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Nepal blocks 5,000 Tibetan exit permits

Under pressure from China, Nepal's Girija Prasad Koirala stops Tibetan refugees from taking asylum in the US.

world Updated: Nov 01, 2007 10:22 IST

Under pressure from China, Nepal's Girija Prasad Koirala government, which came to power last year pledging to protect democracy and human rights, has stopped 5,000 Tibetan refugees from getting asylum in the US.

This was revealed by US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey, who arrived in Kathmandu this week on a visit to facilitate the resettlement in the US of Bhutanese refugees now living in Nepal.

Currently, there are about 14,000 Tibetans living in Nepal who have been registered with the government as refugees.

However, they are not allowed to publicly celebrate any occasions related to their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, whom China has been trying to erase from the memory of Tibet since it occupied the Buddhist kingdom more than five decades ago.

They are also not allowed to register associations for fear of ruffling the feathers of China, which says there are no Tibetan refugees but only illegal immigrants.

The US official told Nepal's biggest private TV channel on Wednesday that as part of its refugee resettlement programme, Washington had last year arranged to offer a home in the US to 5,000 Tibetan refugees.

However, the offer did not materialise because the Nepalese government did not respond. Tibetan refugees living in Nepal need an exit permit from the government to travel outside Nepal.

In the past, China supported Nepal's King Gyanendra who tried to marginalize political parties. China sold arms to the royal regime to hunt down Maoist guerrillas. But after the fall of the royal government it began wooing the new government of opposition parties and the Maoists.

Tibet is one of the key issues in China's relationship with Nepal. Every year, 2,500 to 3,500 Tibetans -- mostly children, monks and nuns -- flee to India from Tibet.

Placing their lives in peril, they travel through high mountain passes stealthily to cross into Nepal, from where they head for Dharamsala in India, the seat of the Dalai Lama.

However, in its bid to prove to the world that Tibetans are happy under its rule, the Chinese government has been trying its best to stop the fugitives, even authorising its border patrols to fire on unarmed groups.

Under China's growing influence, Nepal has in the past handed over refugees to the Chinese authorities, triggering worldwide condemnation.

Concerned that if the refugees are allowed to make a new life in the US, it will encourage more fugitives as well as draw wider attention to the plight of Tibetans, Beijing has been pressurising Koirala's government not to allow the Tibetans to leave.

Sauerbrey told Kantipur Television that her government would continue its efforts.

Although Koirala, like a succession of Nepalese governments, has been pliable to US demands, the Tibet issue continues to be an exception.

Days before he seized power with the help of the army, King Gyanendra caused the closure of the office of the Dalai Lama's representative in Kathmandu.

Though the office was allowed to open as an NGO after the fall of the royal regime, the Koirala government withdrew its permission and forced it to shut down again under pressure from Beijing.