Tibetan Refugee Camp Part 1: The Political

You can go here to donate to the Nepalese Red Cross in order to support both Nepalis and Tibetans in the wake of the earthquake.

In Pokhara, Nepal, we found Tibetan Encounters, a tour of three of the four Tibetan refugee camps in Pokhara.  At first we had some doubts.  Would this be like a slum tour? Would it be awkward? Were we indulging in the worst kind of voyerism? But this tour was one of the best things I have ever done, and I’m happy that my money went towards this project.

I’ve divided it into two overarching themes: the spiritual and the political. We’ll start with the political.

Over Tibetan tea – which is traditionally made with yak butter and is very salty – our guide told us about the political background. In 1959, China invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee. Our guide recommended a book, Buddha’s Warriors, on the subject of the Dalai Lama’s escape, escorted by monks turned guerilla warriors, through the Himalayas and into Nepal. Here is some information about how China has attempted to erase Tibetan culture and assimilate it into China since then. Our guide was born in Mustang, a region in the high Himalayas that is the most common crossing point between Nepal and Tibet, in 1960, a few months after the takeover. This region is ethnically Tibetan, but, according to our guide, in order to bribe the Nepali-Tibetans into securing the border, the Tibetans in that area do not face the same economic oppression as elsewhere in Nepal. 

Since 1960, the Tibetan government has existed as a government-in-exile, stationed in Dharamsala, India. From Dharamsala, the Tibetan government manages the preservation of Tibetan culture through the creation of monasteries, festivals and general outreach; it also manages the appointment of teachers to Tibetan refugee camps all over the world; and lobbies for recognition as a nation.  The government-in-exile also issues Tibetan passports  to all Tibetans. Unfortunately these are not recognized by any other governments. All of this work is supported by voluntary taxes (did you see that!? voluntary taxes!)  paid every year by Tibetans from countries all over the world. A parliament has been in existencce since 1960. The Dalai Lama has traditionally been the head of both the spiritual and the political government; however, in 2011, for the first time ever, the Tibetan government elected a Prime Minister. Tibetans all over the world participated in the election.

All of this is background for the current status of the Tibetan refugees in Nepal. Since no other government will recognize their passport, Tibetans are dependent on host countries for identification documents. Nepal, under pressure from China, which sends large amounts of aid every year, has refused to provide Tibetans with passports or identifying documents of any kind since 1989 (previous to that they were given “refugee cards” for identification).This means they can’t travel internationally, at least by plane (although many takes buses to Dharamsala) and it is very difficult to open bank accounts or do anything else official.

There are other difficulties. Tibetans in Nepal aren’t allowed to hold professional licenses, or even to own a car. As our guide Thutpen said, “Of course we can’t own a car. You can use a car as a taxi, to make money. We aren’t allowed to do anything that would earn us money.” The extent of permitted economic activity is owning a shop or a restaurant.

To this end, one of the prime moneymakers for the community is the noodle factory, where noodles are made for a popular Tibetan soup called thupka. Our guide said that even though Tibetans aren’t permitted to sell in bulk, Nepalese restaurant owners line up to buy noodles since they make the best thukpa.


Freshly made noodles hanging to dry


The Noodle Factory


We also visited a Tibetan carpet factory, the last one in Pokhara. Once, Tibetan carpets were highly prized. In the 70s and 80s, the market was booming, so much so that Tibetans had to hire Nepalis to staff their stores. However, according to our guide, once the Nepalis learned how to make the carpets, they set up their own shops. In these shops, they started using child labor. Our guide was very clear that Tibetans never used child labor; but sometime in the 90s, word got out that Tibetan carpets were made with child labor. Overnight demand plummeted, and the industry has never recovered.

As a final example of the ways in which Tibetans are at the mercy of Nepalis, there is the story of the rental units. One of the Tibetan camps is in the center of Pokhara, with good real estate on its outer wall, facing a busy street. The Tibetans decided to rent these out to Nepali business owners. They did, but when it came time to raise the rent (six years later and, our guide assured us, merely in line with new property taxes and inflation) the Nepali owners banded together and refused to either pay more or leave. The Tibetans had no legal recuse. The Nepali shop owners are still there, paying the same rent as twenty years ago. But now, said Thutpen, Tibetans will never do business with Nepalis. Their legal statuses are too different; abuse is almost a given.

Currently, the Tibetan government is seeking “autonomy” within Tibet, as opposed to official independence. Talks were initiated again with the Chinese government in 2008, but quickly stalled.

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