The ties that bind Kathmandu with Lhasa predate the formation of the United States of America by centuries. Kathmandu Valley craftsmen minted coins for the Tibetan court, Nepal was Tibet's principal trade partner and cultural links were vibrant. So when the Mao regime annexed Tibet, it was quite natural that many Tibetans afraid of the new emperor of China crossed the Himalaya into Nepal.
For very practical reasons it is difficult to differentiate between Tibet's seasonal migrants and Tibetans seeking political refuge. Nepal has provided safe passage for the refugees even though Kathmandu formally recognises the annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China. This duality has worked, and as long as Nepal's hospitality for Tibetan refugees was purely humanitarian, the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu tolerated occasional street protests and let the Nepali police handle it.
Successive Nepali governments have been sensitive to Chinese concerns ever since the American inspired Khampa uprising from Nepal was brought to an end in the mid-1970s. Such are the sensitivities that the diplomatic cost of a Dalai Lama visit far outweigh having the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people meditating in the Lumbini Gardens.
Lately, things are getting a bit edgy. The deportation of 18 Tibetan refugees on 31 May could be an indication of things to come, not a "mistake" as an unnamed cabinet minister confided to this paper last week.
There may be several factors for this new get-tough policy. Just because the Chinese haven't said anything publicly, doesn't mean they are taking kindly to busybodies of the US Pacific Command sniffing around its backyard. Along with Taiwan and Xinjiang, Tibet is China's soft underbelly and it will do everything to pre-empt outsiders from poking around there. This is why the Sino-Indian rapprochement this week with the formal swapping of each others' annexations of Sikkim and Tibet was significant.
Secondly, the Chinese are miffed at Nepal's traditionally America-leaning elite taking them for granted. And one of the ways of showing their displeasure is to arm-twist Nepal over Tibetan refugees from time to time.
Chinese President Hu Jintao used to head the Communist Party in Tibet and is one of the representatives of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the Chinese Peoples\' National Congress parliament. Unlike his predecessors, Hu can be expected to take a hawkish view of anything that involves his neck of the woods. He may have decided that if he has to make a compromise, he would rather deal directly with the Dalai Lama and bypass Richard Gere.
Senator Dianne Feinstein is trying to wield the Tibet stick to beat Nepal and appease her constituency. But the California Democrat should get her priorities right: first she should clear her own name over alleged campaign finance irregularities involving her husband, Dick Blum. And then she should boycott Boeing, IBM, Nike and Northwest for doing roaring business with Beijing.
Jeff Greenwald's claim to fame so far are some books that have tried to cash in on Nepali exotica. Full of righteous indignation, he is now leading the charge for a tourism boycott of Nepal. Members of Ethical Traveler should know that as a proportion of its population, Nepal supports more refugees than most other countries, including the United States. Nepalis don't need lectures on how to be hospitable to outsiders. Why doesn't Greenwald show the same concern for Guatemalans, Haitians and Cubans trying to escape to his own country? Double standards and hypocrisy in America don't seem to be confined to the current US administration.
We don't need to worry too much about na?ve lawmakers and misguided authors with a Tibet fetish. We need to worry more about the pushy investors of Bhote Kosi. They are also using the threat of trade sanctions to arm-twist Nepal into buying more power than stipulated in their agreement, and also dithering on paying the mandated royalty per kilowatt to the NEA. The loud-mouthed Texans have shown they will use their political proximity to the Bush team to punish us if we don't.
None of this, of course, absolves our own policymakers from blame. We need to take the lobbying game in Washington a lot more seriously, and our envoy and embassy in DC have to be more than a recreation outpost. Let's get someone out there who really knows the American way.
The business of America is business, and the sooner we realise that the better. No amount of chest-beating and hand-wringing is going to get us any concessions. If the Garment Quota Bill doesn't benefit powerful American interests, it will not materialise. The neighbourhood is coming to terms with the harsh realities of a hyperpower world, and so should we.