From the early 1960s to 1974, Tibetan freedom fighters congregated in Mustang, a high Nepalese principality jutting out over the Tibetan plain. Direct conflict with Mao Tse-tung’s People’s Liberation Party, which had overrun Tibet in the 1950s and forced the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to flee for his life in 1959, was negligible in Mustang. But the Tibetan resistance did stage incursions and lethal raids back inside Tibet, sometimes with significant reconnaissance results. In one instance, Tibetan freedom fighters killed an officer, then confiscated his leather satchel, which later revealed enough communist classified information for the CIA’s flagging interest in the resistance to be somewhat revived. One CIA officer later told me that there was enough information in that bag to supply them with “intel” for the next ten years. Washington assistance for the freedom fighters surged for a short time afterwards.
In the meantime, Communist China had been leaning heavily on King Birendra to do something about the troublesome Tibetans. Baba Gen Yeshi, who had earlier commanded the Tibetan troops in Mustang, but had consequently been ousted in disgrace, provided invaluable information to the Royal Army as to the precise whereabouts of the thirteen resistance camps hidden in the rough Mustang high country.
In 1974, with Baba Gen Yeshi’s assistance, the Nepal army chased down General Wangdu, the last leader of the Mustang freedom fighters. General Wangdu fled west for the safety of India. He almost made it. At Tinker’s Pass, in far-western Nepal, within eyesight of India, Wangdu was ambushed and murdered. His mangled body was brought down to Kathmandu and put on public display at Ratna Park for many days until the stench was so bad that officials were finally obliged to remove the corpse.
This marked the end of armed Tibetan resistance of the Chinese communist takeover in Tibet. (For the complete history of Tibetan resistance, read my book Buddha’s Warriors.)
Tibetan Life After the End of the Resistance
Nepal’s solution to the burgeoning Tibetan refugee problem was to create refugee camps in and around Pokhara and Kathmandu. Already, in the 1960s, a Tibetan-run welfare center and Office of the Dalai Lama had been set up in the nation’s capital. For decades, this proved to be an effective system for dealing with the continual influx of Tibetan refugees from China. In the last decade, the number of new arrivals averaged somewhere around 2500 per year.
However, in February 2005, Nepalese authorities demanded the closure of both the Office of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Welfare Office on the grounds that they had not been registered properly despite operating in an open, transparent manner since the 1960s. Since then, the task of dealing with Tibetan refugees has fallen on the shoulders of the UNHCR and the Tibetan Reception Center, located below the famous Monkey Temple (Syambhunath) in Kathmandu.
Last week I made a trip to Pokhara to investigate the current conditions of the five refugee camps. I had first visited them in 1999 while conducting research for Buddha’s Warriors. The scene in 1999 was pitiful and heartbreaking. Evidence of neglect and under-financing permeated the dilapidated settlements. The school at Jampaling refugee camp was so destitute that the lama-instructor told me the parents were too poor to even pay for pencils for their children. The Old People’s Home was equally impoverished – barely holding on.
I revisited Jampaling. I’m happy to report that, with the help of donors from the West, the situation has improved. But it is still far from a happy environment. The Tibetans must rely on the land to provide for much of their subsistence; the land they were given to till is rocky and not really suited for agriculture. Their only other means of making money is by handcrafting trinkets and souvenirs for the tourist trade that pours into Pokhara, the picturesque lake community with the breathtaking view of Machchhapuchhara, one of the most beautiful mountains in the Himalaya.
There is nothing romantic about the camps.
From the table, one can see that the majority of Tibetan refugees do not possess a Refugee Certificate (RC) card, the qualification that the new Nepali government has announced as necessary to remain in Nepal. Tibetans without the RC card are now targets for deportation to India.
Here’s a breakdown of source of income by camp:
It’s not just the fact that the above occupations do not provide substantial income; it’s also the negligible possibility of transforming these occupations into a growth industry. Children are leaving in ever-larger numbers in search of jobs either in the capital or abroad.
Without exception the Tibetans I talked to expressed genuine appreciation for the many decades during which the Nepalese government has provided them with safe haven. But it was also without exception that they expressed fear that the preponderance of family members who lacked RC cards will soon be forced to leave Nepal, deteriorating the already fragile sense of community and Tibetan culture, the only things left for them to cling to.
I asked one extremely bright young man whose talents are obviously wasted in a refugee camp environment if he thought residents would want to leave for American shores, if provided with the opportunity. Here’s his written reply:
“I would guess that at least 80% would go to America quite willingly. In Nepal, we have no scope of getting a good job even when you are a graduate or have a diploma in any subject. Because of Nepali students they even don’t get a good job in govt. even after a good graduation so it’s far more difficult for us to get a good job. And secondly our Tibetan students would rather go to the US because of the better facility in education, to exercise in true democracy and have the opportunity to work. So as written above, 80% would prefer to go outside than live here and do nothing proper.”
During the Bush administration, there has been a genuine effort to resettle Tibetans in Nepal to America. Time and again the proposal has been stymied by resistance to the idea from whoever is in power in Nepal. Chinese pressure can only be presumed to play a part in this resistance. According to Beijing, there have been no Tibetan refugees coming to Nepal in recent years – only illegal aliens who should be regarded as criminals and preferably returned to China.
An Old Man Remembers
At the Jampaling refugee camp, I asked an old fellow in the Old People’s Home, to pull up a chair and tell me how he ended up in this forgotten camp.
He originally came from Ganze, in eastern Tibet, but ended up in Mustang during the decade of resistance. I asked him if he had been in Mustang during Baba Gen Yeshi’s leadership, or if had he been there later, when General Wangdu had been ambushed. He replied, “Both.” I assumed that he had been a freedom fighter.
“When you were forced to leave Mustang and resettle in Pokhara, did you have a wife and family coming with you?” I asked.
“What?” He seemed not to understand for a moment. “I’m a monk!”
“So if you were from Ganze, you must be of the Gelugpa school.”
“That’s right. I’m the caretaker of the temple.”
“And do you have a residing lama at your temple?”
“No. Not anymore. Our old high lama passed on and the young lamas are not willing to stay out here anymore…too far away from everything.”
My final question was: “You’ve been living here for so many years. Has the situation improved here or gotten worse?”
His answer: “When we fled from Tibet we had nothing – not even anything to carry with us. Thanks to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and thanks to Western sponsors, we have food and shelter and we are thankful to all of them for their help.”