By JAMES BROOKE
KATMANDU, Nepal, May 30 — Tibetan exiles went to a prison here today to pay fines to release 18 Tibetan refugees, but they were too late: minutes earlier, two Chinese diplomats had arrived with a van preparing to forcibly carry the escapees back to Chinese-ruled Tibet.
Nepal, a mountain kingdom that long winked at efforts by its ethnic neighbors in Tibet to separate from China, is bending more and more to pressure by Beijing, an increasingly important aid and trade partner.
Over the last year, the Nepali police have broken up public meetings and news conferences held by followers of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader. Three times in that period, the police have arrested Tibetans who had walked over mountain passes, breaking a long tradition of handing them over to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Under a program paid for with a $200,000 annual grant from the United States, the refugees are sent to India, where the Dalai Lama lives and runs religious schools.
[Early Saturday, Nepali police officers forced the 18 refugees into the Chinese van. It then swerved around protesters and took them to Tibet. The protesters, from the Tibetan community of 25,000 here, objected to the repatriation, the first in over a decade in which Tibetans were forcibly returned from the capital.]
Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal has traditionally had close economic ties with India. But China has become increasingly important. Last year, with tourism faltering because of a guerrilla insurgency, Nepal opened a consulate in Shanghai, winning promises of planeloads of Chinese tourists. This year, China is supporting its bid to enter the World Trade Organization.
China is also building roads across this impoverished nation, and the Chinese government has hinted that a railroad from eastern China to Tibet that is to open in 2006 could be extended to Nepal, a landlocked nation that depends on the good will of India for its foreign trade.
But Tibetan exiles and their supporters say there is a price: the curtailing of their activities here.
"They say, `Sorry, no Tibetans here,' " Wangchuk Tsering, the Dalai Lama's representative in Nepal, said of the reaction of hotel managers when he tries to rent a meeting hall. He said the police now required written permission for any Tibetan function here. "It is Chinese pressure," he said. "It is as simple as that."
China's ambassador, We Congyong, told The Katmandu Post last fall that "anti-Chinese activities" were "detrimental to Nepal's stability." While he did not explain how allowing the Dalai Lama's supporters to act openly here would destabilize Nepal, China's pressure seems part of a more muscular policy toward its smaller neighbors.
China routinely forcibly deports North Koreans, ignoring suggestions by South Korea that they be treated as political refugees. China has pressed Mongolia to resist suggestions by the United States that transit camps be set up in Mongolia for North Korean refugees.
Last year, 1,268 Tibetans trekked over passes as high as 19,000 feet to reach Nepal, half the annual average recorded from 1996 to 2000. Tibetan exile groups here attribute the drop to an increase in police patrols on the Chinese side of the border.
In Katmandu today, Subarna Lal Shrestha, director general of immigration, declined to comment on the issue of Tibetan refugees.