Wednesday is the first of three anniversaries that Tibetans outside their homeland will celebrate this month. Tibetans in Nepal will mark them carefully, however. For the last two years their demonstrations against the Chinese have been broken up with significant force and many arrests by the Nepal police.
This year Nepal says it will crack down even harder to support China’s insistence that no “anti-China activities” be allowed here, where some 20,000 Tibetans live. The Dalai Lama’s local representative has been detained this week and is not likely to be released until next month. And the Chinese government has announced that the border between the two countries will be closed on the three crucial dates.
Wednesday’s anniversary marks the March 10, 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. China says that Tibet has always been part of China, but Tibetans say that Tibet was independent for centuries until Chinese troops invaded in 1950.
The Dalai Lama remained in Lhasa for nine years after the Chinese annexed Tibet, but in the spring of 1959 his advisors feared that the Chinese government intended to capture him when he attended a cultural performance at a Chinese army base. On March 10 Tibetans massed in the streets to protest the alleged abduction plan. Tensions escalated over the following week, and on the 17th the Dalai Lama fled the city into exile in India.
The second anniversary this month remembers the March 14th uprising in Lhasa in 2008. Demonstrations intended to mark the 1959 event grew into an extended protest that Chinese authorities feared would mar the Olympic Games in Beijing later that year. On the 14th massive police deployments came as demonstrators attacked Chinese-owned businesses and set them afire. The violence rapidly escalated: Security forces beat protesters and arrested thousands, and Tibetans attacked ethnic Chinese on the streets.
Casualty figures are disputed, but at least 200 people died. A curfew was implemented, the media was expelled and Tibet was closed to tourism and all but official foreign visits until the following autumn. Tibetans living in Nepal continued massive protests for months, often meeting with strong police action.
The third March anniversary for Tibetans is the 24th, the date in 1959 when a Chinese-backed government was installed in Lhasa to replace the rule of the Dalai Lama, who had fled five days earlier, in what the Chinese media describes as “the triumph of the socialist revolution in China’s Tibet province.”
Until all three dates have passed, China will remain apprehensive about more demonstrations, and Nepal will continue to keep a tight lid on Tibetans here. The Nepali response is partly realpolitik in a tiny nation with mammoth neighbors, but is also a deliberate political tilt towards China to counterbalance what is perceived as undue influence from India to the south.
While Tibetans were welcomed initially in Nepal, their current status is uncertain. For many years now young Tibetans who reach age 18 have not been issued refugee documents as their parents were, and – at least technically – only the older generation are legal residents. The government has played that card by announcing that all “illegals” arrested at protests would be deported.
Deportation also awaits all Tibetans captured while crossing the porous Himalayan border into Nepal. While that has always been the law, enforcement ramped up only a couple of years ago. Previously it is estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 Tibetans each year entered Nepal, most en-route to Dharamsala in India, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are based.
With beatings and deportation in mind, and in the face of thousands of riot police in the streets for the next two weeks, Tibetan protests here in Kathmandu will be muted this year, though not silenced.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.