By Claire Cozens
Nepalese police launched massive hunt for Tibetan protesters on October 1, 2009, as China celebrated its National Day. Photo : Lhuboom/RFA
KATHMANDU — As Beijing marked the 60th anniversary of Communist rule last week, police in Nepal quietly rounded up dozens of Tibetan exiles they said were suspected of planning to hold anti-China protests here.
The pre-emptive arrests in early morning raids across the capital Kathmandu were the latest sign of an increasingly hardline approach by Nepalese authorities to the country's Tibetan population.
Nepal is home to around 20,000 exiled Tibetans, who began arriving in large numbers in 1959 after their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against the Chinese.
Those who arrived before 1990 were given permission to stay and have often integrated successfully, building profitable businesses selling carpets and other traditional crafts, although they do not have full citizenship rights.
But in recent months the exiles say their lives have become increasingly difficult as Nepal -- reportedly under heavy pressure from Beijing -- has sought to restrict their activities.
Tsering Thundup, a Tibetan craft seller who lives on the outskirts of Kathmandu in an area popular with the exiles, said that there used to be few police officers in his neighbourhood -- but that has changed.
"Nowadays there is a heavy police presence around our area. They conduct regular patrols and interrogate Tibetans," the 45-year-old told AFP.
"My friends have been interrogated by police over the past few months. It has created an atmosphere of fear and I am very unhappy with the way the situation here has changed."
Landlocked Nepal upholds Beijing's "one China" policy -- that Tibet is an integral part of the country -- and has said it will not tolerate anti-China demonstrations.
In August, the government reiterated its opposition to activities aimed at "undermining the friendship between the two countries," seeking to preserve friendly ties with its northern neighbour, a major aid donor.
"Nepal only survives on the goodwill of China and India, and China's condition is that the government should impose restrictions on Tibetans living here," said one Tibetan community leader, who asked not to be named.
Ties between Nepal and China have strengthened in recent years as the influence of the former rebel Maoists has grown here.
Maoist leader and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal broke with tradition last year by attending the Olympic Games in Beijing before he visited New Delhi -- a move widely seen as a sign of a shift in power.
"The Maoist-led government allowed Chinese diplomats extraordinary and extrajudicial influence in dealing with Tibetan issues in Nepal," the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet said in a recent report.
"Chinese embassy personnel were witnessed and photographed working behind police lines guiding the handling of protests and arrests of demonstrators, even going so far as to direct the positioning of Nepalese police officers."
Activists say this trend has continued under the new government, formed after the fall of the Maoist-led administration in May.
Kalsang Dhundup, who was born in Nepal to Tibetan parents and runs a Tibetan youth group here, said the exiles now risked being arrested for wearing a "Free Tibet" t-shirt or walking the streets in groups.
"Since last year, when there were a lot of protests (against China), the police have taken a much harder line," the 37-year-old told AFP.
"I now get telephone calls every day from the police asking me where I am and what I am doing. Things have become very difficult."
In 1989, Nepal barred further Tibetans from settling in the country but adopted an informal policy of allowing them to transit through on their way elsewhere, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Activists now say that since the March 2008 riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, the number of people travelling through Nepal from Tibet has slowed dramatically.
Some 2,500 people used to make the dangerous trip from Chinese-controlled Tibet to Nepal every year on their way to India to join the Dalai Lama.
But just 500 have done so this year, and plans revealed this week by Nepal's home minister to bolster security along the northern border with China could restrict arrivals further still.
Diplomats in Kathmandu say the "line in the sand" for the international community would be the forcible repatriation of Tibetans who have fled over the border to Nepal.
For now, there appears little prospect of that happening. But for Nepal's Tibetan community, life appears increasingly uncertain.