Tibetan refugees continue to brave harrowing journeys across the Himalayas to Nepal and beyond. Back home Chinese repression has triggered a new wave of self-immolations. But in Nepal too, “pressure from China is visible,” says one Tibetan refugee.
KATHMANDU – The man, Tashi, wears earrings and his hair in a braid with a horn comb. The woman, Nima, has cheeks browned by the sun and gnawed by the cold. They are among seven Tibetans who have just spent two months trekking across the Himalayas to reach Nepal. "We were so frightened," says Nima.
Still, they were among the lucky ones. They didn't lose fingers to frostbite. Nor were they shot at by Chinese patrols as they crossed the arid, mineral-rich landscape from their starting point in Kham, in the province of Sichuan.
Once they made it across the Chinese border, the seven undocumented refugees were arrested in Humla by Nepalese police and escorted to the immigration office in Kathmandu. Their clothes filthy, they collapsed on the floor, exhausted but relieved to have made it across. "In Tibet, the Chinese police impose restrictions on movement," Tashi says. "We had no freedom."
On this particular evening, Tashi and his group are handed over to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR). They will join up with those 20,000 Tibetans who have sought refuge in Nepal to move on to Dharamsala, in India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. "To meet the Dalai Lama," Nima says, making a gesture imitating prayer. Their ultimate goal is to start a new life.
Burning from despair
Tashi and Nima are among the most recent examples of what has been a historic migratory flux. They denounce the repressive climate in Tibet, and assert that people there are shocked by the resurgence – since last March – of public self- immolations. There are 12 known cases of nuns or monks setting themselves on fire to date. The most recent case took place just last Thursday, when an old Buddhist monk attempted to burn himself alive in the autonomous region of Tibet.
In Kathmandu two people tried to self-immolate last month, out of solidarity. Tenzing Dorjee, a souvenir seller, witnessed the terrible scene that took place on Nov. 10 near the giant Bodnath stupa. "It was very early," he recalls, working his mala prayer beads. "After morning prayers, a monk set himself on fire. He was screaming ‘long live the Dalai Lama!" and "long live Free Tibet!" He began to run, as if he were trying to escape the pain. He fell. People rushed towards him to put out the flames, and they saved him."
Behind the stupa, at the Terigumba monastery, several vigils have been organized in homage to Tibet's suicides. "In Buddhism, it is forbidden to hurt anyone," says Kunga Norbu, a monk. "We don't set off bombs. So the only possible action is to turn one's despair on oneself."
And even if the Dalai Lama has forbidden turning to suicide, those who have died by self-immolation are perceived as martyrs and heroes. According to Kurba Nordu, "these monks sacrifice themselves because the Chinese confiscate portraits of the Dalai Lama and send agents into monasteries to indoctrinate them."
Unanimously, the refugees denounce the hardened stance of Nepalese authorities since 2008, which is when Chinese repression began in the wake of Tibetan demonstrations in Lhasa. The immolations, which irritate Beijing, don't help.
"Things were better under the king"
At the Kidong Sam Tenling monastery in Nepal, Dhundup doesn't mince words. "We can no longer organize demonstrations. I have been arrested several times," he says. "For its cooperation, Nepal receives financial aid from China. China even circulates a list of wanted Tibetans." This information was corroborated by diplomatic cables unveiled last year on the WikiLeaks site.
"The situation is tense," says Kayang, a refugee. "The pressure from China is visible." Nepal, a former Hindu kingdom, is run by former Maoist rebels who won the 2008 elections. Since then, a "new" Nepal has been having trouble rising from the ashes. Fragile, the country is caught in a vise between its two gigantic neighbors, India and China. And its Maoist bent definitely opens doors to Beijing, as symbolized by the imminent, first-time visit of China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. "It doesn't bode well," says Kayang, who fears that Tibetans will start being sent back to China.
Activist Sambu Lama is just as lucid. "Tibetan refugees who enjoy the benefit of western interest are the most enviable refugees in the world," he says. Old Sitan Dolma, who has been living in Kathmandu since 1959, says: "Things were better under the King." Gyanendra Shah, the last king of Nepal, was deposed in 2008 because he was autocratic.
"Times are sad," says Kunda Shushen, originally from Amdo in Tibet. "Our only arm is prayer."
Read the original article in French
Photo – ilkerender