaks volumes about the Chinese authorities' leverage and influence in Kathmandu at a time of political paralysis in Nepal,” she said, calling the government’s actions a betrayal of good faith in those who had been in dialogue during the weeks prior.
Dorjee, the Students for Free Tibet director, said that the act “crystallized a disconcerting truth about the country’s lack of respect for religious freedom.”
An open letter from a group of well-known Nepalese human rights activists slammed the government for its actions, but the day after the cremation passed without any public protests in Kathmandu.
So did this past Wednesday, April 3, when officials posted notices warning against any public ceremonies. That’s because it was the 49th day since Tsering’s death, which in Tibetan Buddhism, which is based on the principles of reincarnation, is the day the consciousness of the deceased enters its next birth.
Tenzin, the Tibetan who would only give his first name, is resigned to this state of affairs. “Whenever there is an event -- a holiday we would celebrate outside or a political situation we would protest -- our desire to do so is matched with instructions from the authorities not to,” he said.
“I prayed silently on the bus to work,” his wife, Champa, said. “It is of course sad when someone dies like this, but to not be able to share it or conduct the proper ceremonies, I don’t know, it just feels like we’re losing everything we can do.”
Enter The (Ex) American President
As for Nepal at large, the plight of Tibetan refugees is only one among many issues the government has to deal with. The country’s first post-civil war parliament, which doubled as a constitution-drafting body, dissolved without reaching an agreement last May. A subsequent caretaker cabinet recently stepped aside in a controversial move and the country is now run by an interim government, charged with preparing elections, and headed by the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice.
But the handling of the Tibetans issue could send a telling message about the fledgling republic. Both sides of the Tibet debate have accused the other of assaulting Nepal’s sovereignty, while the Kathmandu government remained silent.
Western governments chime in, too. On a visit last week to discuss political affairs, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter told a press conference: “The Chinese government is putting pressure on the officials in Nepal (…) and my hope is that the Nepali government will not accede to pressure from any other country and abuse or interfere with these peoples’ lives.”
Trailokya Raj Aryal, a China specialist at Kathmandu University, sees the issue as one of Nepal carving out its philosophy of foreign policy against the historical grain of aid dependency.
“Nepal today retains a foreign policy based on survival, pleasing others, and not promoting our own national principles and interests,” he said.
That aid dependency may be the main reason the Kathmandu government is choosing to do Beijing’s bidding. For example, China is building a $1.6 billion hydroelectric power plant in Nepal, a key project to ease power shortages in this chronically electricity-deprived country, where even the capital gets daily power cutoffs.
“The Tibetans have much more support in Nepal than it appears,” said a Nepalese scholar who asked not to be named, but “with power and development money coming in from China, everyone is thinking first of their own interests, whether that be protection from threats or free fancy trips to Beijing. We have a history of operating like that.”
The issue has expanded beyond Nepal. Judicial cases considering charges of genocide in Tibet are currently underway in Spanish courts, far away from this corner of Asia where two big powers are separated by a giant chain of mountains and one small, fragile, but strategically placed state.
“We have an opportunity to be a facilitator (…) between India and China, but we will continue to miss out until and unless we define our foreign policy beyond aid and appeasement,” said Kathmandu University’s Aryal.
And until Nepal keeps complying with the whims of foreign powers, it may never become a stable nation with a hand in its own destiny.