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Nepal’s Tibetan Refugees Struggle Under China’s Shadow

  • Aru Pande

Tibetan refugees in Nepal say they face increasing restrictions from Nepalese authorities due to pressure from China. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Tibetans who, for decades, have made the Himalayan country their home.

Dolma Lama learned to weave Tibetan carpets from her mother - who fled Tibet and settled in Kathmandu after a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation in 1959.

Dolma was born in Nepal and has been weaving since she was 19.

“It’s very important [to preserve our culture] because we are in exile and not in our country. Carpet weaving is part of our culture. We wear Tibetan dress all the time, which is also part of preserving our culture. We eat Tibetan food at home, practice the religion, have a Tibetan flag in our home," said Dolma Lama.

As Bollywood music plays in the background, the weavers at the Jawalakhel Handicraft Center sit for hours each day, tying knots to assemble carpets that are sold at a showroom.

The center supports Nepal’s largest Tibetan community, 1,000 people who live in the heart of the capital. The profits go to schools for refugee children and homes for the elderly.

Karma Dawa is the center's general manager.

“I think it’s very important for the community and the Tibetan people here as well as those in exile to keep our traditions alive so that it can be passed on to our younger generations," said Karma Dawa.

Preserving these traditions is becoming more difficult for Nepal’s 20,000 Tibetan refugees.

Activists say, in the last few years, authorities here have prohibited Tibetan residents from gathering in groups, whether to mark the birthday of the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama or just to picnic.

On the day that VOA shot this story, a Nepalese police officer kept close watch.

Sudip Pathak, who heads the Human Rights Organization of Nepal, says life is already difficult for Tibetans in the country. In the late 1990s, Nepal stopped issuing refugee identity cards, leaving many Tibetans unable to get a higher education or jobs.

He says these restrictions depend on who is in power.

"If we have a liberal or democratic government, sometimes the refugees can act their activities, peacefully gather or pray or their economic activities. If the government is more left or a communist government, they cannot do anything," said Sudip Pathak.

Activists say China is using aid and investment in Nepal to make sure the country prevents anti-Chinese activity.

But Madan Regmi, chairman of the China Study Center in Kathmandu, says there's nothing wrong with Nepal adhering to its “one-China” policy.

“If we allow anti-Chinese activity, they will definitely say that you are not abiding to your own commitment, so they have every right to tell us, and we have every right to tell any outsiders not to do anything wrong against our neighbors," said Madan Regmi.

For now, these Tibetan weavers hold on to their heritage and take heart in knowing their work and their story will grace homes across the globe.