Tibetans in Nepal believe the Boudhanath Stupa, with a pair of eyes looking in each of the four cardinal directions, is watching over them to ensure righteous behavior. So when Thundup Dopchen, a recent Tibetan exile, set himself ablaze in front of those watchful eyes on February 13 in Kathmandu, hearts sank. Many were confused as to whether it was righteous to put dogma ahead of one's life.
The Kathmandu protest has been described as the 100th self-immolation since 2009 and placed Nepal into a difficult situation with China, as the anniversary of the 2008 Tibetan riots that took place on March 14, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, approaches.
The act, that coincided with the Tibetan New Year and the centennial of the 13th Dalai Lama's declaration of so-called "Tibet's independence," has drawn international attention once again to Nepal, home to an estimated 20,000 Tibetan refugees.
The flow of Tibetan refugees over the Himalayan border into Nepal began when the 14th Dalai Lama left Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, for India in 1959. Since then, the influx of these refugees has continued at varying paces.
For three decades, Nepal welcomed them and issued them with refugee identity certificates, also known as RCs. However, since 1998 the government has stopped issuing RCs to the refugees and their children who were born and have grown up in Nepal.
Many of the third generation of Tibetans who have no RCs or exit permit find themselves stateless.
"The question of identity is a source of frustration," Bhaskar Koirala, director of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, told the Global Times. "If self-immolations keep happening, they will become an obstacle to the Nepal-China relationship."
The Chinese government does not recognize these Tibetans as refugees, Peng Wenlin, spokesman of the Chinese embassy in Nepal, told the Global Times.
"The Tibetans who have crossed the border illegally are not refugees," Peng said. He added that the government of Nepal has also been denying them the status of refugees, referring to them instead as "people in transition."
Seeking a new home
It is a very long journey over what may be the most dangerous escape route on earth. It took Lobsang two weeks to cross the Himalayas on foot. To avoid snowstorms, he often had to trudge for hours through knee-deep snow in the dark and reach villages where people provided him with food and directed him on his way.
It was 1989 when the 26-year-old Lobsang decided to leave Lhasa for Nepal. Not every Tibetan can make it through the high passes, as the trek can last months without a guide. Some die of exposure, others are caught by the border police.
The reasons why Tibetans escape, many say, are for money and education. "They don't know the facts. They can be easily fooled," Tamla Ukyab, a former diplomat who served as Consul General of Nepal in Lhasa from 1982-1988, told the Global Times.
"They believe they can get free education for their kids. They think they can migrate to the US. They believe the news they get from the Tibetan program run by foreign countries," he continued. "But those Tibetans who live near Nepal, they know the real facts. They know the living situation in Nepal and even India would be far worse than in Tibet itself."
Lobsang added that not all the refugees escape China because of political reasons. Some have committed crimes. Some make up stories of being repressed by the Chinese government to obtain asylum.
The number of new arrivals plummeted after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, from an average of some 2,000 a year before 2007 to about 800, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The reason, many believe, is due to tightened border controls.
Like Lobsang, the survivors present themselves at the UN-funded Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu, which provides temporary shelter, food and medical care as well as coordinates for the Indian embassy to process entry permits for the new refugees.
The Tibetan government-in-exile also has an office in Kathmandu to provide assistance for new arrivals. It is still functioning but in a reduced capacity as Nepal recognizes Tibet is part of China.
Ukyab believes the number of Tibetan refugees who have entered Nepal is far higher than 20,000. He puts it as high as 70,000 as many of them who entered Nepal in the remote eastern or western parts of the country often go on directly to India.
Lobsang was sent to Dharamsala in India where the Tibetan government-in- exile resides, a place where he used to think he could have a better life.
"That is all," he said. "From then on you were totally on your own."
After living in Dharamsala for about seven years, Lobsang decided to go back to Nepal where he could make more money. Two decades later, Lobsang already has a Nepalese passport and has become a businessman who often travels back and forth between Nepal and India.
His family is an "international" family. Each one of them lives in a different country. His elder daughter is in India, the younger one is back in China in Lhasa. His wife lives in Switzerland.
"My daughter told me how much my hometown has changed in the past 50 years, I am amazed," Lobsang said.
Tibetan refugees are scattered over about 13 refugee camps in Nepal. The camps provide them with housing, schools, monasteries and a measure of work. Many Tibetans living in the camp are engaged in carpet-weaving, handicrafts and other small businesses to make a living.
At the entrance of Tashiling Tibetan Refugee Camp in Pokhara, a famous tourism destination that is home to 700 refugees, hangs a huge poster bearing the pictures of 95 Tibetans who set themselves alight. Curious tourists often walk up there, take pictures and extend their condolences.
25-year-old Norgay who was born and grew up here is now a college student in India. He came back to his hometown to volunteer in the monasteries during his winter vacation.
Without an RC, Norgay feels he would have problems finding a stable and long-term job in Nepal. And staying in India doesn't seem to be a solution, his identity will always be: a foreigner, a refugee.
"Life is slow and simple here in Pokhara, I might have to come back after graduation," he said.
In 2012, the United States made a plea for Nepal to regularize the status of Tibetan refugees residing there.
"There is no question in my mind that the government here supports the international rights of refugees and I know is going to continue to resolve the remaining concerns of the Tibetan refugees," Wendy Sherman, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, was quoted by AP as saying during her meeting with Nepal's prime minister in April 2012.
The reason for stopping the issuance of RCs, some analysts believe, is because Nepal does not want to attract more refugees to the country. Besides Tibetans, Nepal is also host to over 108,000 refugees from Bhutan. International reports that state the country is not treating refugees well have put Nepal under a lot of pressure.
Yet the government provides Tibetan refugees with travel documents to facilitate their travel outside of the country. The available destinations are limited though. By 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs recommended 3,498 refugees for travel document to facilitate their study, tour and family reunion abroad, according to the ministry.
Over the years, Tibetans residing in Nepal have been opening businesses, shops and restaurants. Some have even started to make good money in the carpet industry while their monasteries have become popular sight-seeing destinations for hundreds of thousands of tourists to Nepal.
Even without RCs, Tibetans enjoy more civil rights than other foreigners in Nepal, said Ukyab.
"Tibetans, despite being so-called refugees, also have different nationalities. If they have Nepalese citizenship, they can go everywhere. Why do they need a refugee card?" he asked.