Police in Nepal have forcefully shut down local elections for the leadership of a Tibetan refugee group, apparently yielding to pressure from China and drawing criticism from the United States.
Voting was under way for the head of the Chushi Gangdruk, a welfare organization founded by veterans of a Tibetan resistance force that formerly battled the Chinese People's Liberation Army, when police in riot gear and armed with guns and batons stormed into an election center and carted away the ballot box.
The raid occurred on Feb. 13, when a top State Department official was in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu to meet with Nepalese officials and express Washington’s continued support for Tibetan refugees in the Himalayan kingdom.
In a statement Friday, a State Department official expressed "concern" over the Nepalese police action and said the United States would continue to monitor developments affecting the welfare of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
Nepal has repeatedly said it will not allow "anti-China" activities on its soil, saying it observes a “one China policy,” which holds that Tibet is part of China.
But a member of the Chushi Gangdruk election committee told the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), a Tibetan advocacy group, that the polls were meant to select representatives for its charitable work and not to promote anti-Chinese activities.
"We [were] voting for our local community representatives so that when someone is sick we can take them to the hospital or when someone dies we can take the corpse to the graveyard. We help poor and homeless people, and we clean the streets and look after the environment in our community,” he said.
“We are refugees and do not have such a government to look after us. Only community members do these jobs.”
Ballot box taken
The seizure of the ballot box from the Boudha district, one of three areas where voting was held and raided by the police, came four months after Nepali armed police blocked thousands of Tibetan exiles in Kathmandu from voting for a new government-in-exile.
They forcibly confiscated the ballot boxes after storming into three voting centers in the capital, home to almost 9,000 Tibetan exiles, as the elections were held.
Local police in Boudha did not object when voting got underway in the morning but an hour later, a van carrying riot police and a separate truck used to take people away for detention arrived at the site, a source in Kathmandu told ICT.
A police officer told the members of Chushi Gangdruk that Tibetan refugees are not allowed to hold elections for any reason, and that the raid had been ordered by the Chief District Officer, the source said.
A policeman then took the ballot box and told the voters that it would be locked away with other ballot boxes that had been confiscated in October last year.
Several police officers stayed behind, presumably to ensure that the election would not resume, ICT said.
In the two other locations, Swayambhu and Jawalakhel districts, voters had completed the polls before police arrived.
‘One China policy’
Nepal shares a long border with Tibet and is home to around 20,000 exiles who began arriving in 1959 when a failed uprising against Chinese rule forced Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama into exile in India's Himalayan foothills at Dharamsala.
Nepal cites the "one China policy" in cracking down on Tibetan community activities in the country such as elections among the refugee community and birthday celebrations for the Dalai Lama.
“The link between China's aggression against Tibetans and Nepalese police actions has contributed to an environment of fear and insecurity in Nepal's Tibetan communities,” ICT said.
Nepal only recognizes Tibetan refugees who arrived in the country prior to 1989 as “residents” with limited access to social, economic, political, and civil rights.
Refugees lament that Nepal's increasing political tilt toward China has made life difficult for them.
Tibetans demonstrating outside Chinese diplomatic facilities in Nepal have routinely been beaten, detained, and threatened with deportation to India.
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero, who also serves as the government’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, visited the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu on Feb. 13. She met with government and UN officials.
Otero expressed continued U.S. support for the safety and welfare of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, and said she would "carry their message" back to Washington, according to Todd Stein, ICT’s Director of Government Relations.
In a Feb. 18 statement, a State Department official said, "We're concerned about the Nepal police actions that interrupted the elections of the legally registered NGO welfare activities of the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal that happened on Sunday."
"Both Under Secretary Otero and Ambassador DeLisi raised the issue of the government of Nepal's treatment of Tibetan refugees with the prime minister and the home secretary during Under Secretary Otero's visit, and they urged the government to ensure that the fundamental rights of Tibetan refugees in Nepal are respected. "
"We have a longstanding policy, as you know, of supporting the needs of vulnerable refugee populations, and consider the Tibetan populations in Nepal to be particularly vulnerable. The U.S. continues to monitor the situation of Tibetans, both newly arriving refugees and the long-staying populations."
The Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu was established in the early 1990s in response to concern in the U.S. Congress that Tibetans fleeing oppression need urgent assistance and protection after what is typically a dangerous crossing through the high mountain passes that separate Tibet and Nepal.
The center, funded by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has become a vital link in a so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the Nepal government and the UNHCR.
Pursuant to the agreement, Tibetans are accorded safe transit through Nepalese territory and allowed to travel on to India. The process ensured by the agreement typically means that Tibetans apprehended by Nepalese border police are handed over to Nepalese immigration officials and then to the UNHCR, which registers them as “persons of concern."
The Chinese government contends that Tibetans arriving in Nepal are illegal migrants and has actively sought their handover to Chinese authorities.
Although Nepal is prohibited by its obligations under international law from forcibly repatriating Tibetans across the border, the ICT said “incidents of refoulement do occur.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes and Richard Finney.