The rise of self-immolations by Tibetans against Chinese rule is igniting a human rights dilemma in neighbouring countries.
A trip to Nepal in 2010 transplanted me into a rabbit hole, where the unlikely partnership of civil unrest came hand in hand with progressive culture. Embroiled in a civil war and headed by a government that isn’t expected to last longer than two years, Nepal was also the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage. Indeed like the war that raged on and tore the country apart for two decades, Nepal is politically and culturally at war with itself. A rise of political unrest in the Capital of Kathmandu for the past few weeks has once again thrust Nepal into turmoil.
Wedged between China, the second largest economy in the world, and India, the tenth, Nepal’s economy doesn’t even register in the top 100. As a natural result, Nepal relies heavily on its neighbours for economic and political support. This aid also comes with a non-monetary price tag – namely Nepal’s compliance with the Chinese government in subduing the political protests against China within Nepal.
As aforementioned, Nepal can be seen as a progressive beacon for human rights within Asia. Along with legalising gay marriage, they were also the first to ban the death penalty and allow for a third sex option on travel documentation. But efforts to instil a peaceful narrative in their war-torn country have been restrained by Chinese pressure to squash any political opposition that becomes present. For the past two decades China has enforced strict regulation over Tibetans on travelling illegally to Nepal for asylum. Those Tibetans who still remain provide a continuous reminder of the results of neo-imperialism and the ideas of nationalism to the Nepali people.
Last month Nepalese authorities seized ballot boxes in Kathmandu from Tibetans who were voting for a new prime minister and government in exile. The statement by the Nepal Home Ministry stated, “The administration intervened in the so-called election because Nepal’s foreign policy does not allow any activities against any friendly neighbouring countries.”
Although Tibet is officially an autonomous part of China, many Tibetans promote the idea of independence while China rejects any call for greater autonomy, stating that they have sovereignty over the area. Nepal also rejects the idea of independence, claiming that Tibet is a part of China and therefore subject to its jurisdictions. It is estimated that there are 20,000 Tibetans in exile living in Nepal, and it has been made illegal to practice any anti-Chinese activities within the country.
As a result of the election interruption, hundreds of opposition supporters assembled in Kathmandu. The Baidya faction of the divided Maoist Party led the protest and burned an effigy of Supreme Court Chief Justice Khilraj Regmi, who had only days before been sworn in as the head of government and who is tasked with holding elections this June.
In an unrelated event that same month, eighteen protesters were arrested by Nepalese authorities on “anti-China activities” during anniversary protests of the 1959 rebellion against China’s rule in Tibet. Since 2009, self-immolation bids against Chinese rule have become an increasing occurrence, with February marking the 100th self-immolation by a Tibetan monk. These immolations are most common in the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China, and can be seen to represent signs of desperation over the perceived religious and political persecution of Tibetans.
Indeed the suggestion that foreign aid does not come with strings attached would be a grossly inaccurate depiction of interactions between states, but what makes the situation in Nepal unique is the political blackmail of a war-torn state and its refugee inhabitants. By condemning political freedom of Tibetans within China, their political jurisdictions are permeating neighbouring countries at the expense of other political systems.
Although Nepal does not carry the death penalty, they have adopted Chinese law in relation to public protest. Within Nepal, any public denunciation of the Chinese government carries with it the risk of indefinite or prolonged detention, torture, public humiliation or simply the disappearance by various security forces.
The Nepali activists imprisoned last March only provide a small example of the curtailment of Tibetan expression in Nepal, and reveal only a sliver of insight into the human rights violations occurring within China against Tibetans. In the wake of a civil war, the growing tensions between the Tibetan community and their sympathisers might result in more violent unrest that will derail any chance of a healthy democracy within Nepal.
The case of Nepal provides a smaller case of growing nationalist movements in the adopted countries of political refugees. Like the Sudanese refugee movement in Chad or the Palestinians in Jordan, the politics of self-identity in a foreign country provide a stem of political unrest in the countries these refugees inhabit.
The Asian diaspora provides an interesting insight in the attempted regional progression and the events that curtail any democratic movements. Chinese domination is not a surprise nor will it taper off any time soon, which ignites a frustration of political rigidity in a country that has made a tremendous amount of effort to progress.
Tibetan freedom, although present in the mainstream human rights dialogue for the past few decades, has been transferred to the backseat of action and attention as Chinese relations with the other superpowers continue to become more amicable and cooperative. Indeed Nepal is facing a Goliath with very few supporters. If the tensions grow within Nepal, it is only a matter of time before another civil war erupts and the possibility of democracy ceases to be obtainable. Chinese blackmail through foreign aid only provides the slightest glimpse in the amount of power and influence a state has over its recipients, and illustrates a model for those states throughout the world that are regressing because their only option for survival are foreign aid packages provided by powerful states. These include provisions that ultimately challenge the goal of long-term independence and continued political strife.