By Luke Ward
The protests were intended by TYBA to be a peaceful stance against religious repression in Tibet.
Kathmandu, August 8 - On Thursday, several thousand Tibetan Buddhists gathered at Chuchchepati in Kathmandu in the biggest Tibetan protest ever held in Nepal. Donning Buddhist flags, they were there to protest the continued repression of religion and human rights in Tibet, organised by the Tibetan Young Buddhists Association. On Friday, rolling protests continued outside the Chinese Consulate, as Tibetans made their feelings known on the day of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I've been to a fair few Tibet protests in the past few years, but I'd never seen anything like this. Today I find myself unable to produce a generic news report, as I feel this would not do the true stories justice. As such, I offer my own personal account of the past two days of pro-Tibet protests in Nepal, replete with all my biases, observations and conclusions. This is a story of the bravery, determination and resiliance of the Tibetans who simply wished to protest against religious and human rights repressions in their homeland. Thursday 7th August
Armed police stand in front of protesters
On a mostly sunny day, where the Monsoon rains stayed away, this peaceful protest should have passed off incident-free, but the violence, sheer idiocy and incompetence of the Nepalese police presence marred the occasion. The protest started off with a Lathi charge by the Nepalese police on a large picture of the Dalai Lama (because, according to the Nepalese police, he is a 'splittist and 'anti-China'), and remained tense thereafter. I arrived shortly after, and unable to understand the various speeches, sat about with some friends. It seemed as though nothing much was happening, and things had calmed down. But shortly, a police truck came and dropped off a load more armed police, getting stuck in the mud in the process. Meanwhile, the rest of the police force sat about, doing nothing. The protesters were told that they had until 2 pm to move, and as the clock passed 2 it was quite apparent that the peaceful protesters had no intention of leaving. It was rumoured that the police were only holding off because of the presence of the BBC’s Charles Haviland and his media team, but by 2.30, the police had decided to back up their words with actions. The police began to close in, targeting different sections of the crowds. They bundled a load of young Tibetan men onto a truck and chased, pushed and shoved more into trucks as they came.
The police's over-exuberant behaviour created a scene of chaos
The Tibetan protesters were seemingly willing to be arrested, if they could be arrested peacefully. However, then the police trucks stopped arriving for a while, due to lack of petrol and enough trucks, leaving both the police and the protesters unsure of what they were supposed to do. The Nepalese police refused to let the Tibetans march to the police stations themselves, so Tibetans sat down, blocking a road for a long time, before the police, who had ushered them there in the first place decided that it would be better if they were sent back onto Chuchchepati ground. Here, again, the protesters sat peacefully, with the police occassionally herding them into large trucks as they arrived. The police seemed to have little understanding of why they were breaking up the peaceful protest, but the head of their operations there attempted to explain the Police action in 'democratic' Nepal.
A young Tibetan protester being dragged away by Nepalese police
'We are following the law set in the bi-lateral agreement between Nepal and China. That is democracy.'
The behaviour of the majority of the Nepalese police during this protest was nothing short of appalling (it must be noted that some were far more considerate and gentle with the protesters). Dragging old ladies and young girls alike, I saw monks thrown onto the floor, and I even saw a female friend punched straight in the face purely for disagreeing with the Policeman's conduct. I saw police throwing stones (although in fairness, one Tibetan youth had apparently initiated this), pulling their Lathis out, and taking Buddhist flags and trying to tear them up. I even saw one Nepali policeman goading protesters and calling 'Chinese, Chinese, Chinese'. Their lack of discipline, and general disrespectful beahviour to people exercising the right to protest was not the only notable aspect of the Police' behaviour. For reasons only apparent to themselves, the Nepalese police seemed almost petrified of being caught on camera, and unable to hide their face and lurch at the protesters at the same time, the vast majority shied away. My fellow photographers in the midst had also cottoned on to this and were using it in a desperate attempt to keep the police away from the protesters.
A Tibetan woman sobs after seeing police violently accosting other protesters
It had mixed results. They soon turned on us as well, and started waving their Lathis at us. The Tibetans in front of me sat saying prayers whilst the Nepalese police tried to wrench them from off the ground, whilst other protesters clung on desperately. I vainly attempted to intervene and pull policeman off people, but what good it had, I don’t know. As I stood horrified, I saw a young girl being wrenched and beaten as her friends cried, clinging on to her. Myself and some Tibetan guys managed to convince the police to lay-off of her, but the damage had been done, and the girl lay there crying hysterically as her friends tried to calm her. I picked up my camera, but this time, found myself unable to take a picture.
The Nepalese police had nowhere near enough trucks to arrest all of the protesters, and had to make repeated visits to the police stations where they were keeping the arrested protesters. When I saw my friend getting punched, I chased after the policeman trying to get a photo of him. He ran and hid in a waiting truck, while his colleague began to run towards me, lathi held up, screaming about smashing my camera, and how I was on my last chance. I took his photo, a daft move, as he was only incensed further. More police arrived, and I had about ten around me, but it became apparent that now they had me surrounded, they didn't know what to do with me.
Tibetans queue to get into a police truck as another drives off
I ended up standing there, ranting and raving like a lunatic, swearing profusely in both English and Nepali, asking which government they worked for- the Nepalese or the Chinese. I’d had enough- in the past week, I’ve seen a monk knocked unconscious as his head hit the ground, monks and women hit in the face, old Ama-las coming up to me, sobbing uncontrollably, pleading with me to do something. I was helpless, I felt useless, angry at the police and angry at my own inability to do anything to stop the injustice I saw before my eyes. Rage boiled inside me that I had forgotten was there, and I realized I needed to cool off for a while.
A Nepalese soldier threateningly raises his lathi at the photographer
They 'ordered' me to leave the area, but let me slip back into the fray. The other photographers were having just as hard a time of it, being pushed around, jostled, and generally harassed, but this was nothing compared to what the peaceful protesters in front of us had to endure. Progressively more and more Tibetans were arrested, until finally, a small, embattled group was left. No more police trucks had arrived- whether they had run out of petrol or not I don't know, but dozens of protesters remained, and asked to leave by the police. As such, they marched towards Boudhanath, where they joined the pilgrims doing their evening kora. It was reported that well over 500 Tibetans had been arrested during the course of Thurday's protests.Friday 8th August
I woke up to Lhubum (RFA) frantically yelling ‘They are coming, they are coming!’
down the phone at me at 7.45 and after five minutes dozing, realized what he was talking about, and hurried over to the Chinese Consulate. As I got there, Tibetan protesters were being loaded into a truck. The protests had begun early, catching the Nepalese police unaware, and getting right up to the gate of the Chinese Consulate. What followed was wave upon wave of comparatively small groups (20-40) of Tibetans turning up and beginning marching towards the consulate.
Once again, the Nepalese police struggled to deal with the Tibetan protesters (8th August)
Many of the police present from yesterday were again present, and once again, there were frequently not enough trucks to pick the protesters up. As soon as one protest had been quelled by the police, another started. Tempers flared on both sides, but with a huge number of Western journalists and tourists present, I didn’t see such violence as I saw yesterday. However, what happens away from the glare of our camera lenses, in the van, at the police station I can only imagine. Several of the protests got right up to the Consulate, whereas others were stopped a fair way away. One policewoman took exception to me for whatever reason, and attempted to elbow me in the face. Fortunately, she couldn’t reach. Thinking my brush with violence for the day over, I proceeded up to a point where Tibetans were being loaded forcefully into a police truck. Here, the oddest thing happened as an elderly monk frantically wrapped his arms around my leg, eventually bringing me down to the ground. Whether he was confused or not, I have no idea, but now I can proudly (?) say I have been rugby tackled by a monk.
Nepali police charge at peaceful Tibetan protesters, Lathis raised (8th August)
The protests have continued throughout the day, and although the size and the frequency of the protests has lessened, protests continue as I write this. Initially, it seemed that the police were behaving themselves better after facing much criticism yesterday. However, ill-discipline soon kicked in, and I saw one Tibetan's head pushed deliberately against the edge of a truck door. Later, as the (unfit?) Nepalese police were unable to catch some fleeing Tibetans, they boarded a waiting vehicle and gave chase, siren wailing. As they caught up with some of the protesters, they gave chase with their lathis, and an unlucky few received a few whacks. More protests continued, long after I had retreated to Thamel to buy some After-Sun for my roasted face. A candle-lit vigil was held in Boudha later that evening. Lhubum, has just told me that over 2,080 Tibetans are being held in the capital, with 1,400 held in Maharaj Gunj batallion, and another 550 at Mahindra Club.An outsiders view from the inside
Nepalese police look on as Tibetans occupy the road
For the Tibetans of Nepal the harsh treatment by the Nepalese police has become the norm, and I have been told that at times, their actions have been much worse. As a foreigner in Nepal, I am deeply concerned, not only for the treatment of these Tibetans, but also the extent to which the Chinese government can control their Nepalese counterparts. If Nepal truly is a democracy, it will allow the Tibetan refugees living there to express themselves. However, the sad reality of the matter is that whoever 'governs' Nepal will have to answer to the two Asian powers which border it. Whilst the people of Nepal have long been suspected the Indian government meddling with Nepalese affairs, China’s influence in Nepal is growing unabated and unnoticed. Many within the Tibetan community have told me of large amounts of property being bought up by the Chinese, some undoubtedly used to spy on the Tibetan population. With Beijing proposing to extend its Golmud-Lhasa railway first to Shigatse and later to the Nepal border, one cannot help but wonder what implications this has. It is clear from the violent crackdown on Tibetan protesters in Nepal that the Chinese government is hugely influential on the Nepalese government, which has banned ‘anti-China’ protests and the display of the Dalai Lama at public gatherings. However, huge hypocrisy is in evidence. Pictures of the Dalai Lama can be found at every other shop in Thamel, Nepal’s tourist hot-spot, and Nepalese and Tibetan shops alike are allowed to sell the Tibetan national flag. As the Nepalese government becomes closer with the Chinese government, it seems that Nepal’s sovereignty is being undermined by its very own government. As Ngawang, a Tibetan living in Swayambhu commented:
‘It is clear to me that the Nepalese government is allowing itself to become little more than a puppet of Beijing.’
Following the Maoists victory in the recent elections, there were fears that Tibetans would be deported to India or even back to Tibet. However, this seems unlikely to me. Tibetan carpets still play an integral role in Nepal’s flagging economy, and Tibetan schools in Nepal are among the best in the country. Furthermore, areas such as Swayambhu and Boudha have become dominated by the Tibetan community, and responsible for the relative wealth and commercial success in these areas. So what we end up with is a confusing, unclear policy towards the Tibetan refugees in Nepal. The Nepalese government has its hand forced by China, and so sends in its police force to at least be seen to be dealing with the issue. However, arrested Tibetans tend to be released within 48 hours maximum, and many promptly turn up to the next protest. The Nepalese police, for all their misdeeds against the Tibetans, cannot solely be blamed. As one Tibetan, Lobsang told me ‘It’s our job for us to protest against China, and it’s their job to beat us.’
Whilst it is true that they are just doing their job, it saddens me to see so many of the police clearly enjoying beating the Tibetans, who’s protest has been non-violent from the start. The future remains uncertain for the Tibetans of Nepal. The Office of Tibet in Lazimpat remains closed after three years, and looks unlikely to be allowed to officially re-open. The current Director of Nelinkhang, the Tibetan refugee center is in India after being arrested earlier this year, and very few refugees have made it to the reception center since protests began on the forty-ninth anniversary of the Lhasa Uprising earlier this year. Whether this is as a result purely of increased border control on the Chinese side, or due to refoulement by the Nepalese border police is unclear, and there are concerns that the Nepalese government will not allow the safe transit of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. One thing which is certain is that whatever the cost, those brave protesters who have been repeatedly beaten and arrested will continue their protests throughout the Olympics and onwards. And for that I salute them.