Authorities in Nepal arrested on Friday the Dalai Lama's new representative in the Himalayan country after he held a news conference calling for protection of Tibetan refugee rights, sources said.
The arrest of Thinley Lama, volunteer coordinator of the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office, came amid persistent pressure from Beijing urging the Nepalese government to stop “anti-China activities” by Tibetan refugees.
He was taken away and interrogated by police after he held a press conference asking the Nepal government to ensure the rights of the country’s 20,000 Tibetan refugees under Nepal’s new constitution.
The press conference, held at a Kathmandu hotel, was Thinley Lama’s first since his June appointment.
Thinley Lama, a Nepali citizen, was expected to be released after signing specific "commitments," a source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They want him to shackle himself in future press conferences,” the source said.
Rights groups criticized the Nepali government and called for strong action from the international community and an end to what they called "persecution" of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
"I think this gesture—arresting this representative of the Tibetan government in exile—brings us to a new low," Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director, told RFA.
"We have not seen behavior this specific, this aggressive, and frankly this baseless, in quite some time, and it is a very alarming development that requires a fairly vociferous response from the international community to make sure that the government of Nepal is upholding its obligations to Tibetans," she said.
China has been more aggressive in urging Nepal to take action against Tibetan refugees since last month when the new Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Yang Houlan, assumed office, news reports said.
Yang had reminded the Nepali government and political parties in the country against allowing any “anti-China activity” by Tibetans living in Nepal, the reports said.
Refugees under pressure
Tibetan refugees living in Nepal are under pressure to avoid asserting their national identity as their host country moves closer to its powerful northern neighbor China, analysts say.
Even religious ceremonies and community gatherings by Tibetans are increasingly viewed with suspicion by authorities in Nepal. They were also prevented from celebrating the birthday of the Dalai Lama last month.
Many of the refugees arrived in Nepal following a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in which thousands fled south across the Himalayas.
Many still flee Tibet each year, hoping to transit Nepal to India, home of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
At the press conference on Friday, Thinley referred to four treaties signed between Nepal and Tibet as two "sovereign countries" in 1645, 1789, 1792 and 1856, the Times of India reported.
He noted that on the basis of amicable relations with Tibet, earlier Nepali governments had given sanctuary to Tibetans forced to leave their countries as "political refugees," the report said.
China says there are no Tibetan “refugees,” only illegal immigrants.
"I guess the thing that really ‘got their goat’ was that he referenced old treaties between Nepal and Tibet," said Mikel Dunham, an American writer and blogger on Nepal’s politics who frequently travels to the country.
"That would not have gone down well, particularly with the new Chinese ambassador in Nepal, Yang Houlan, who seems to be the feistiest of all the [Chinese] ambassadors so far."
Sophie Robinson said the Nepali government has stepped up action against Tibetan refugees since regionwide riots and protests in Tibet in March 2008. The refugees had sympathized with their countrymen facing repression in Tibetan regions of China, she said.
"We’ve seen the Nepali government take a number of steps to either restrict the activities of Tibetans or to actively persecute them," Richardson said.
"We’ve certainly documented that in the treatment of Tibetans following the March 2008 protests that took place in Tibetan areas. People were protesting in sympathy in Kathmandu, and we documented some fairly horrific treatment at the hands of the Nepali authorities of people who were exercising their right to freedom of expression."
She also cited a controversial Chinese project aimed at transforming Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.
"In that marvelously hypocritical way that the Chinese government has, even as Beijing is encouraging the locking up of Tibetans in Nepal, the Chinese government itself is in the middle of a $3 billion project to make Lumbini—which is the birthplace of the Buddha, and therefore one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists—a 'mecca for Buddhists,'” Robinson said.
Dunham said Beijing is using tourism to extend its increasing political influence in Nepal.
"It’s clear that China is intent on positioning itself in Nepal as the main supporter for tourism," he said.
"They’ve got people in China now willing to spend money, and they’re willing to ship them to Nepal to see the Buddhist sites and all of that, and Nepal could use the kind of economic boom that offers," Dunham said.
"But in order for that to be all nice and tidy for the Chinese, of course people like Thinley cannot be around raising dust in the background."
Reported by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.