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Nepal: The Chinese squeeze

By Claude Arpi
Last updated on: February 07, 2005 11:18 IST
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A couple of hours after having written this article, the news of the royal coup in Nepal flashed on web sites and television channels.

I had started by lamenting "What is going on in Nepal?"

This is all the more true now.

The coup renders a complex situation even thornier. The question touched upon here will certainly be one of the most urgent to be dealt with by the king. It will be an immediate test to judge his new government's sincerity.

While a few children were kidnapped in Bihar, on the other side of the India-Nepal border, the Maoists struck harder than their Bihari comrades. Last week, they kidnapped about 1,000 children along with their teachers from two schools in eastern Nepal.

After getting a 'briefing' on the benefits of the Maoist revolution, the students were released.

A kingdom under siege

However the next day, the Rising Nepal reported the capture of businessmen of Doti district by armed rebels. The rebels wanted to 'register' a Doti District Businessmen's Committee (and collect tribute from them).

On January 21, the Nepali media reported another event which has far-reaching consequences for the region.

In a swift move the Office of the Dalai Lama's representative in Nepal as well as the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office were shut down. Only after several days did the office of the district chief in Kathmandu disclose the reason for these closures: the Tibetan office was not registered under Article 3 of the Society Act 2034 and was thus functioning 'illegally'.

Wangchuk Tsering, the Dalai Lama's representative in Nepal, reacted cautiously, but had no choice: 'If the government says the offices have to be shut down, then they have to be. We are law-abiding people.'

The TRWO which lost its legitimacy had for decades been the local partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kathmandu, looking after all refugees arriving from Tibet in transit to India.

The Tibet Information Network, an independent News Agencies wrote: 'According to sources close to the UNHCR, as long as the status of TRWO is uncertain, the UNHCR will find their work in the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre more difficult.'

Today more than 1,000 Tibetans await proper papers to leave for India. In case Nepal decides not to rescind its decision, the UNHCR would no longer have a legal partner to look after the refugees fleeing Tibet.

Sudip Pathak, president of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal which is working with the UNHCR, is reported to have met the Nepalese home minister on January 27 to complain about the closure. But to no avail.

India to upgrade Nepal's security apparatus

Though Nepal's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Prakash Sharan Mahat denied that the decision had been taken at China's behest, Beijing's hand can clearly be seen behind the move.

The Dalai Lama's Office has been functioning for the past 45 years without any major problems (and registration). It is difficult to understand why an organisation recognized by a UN body would be suddenly closed on purely technical grounds.

More than 20 000 Tibetan refugees today live in Nepal and over 2000 Tibetans transit annually through the Tibet-Nepal border to visit Dharamsala or the Buddhist monasteries in India fleeing 'religious persecution' in Tibet.

Several countries immediately reacted, in particular the US to whom Nepal had given a written assurance that the government would allow Tibetans to transit through Nepal and would not deport them to China.

At the moment, Nepal does not seem ready to reconsider its decision as Beijing continues to exercise pressure on Nepal to stop the Tibetan refugees' escape towards a free world.

4 more Nepal ministers arrested

Sun Heping, China's ambassador to Nepal, had declared last year: 'We appreciate it very much that His Majesty's Government of Nepal is committed to the one China policy, understands how sensitive the Tibet issue is to China and never allows any anti-China activities to be carried out on Nepali soil.'

All this does not augur well for India: the increasing control of Beijing over the king's government along with the extreme instability of the regime in Kathmandu should not be taken lightly in Delhi.

Today Nepal needs China's support in its fight against the Maoists; more so after the failure of the peace talks between the Maoists and Kathmandu in August last year.

The Maoists on their side are looking for new sources of income as the scope and the extent of their movement is increasing.

The money of the local population is not enough. They have began to use the trade of ingredients used in Tibetan medicine as a new source of income to purchase the badly required weapons to sustain their guerilla warfare.

The medicinal herb trade is a traditional business both for the Nepalis and the Tibetans. The local government in Lhasa has also encouraged the collection of a caterpillar fungus, the cordyceps sinensis (a powerful tonic to increase one's vigour).

The harvesting of cordyceps is a source of income for Tibetans living near the Nepalese border, but with the demand growing, China is today not able to supply its own domestic market (a kilo can fetch up to $3,500 in Lhasa).

The Nepali villagers have taken up the business and the Maoists support the trade. They have allocated 'concessions' to different villages and once collected the harvest is sold in Tibet. Most of the revenue is used to purchase weapons and ammunitions.

Pak to sell arms to Nepal

The Kantipur Post estimates that the Maoists have thus earned 'millions of rupees.' The Chinese have been aware of the trade and encouraged it.

Beijing is officially on the Nepali government side in its fight against the Maoists. In 2002, the then Chinese ambassador to Nepal had explained: 'China labels the insurgents as anti-government outfits, and we never call them as Maoists. They misuse the name of Chairman Mao, which impairs the image of the great leader of China.'

However Beijing does not mind an unstable state at India's doorstep.

That should not be the case for Delhi. But was the fact that 14 Indian Gorkha jawans were recently abducted while visiting their family an eye-opener for Delhi?

Maoists release 14 Indian Gorkhas

In a situation full of dichotomies for Beijing, the Chinese leaders have tried to make the best of the complicated state of affairs.

On one side, they are keen to counterbalance the privileged Indian role in Nepal; on the other they have to save their face: for a nation which speaks of its 'peaceful rise' and the social progress of its minorities, the constant flight of the Tibetans towards India does not promote their 'peaceful socialistic' image.

They are also trying to develop the Tibetan region and the herbal medicine is the 'staple' industry, bringing important revenues.

Faced with these contradictory elements, China decided to make a gesture towards Nepal in October 2003.

Radio Nepal announced that four suspected Maoists along with weapons and explosives had been arrested in Tibet. Till this time, it had been widely believed that all the weapons originated from Naxalite groups in India.

A year after the militants were arrested, Nepal's ministry of foreign affairs announced that the Shigatse Intermediate Court had convicted the Nepalese for smuggling arms and ammunition: two of them had been sentenced to death (in early January, their sentence was commuted to life imprisonment).

Probably wanting compensation for their good deed, Beijing extracted from Kathmandu a strong warning to the Tibetans wanting to leave the 'Motherland' and take refuge in India. Now, this has been done.

With one stone, several birds were killed: the Nepalese were pleased that Beijing was doing something to stop the Maoists' sources of income; India was informed about the growing Chinese influence in Nepal and the Tibetans were shown their place in the Chinese scheme of things.

This was also a 'lesson' for the UN agencies which are often accused of giving preferential treatment to Tibetan refugees compared to others (mainly the ones from Bhutan).

On the morning of the coup, China expressed appreciation for Nepal's closure of the Dalai Lama's office in Katmandu. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman added 'Nepal made the right decision in maintaining Chinese sovereignty.'

A Freudian slip?

More news from Nepal

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Claude Arpi