Interview with the President of the Young Tibetan Congress in Nepal, Pasang Phayul
KATHMANDU (NEPAL) – I meet Pasang in the restaurant of a central neighbourhood in Kathmandu. Waiters running up and down with iced water pitchers and coffee pots don’t distract us at all from our conversation. He’s careful about who might be listening but only at the end of the interview does he realize he forgot to turn off his phone, which could have been tracked.
Pasang is a Nepali citizen, the son of a Nepali father and a Tibetan mother, so he can’t be sent back to Tibet or anywhere else. He perfectly embodies the situation he’s come to represent as President of the Tibetan Youth Congress of Nepal, in Kathmandu. As he explains:
“The situation for Tibetan activists is very intense right now. We have an entire generation of Tibetans without papers. They don’t exist according to Nepal. But they are here. I can represent them because I cannot be blackmailed and intimidated by chasing me back to some ghetto. Because if you’re Tibetan, here in Nepal as everywhere in the world, either you have a refugee status or you’re nothing, since our country was invaded.”
Pasang says there’s been no progress on part of the Nepal Government to provide documents to Tibetans who’ve escaped occupied Tibet to settle across the Himalayas. “And now there’s even less hope for a solution. No one is taking responsibility.”
The Bhutanese refugee issue was solved fast enough, he points out. The UN Commission on Human Rights was able to relocate 90,000 of Nepal’s 120,000 Bhutanese refugees, mostly in the United States. “Why can’t they take care of 15,000 to 18,000 Tibetans? The Tibetan problem is much smaller that the Bhutanese, so…why?”
According to Pasang and many other members of the Tibetan community I spoke to in Kathmandu, the Nepal Government is reluctant to help resolve the issue because of Chinese pressure. “The Chinese don’t want us to go to other countries,” he says. “If we leave Nepal and reach India and the West we can help in organizing other Tibetans. Without Chinese pressure we would’ve solved this already. Instead thousands of us, especially the younger ones who were born here to undocumented parents or who moved here in the last 20 years, are living here without any rights to education, employment, no possibility of having a driver’s licence or opening a bank account. To do all this you need citizenship. And also to get a proper job. The only jobs undocumented Tibetans can have are small businesses serving our community. Without a Refugee Card, the RC, there are no documents. No documents, no education. No real well-paying job. No property guarantees. No possibility of any guarantees for the future. We are kind of trapped here. We cannot leave, we have no option. Our generation is at a frustrating stage and in a frustrating environment.The police keep a tight grip on the Tibetan community, controlling us, following us, spying on us. There’s the Ministry of Home Affairs, the police, the National Vigilance Centre, local spies and spies infiltrating the Tibetan communities at the instigation of the Chinese. It’s like a time bomb: when will it explode?”
Recently, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Delhi, dozens of Tibetans in two different Indian cities protested. Why not here?
“There are no demonstrations here because we have to keep hiding. If the Chinese president comes here on a visit all the board members of our organizations will be arrested as a precaution. I live in fear of that happening most of the time. I’ve already been taken twice to the precinct in a few months, to police headquarters for questioning. Then they call me and pretend to be friendly, to care about me, about what I’m doing…it’s kind of creepy too.”
But if the Tibetans had their way what would they do?
“They would not stay here. People above 50 years of age have retired somewhat and would stay in monasteries for their religious practice. Too old to change and start afresh. But most people, or a strong majority, would leave. We survive in a context of strong anti-Tibetan propaganda. Not long ago a local paper published a story saying: the Dalai Lama said 15 people in Nepal should self-immolate for Tibet. It was completely false, of course, but caused enough anti-Tibetan sentiment. Sure, there have been two cases of self-immolation, in the last few years, but certainly not planned and absolutely not ordered by anyone.”
Why do you think Nepal is not issuing Refugee Cards to Tibetans?
“Well, Nepal is a lawless country and very much of a lawless country for those who have nothing. Nepal thus has some interest in keeping us here, because we are used as pawns with China and the US. We are useful. But because of this our generation is going to waste. There’s no future here for an 18-year-old Tibetan without papers. And no legal representation either. I’m 26 and I’m pursuing a legal career in the hope that my knowledge will help defend Tibetan rights. Because no one else can help us. The UNHCR, the US Embassy, the US Government: no one is doing anything concrete. They call me in once in a while and tell me: don’t worry, we’re doing the best we can (laughs). What we need is not aid, it’s just papers. Take your money back, first give us papers, then your money. First give us proper IDs and passports and then the aid money will work. Otherwise we can’t own anything, we can’t have any stability.
What role models can we look up to here? There are no politicians, no businessmen, no musicians, no one who’s Tibetan in any visible position. Low profile, low profile, this is what they want from us. And if I were to call people for a protest, no one would come anyway. We live with fear inside. The Chinese have been very successful. When the new Chinese ambassador to Nepal arrived from Afghanistan a few years ago everything changed for the worse for us. He worked relentlessly and skillfully and achieved his objectives on all fronts. Now he’s been able to sow the seeds of mistrust in the Tibetan community. No one trusts each other. Recent arrivals from Tibet might be more likely to be Chinese spies. That’s one more reason we don’t speak up – we don’t trust each other. We don’t trust the UNHCR either because we have not seen any results from them. The UK and US ambassadors are always making promises: you are our priority! We are working on your issue! No result. I say: give us a date, give us hope. No reply.”
What is your strategy as President of the Young Tibetan Congress?
“I want to pursue the legal perspective. File a case with the Supreme Court to force the government to take a decision. Yes or no. Give us papers, or throw us out. Don’t keep us here, locked in limbo. It’s a slow death. And although we Nepali Tibetans or Tibetans in Nepal realize that the top priority really is Tibetans in occupied Tibet, and feel compassion for Tibetans in Tibet first and foremost, we also need some help here. Because we are constantly targeted for abuse, especially by the police. I can say 90 per cent of abuse of Tibetans goes unreported. Only 10 per cent of Tibetans who are abused are educated enough to report it. China, Nepal, the US and the EU should work together also in raising awareness of our situation. But now you Europeans, because of the increased business you have with China, are also decreasing your support to us. I feel very pessimistic. Who will come and fight selflessly for us? No one wants to touch the Tibet issue. Too many problems. And I know it’s not easy to help us. You will face a lot of hurdles. And here in Nepal or at the UNHCR if you touch the Tibetan issue most likely you’ll get fired and instead of a slap on the wrist you’ll get a kick in the butt.
The problem now is that because of this situation more and more Tibetans are starting to escape to the US or the UK but are taking huge risks. They travel illegally and in very dangerous ways. This cannot continue. I say in 5 or 6 years if this doesn’t change then it could turn violent. Keeping thousands of people in a situation like this…it will not become a problem only for Nepal, it will become an international problem.”
We’re interrupted by the arrival of two uniformed soldiers who decide to sit next to our table. It may be a coincidence, but Pasang jumps up from his chair and quickly walks out of the restaurant. I stay behind paying for our cappuccino and milkshake and join him in the parking lot where we say goodbye. Pasang looks at me before leaving and in answer to my question says: “If there’s hope? There’s some hope, but don’t count on it!”
This interview was published in the Italian national daily “il Garantista” and translated into English by the author.