Last week’s visit by a senior US official to Kathmandu has left a bitter aftertaste in the otherwise friendly relations between the superpower and Nepal. And the reason for the strain is Tibetan refugees.
The “busy and productive” visit by assistant secretary for south and central Asian affairs Robert O Blake was the first by a US official following the dissolution of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly in May.
During the two-day trip, Blake met Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and leaders from across the political spectrum to discuss the ongoing constitutional crisis. But his meeting with members of the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal was the one that caused heartburn among Nepali authorities.
In his interaction with the media in Kathmandu, Blake commended Nepal for being a “generous host” to Tibetan refugees staying in the country and those transiting to India via Nepal.
“We strongly believe that Tibetan refugees, like all people, deserve to lead lives of dignity and purpose,” he said taking a dig at Nepal for refusing to issue identity cards since 1989 to Tibetan refugees residing in the country and putting restrictions on their activities in recent years.
Under pressure from China and as part of its ‘One China Policy’, Nepal detains Tibetans trying to reach India. Reports of Tibetans arrested near the Nepal-China border also keep appearing in the media.
When Blake mentioned these to deputy prime minister and foreign minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha during their meeting, the latter urged the US to understand Nepal’s “geopolitical sensitivities” (read need/pressure to keep Beijing happy).
Shrestha also made it clear that Nepal is not party to international conventions on refugees and it deals with the nearly 20,000 Tibetan refugees on its soil purely on moral and humanitarian grounds.
Three days after Blake’s departure, the foreign ministry lodged a “solemn representation” to the US embassy regarding the US official’s meeting with Tibetan refugees without intimating the ministry.
The embassy is yet to react, but judging by Kathmandu’s reaction, in future any visiting US official to Nepal would think twice before meeting Tibetan refugees here. Bad news for Tibetan refugees, but that’s bound to make Beijing happy.