KATHMANDU // In the smoggy backstreets of Kathmandu, just over a hundred kilometres from Tibet's snow-capped peaks, a refugee community attempts to live out their lives in the tradition of their culture. In parts of Nepal's busy capital, it is almost possible to envision how Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, once was. The Boudhanath, one of Kathmandu's most revered Buddhist monuments, echoes in the early morning with the guttural sound of mantras and the rattle of prayer beads.
Impossibly creased Tibetan elderly shuffle about, eyes fixed on some unknown deity. Nepalese-style dumplings, or momos, steam in copper pots. But this is not Tibet, nor is it the reality in Lhasa today, where China has been an occupying force for over 50 years. As the issue of sovereignty over Tibet extends into its 50th year - the anniversary of that failed uprising marked last Tuesday - there are fears that these hidden pockets of tradition in Nepal and India may be all that is left of a dying culture.
And even those too seem under threat as China exerts greater influence on its neighbours to rein in their refugee populations, including the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. "Life has been more or less OK, but not the best," said Sangay, an 82-year-old resident of Ekantakuna, a community of 1,500 Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu. Sangay is part of the first generation of Tibetans who fled Lhasa after the March 10 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.
Before he fled Tibet, Sangay was a nomad in the plains of the western plateau. When he arrived in Nepal, he scratched out a living on the looms of a Tibetan rug factory - the source of work for many Tibetans in the neighbourhood. He has spent the last 50 years in quiet anticipation, living as one of Tibet's 130,000-strong diaspora, hoping for a chance to return to a Tibet ruled by Tibetans. "[Even then], I had a feeling it would be a long time," he said.
Tsering Lhazom, 42, is a teacher at the Tibetan kindergarten in Kathmandu, as well as a Tibetan activist in Nepal. "In my opinion, I consider it of utmost importance to give these children a Tibetan education," she said, raising her voice above the classroom's cacophony. But advocating for Tibetan independence comes at a cost. Last year, during demonstrations marking the 49th anniversary, she was beaten by Nepalese police. leaving her with a crippled arm.
"I am very afraid of our culture disappearing altogether here. In three generations time, it is possible that there may not be much of Tibet left. China now constricts what we do in every way in Nepal." The street outside the Chinese Embassy - where activists traditionally gather for 'Free Tibet' protests - on Tuesday was a grim indicator of just how much influence China has on its tiny, impoverished neighbour.
Armour-clad Nepali soldiers blockaded each entrance. Wielding lathis (bamboo sticks), firearms and tear-gas launchers, the message they sent was all too clear to the would-be protesters: not this time. Leading activists were arrested in the run up to the day's protests and police were posted outside every Tibetan enclave in the city. A small demonstration was held outside the Boudhanath Stupa on the 10th, but police were quick to make arrests.
"Our peaceful demonstrations last year turned into violent repression, and things are even worse this year," said Ngawang Tashi, an activist heavily involved in the Tibetan independence movement. "More troops, more strictness on the border and more fear for us." Mr Tashi is the joint secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress in Nepal, an organisation boasting 30,000 members internationally. The group made international headlines last year in the run up to the Beijing Olympics, aiming to use the media attention as a platform to air their grievances, including what they say are Chinese attempts to suppress their religion and culture.
"This year, I am afraid to shout out," Mr Tashi, 27, said. "The more we shout out here, the more they kill in Tibet. "The Chinese are forcing Nepal to stop our protests. If they can do this in a democratic Nepal, imagine what they are doing in Tibet, where they have closed off the borders to all foreigners." During a recent visit to Nepal, China's deputy foreign minister directly warned Kathmandu against permitting activities that might show the country's northern neighbour in a negative light.
Nepal is understandably edgy about the whole affair. With the newly-appointed coalition government only recently trying to bring war-scarred Nepal back to stability, it is walking a tightrope. To actively help Tibetans coming out of China will severely affect foreign relations with Beijing, while to simply hand them back to China would catapult Nepal into a maelstrom of international scrutiny. In years past, the snow white Nepal-China border was perennially criss-crossed with the trodden paths of Tibetans seeking passage through Nepal into Indian refuge, or simply remaining in Nepal. The UNHCR reception centre, located on Nepal's border, reported 2,000 such asylum seekers in 2007. In 2008, the number barely reached 300.
As interviewer and refugee retriever for the UN's Tibetan reception centre, Tseter Dhunhup is the first point of contact for the Tibetans. "The Chinese will arrest or shoot down any Tibetans that they catch. Many arrive with frostbite and must have amputations." Mr Dhunhup, an ethnic Tibetan, meets and documents each refugee's story. His information is often then passed on to the Tibetan government in exile, in Dharamsala.
"Due to the demonstrations in 2008, the borders are now restricted," he said. "There is much more military and greater surveillance. It has become very difficult for Tibetans to get out of Tibet." Last year, on March 14, days of tension escalated into deadly riots in Lhasa and triggered protests against Chinese rule within Tibet and among Tibetan populations in western China, Nepal and India, as well as across the world.
The riots in Lhasa, in which 19 people were killed, were the most sustained revolt in decades, but were still quashed by the Chinese military. In recent weeks, to head off any protests to mark either anniversary, China has deployed thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers across Tibet and Tibetan-inhabited regions, sealed its borders and cut mobile and internet connections in some areas. In Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama marked the anniversary by saying life in Tibet was now "hell on earth". Government agencies in China were quick to rebut his remarks, calling him a liar and a child.
On Wednesday, the US state department weighed in, issuing a statement calling on China to "reconsider" its Tibetan policy and urging the nation to renew dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, ended contacts with China last November after eight rounds of talks failed to produce results. Yesterday, China's premier, Wen Jiabao said Tibet's culture had been "well preserved" and that economic progress in the Himalayan region showed the country's policies were working.
Mr Wen also said the door was open to talks with the Dalai Lama providing the Nobel Peace Prize laureate abandon his efforts to seek independence for the Himalayan region. The Dalai Lama denies he is seeking to split Tibet from China. Destpite Barack Obama's plea for China to review its Tibet agenda, and support from European and other western countries for an autonomous Tibet, some analysts believe there is little the West can do.
"There are really two players where the Tibet issue is concerned and they are China and India," said Jabin T Jacob, a research fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank. India hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile, including the Dalai Lama, and it is ultimately New Delhi and Beijing, and their relationship, that will shape the fate of the Tibetans and their culture, he said.
"Today it's about energy, resources, trade and economy. Some Tibetan organisations still hang onto the idea that Tibet can become a fully independent country. I think you have to take a reality check on this." * The National