The other frontier
Nepal and China enjoy cordial neighbourly relations, which are reflected in warm ties between the people of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and Nepal. Nepal’s 15 districts border TAR; whereas the total length of boundary between Nepal and China is 1,439 km. But around 700 km of it are inaccessible owing to harsh terrains. It is a measure of the goodwill the two sides share that none has stationed armed personnel within 20 km of the border.
For the record, there are 37 mountain passes between Nepal and TAR of China. The two governments have opened six formal entry and exit points for the movement of people, goods and merchandise. These border crossing points are Yari-Purang (Taklakot), Lomanthang (Nechung)-Jili, Rasuwa-Kyerong, Kodari-Nyalam (Khasa), Kimathanka-Riwo and Olangchung Gola-Riwo. However, people also cross the border from Lipulek, Tinkar, Ural Bhanjyang, Khoptang Chaur, Musigaon, Naru, Larke Bhanjyang, Lamabagar, Namche Chhule and Lonak into the TAR.
The two governments entered into an ‘Agreement on Trade and other Related Matters between the TAR of China and Nepal’ on Sept. 30, 1956, which was renewed last time on July 10, 2002. The agreement says that those who wish to travel to the other country shall hold valid passports issued by the sending country and visa issued by the receiving country. Inhabitants of the border districts shall hold exit-entry passes with photo affixed ID Cards for the purpose of border trade, pilgrimage and visiting relatives and friends. But they are not allowed to go beyond the border districts into the interior of the other country. Generally the limit is 30 km from the borderline. Those with certificates for pilgrimage can travel through the designated routes and allotted entry points. They are not permitted to stay in the border districts of the receiving country for more than a month. Either party has the right to refuge entry into its territory of any persona non-grata.
All these points denote that there is a regulated border management system between Nepal and China. It means those who want to cross the border must produce valid passport and visa. For the inhabitants of the border districts, identity card is sufficient. However, Tibetans sneak into Nepal through unattended crossing points without any document of identification. Usually, illegal border crossing takes place at night in extreme conditions, which often claims many lives. Hundreds of Tibetans make the difficult and dangerous journey into Nepal illegally, time and again. They don’t have any documents of identification with them while crossing the border.
Purpose of illegal crossing
Tibetans cross the international border illegally either to stay in Nepal as refugees, to go visit Dharmashala, India to see the Dalai Lama or ultimately to go to Western countries through the help of United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). If they are able to stay in hiding in Nepal, they launch Free Tibet propaganda and indulge in anti-China activities. In other words, they try to spoil the intimate relation between China and Nepal.
All these incidents take place due to the provision that the inhabitants of border Tibetan districts can travel up to 30 km to visit friends and relatives in Nepal. But many travel farther, and visit Nepali district headquarters and even Kathmandu. If they are more successful, some manage to cross the porous Nepal-India border on their way to Dharmashala by bribing border forces or slipping past border posts. Some of them stay in Kathmandu as refugees and take part in anti-China activities. In fact, they have taken unwanted advantage of the privilege accorded by the joint agreement which allows people to travel to the adjoining districts of Nepal.
The illegal cross over are orchestrated by various organisations and agents who bring in Tibetans in the guise of Buddhist monks and send them to India or other Western countries through UNHCR. But the Chinese authorities want to see Tibetans refugees locked up behind bars, if not handed over to them or deported back to their country of origin.
Mostly, Tibetans cross through the unattended China-Nepal crossing points. One of the most notorious, illegal and sensitive crossing points is the Lapchegaun of Lamabagar, Dolakha district adjoined with Rongxor of TOR. Lamabagar police station is located 32 km south of this crossing point. Nearly 150 Tibetans who have made the infiltration have been arrested from Lamabagar area in last one-year period which has prompted the Chinese government to categorise Lamabagar as a sensitive area. In the most recent case in mid-April 2010, nine Tibetans were arrested for illegally entering Nepal through this crossing point. They were handed over to immigration officials for investigation. Considering the sensitivity of Lamabagar, Chinese Ambassador Qiu Guohang visited Dolakha on June 2 to make effective arrangement for deportation of Tibetans who have illegally entered Nepali territories.
It is very difficult to deport the Tibetans who have been arrested in Lamabagar. It takes around three-four days to reach the border crossing point. The trekking route along the river Tamakoshi is very steep, rocky and narrow. The Tibetans being forcibly deported through this route often refuse to walk. Some are known to inflict self punishment and threaten to jump into the river if they have to return to Tibet. It can get very difficult for the policemen involved in the thankless job.
There are a few other documented cases. While a group of Tibetans was illegally crossing the Nangpa La Pass on Sept. 30, 2006, Chinese border guards reportedly opened fired and seventeen-year-old Kelsang Namtso was killed in the process. Similarly, two monks and one young woman were arrested in Western Nepal in June this year and deported through a helicopter.
Nepal’s soft corner
Nepal government was rather “soft” on the Tibetan refugees until some years ago. It had provided ID Cards to around 25,000 Tibetan refugees. But presently, strict measures have been adopted due to Chinese diplomatic pressure. On the other hand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the request of UNHCR prepares travel documents for ID card holding Tibetans travelling abroad. At the same time, the US and the UK embassies grant visas and permits to the refugees on the basis of those documents.
Border observation posts (BOP)
To stop illegal crossing, Armed Police Force BOPs should be established at various spots close to the crossing-points—for example, at Lapchegaun (but not at Lamabagar). There are BOPs in Tatopani, Rasuwagadhi, and Lomanthang in the northern frontier. But they remain ineffective.
Tibetans who have been arrested should be deported to their home country, for deportation is an accepted international practice in case of foreigners violating immigration laws. In addition, UNHCR should not take undue interest in sending Tibetans to Western countries as such a move might hamper the friendly relations between Nepal and China.
(Shrestha is former director general of the Department of Survey)