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When a Basketball Match is an "Anti-China Activity"

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Zamling sits in a dank concrete hall in a Tibetan slum in the cramped backstreets of Kathmandu. But with his upright urbane confidence, he could just as well be in an office on Wall Street. This 25-year-old Tibetan is the Treasurer of Gyanchen Youth Association -- a humble initiative that he co-founded in January 2008. "We wanted to help children and the elderly," he tells me. "There is a great need in this community."

I am in Nepal to try to understand how life is for the second largest Tibetan exile population outside India. Zamling and his friends laugh wryly as they tell me how they hope to find sponsors to fund projects such as an after school tuition center and library. They know this is a dim hope indeed. Tibetan refugees do not receive any financial support from the Nepalese Government and obtaining funds from abroad in the name of Tibetan organizations in Nepal is almost impossible.

But Zamling beams with pride as he describes how the association, launched without a penny to its name, went door-to-door and convinced the Tibetan residents to donate money for a start-up loan. With a modest collection of 15,000 rupees ($207), Zamling and his friends set up a board and organized a lottery, selling tickets to Tibetans all over Nepal. It was a huge success. Zamling was soon able to pay back the loan and fund the renovation of a prayer hall, used daily by Tibetan elders in his settlement. His plans now include trying to meet 50% of the medical expenses of the sick and infirm in his community.

Zamling is the kind of young man that would make anyone feel there is hope for the future. But the sad fact is that this college graduate has little future to hope for. Like thousands of other young Tibetans in Nepal, Zamling has no legal status. He cannot get a drivers license, a passport, open a bank account or even get mainstream employment.

Twenty-one year old Tenzin Khapul hopes to become a banker and is half way through his Bachelor of Business Administration degree. But he knows that without Nepali citizenship, when he completes the four-year course, he won't be able to do the job he's qualified for.

Sonam, an attractive earnest woman in her 40s jumps in. "Don't get discouraged," she says. "Things might change." She has known these boys their whole lives and feels like an aunt to them.

It felt both uplifting and discouraging listening to them -- these sincere young men who had done everything right and had so much to offer, had taken their studies seriously, were engaged and concerned members of their community, but who were being treated as strangers rather than a resource.

Kunga, a tall studious-looking young man, tells me that he had nurtured aspirations to become an engineer or an architect but his parents couldn't afford to pay for a science degree program, which is far more expensive than other fields. He graduated with an MA in Economics instead and now works as a high school teacher in a local Tibetan school.

But no matter what their dreams might be, these bright, compassionate and confident college graduates remain personae non gratae in the eyes of Nepal's authorities.

"The only options for us are to teach in a Tibetan school or monastery or sell traditional crafts," shrugs Zamling, who himself teaches mathematics to monks at a local monastery.

With no chance at a proper career in a country whose government would rather they didn't exist, it's little wonder then that Tibetans who can get to the West do so as quickly as possible. But Nepal's administration has effectively resisted allowing Tibetan refugees to re-settle in the United States, to avoid upsetting relations with China. In 2005, the Nepali government blocked 5,000 exit permits for Tibetans who had been offered asylum in the US. The US raised the issue again in 2007 to no avail.

"It's only with the authorities that the relationship has changed," explains Tashi. "The local Nepalese and Tibetans are good friends. We give a lot of employment to the local people." Tashi runs a successful carpet-weaving factory but all his workers are Nepalese. "We can't give jobs to Tibetan refugees who have no proper documents under the government's regulation or we get into trouble."

As we talk, riot police patrol the streets outside. The atmosphere in the city is thick with tension and anticipation. It's March 9th, one day before the 52nd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa that was thwarted by the Chinese Communists. Tibetans in exile regard it as something of a civic duty to protest Chinese rule in Tibet on this day, but in recent years, Beijing's influence on the Nepal government has added up to increased pressure on Tibetans here.

Over a thousand police have been deployed, sending an unequivocal message to Tibetans who might be thinking of protesting. Orders have been given that no Tibetan flag must pass beyond the gates of the monastery courtyard, where the March 10th ceremony is going to be observed.

"We still feel Nepal is our second home and we love it," says Tashi. "We are accustomed to this nation, there is so much history between Nepal and Tibet. We have great monasteries and great religious teachers here. But the young are in crisis. Their parents are selling bread and souvenirs, but they have an education and they want something more out of life."

The problem is that every company requires citizenship documents. "They cannot get jobs here and they can't travel to seek opportunities abroad, says Tashi, who is acutely aware that his Nepalese passport allows him freedoms these young men are unlikely to ever enjoy.

In earlier times, all the Tibetans in Zamling's community, including his own parents, were employed as carpet weavers. The settlement boasted a hotel and a showroom for tourists. The factory was formerly run by the Tibetan government-in-exile, but when the Tibetan administration privatized its commercial interests in 2000, the community lost its main employer. Zamling's parents now beg work washing up in hotels and restaurants.

Tseten Norbu is one of two Members of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile representing Nepal. He feels that the privatization move was shortsighted, focusing on profit over socio-economic stability.

He is also not a fan of international amnesty programs. He worries that the 'go West' drive is creating a brain drain among Nepal's Tibetans, but admits that in order to stay here, young Tibetans need to see a possible future.

Norbu does not lay the blame for this lack of opportunity solely with the Nepali administration. "Dharamsala seems to be indifferent to the needs of Tibetans here," he says, speaking of the Tibetan exiled government. He wants his government to revise their policy and re-invest in programs here, particularly for the young, and build links with Nepal's leaders to ensure the future economic and political security of the Tibetan community.

When I ask about his thoughts on the future of Tibetans in Nepal, Tseten Norbu replies like a man accustomed to disappointment. "I don't think it will get better," he says. "We can just try to not make it worse."

Zamling has not lost faith. "As Buddhists we believe that it's the difficult situations in life where you get the most experience. When we get discouraged we work together, we get advice from our elders, and we remember that we are not the only ones who are going through this. We remain optimistic, no matter what."

Not everyone is as resilient or as resourceful. Naturally, with such a crisis of belonging, there is a rising rate of drug and alcohol abuse among young Tibetan. In a small, Tibetan restaurant, a serious middle-aged man named Tsering tells me about the sports club he founded to give the new generation a healthy alternative. "I've seen kids turn their lives around after joining our club. I've seen it make a difference." But when he tried to organize a basketball tournament, police disallowed it.

Nepal's approximately 20,000 Tibetans reside in a netherworld -- neither citizens nor refugees. (Nepalese law does not recognize the rights of refugees under the principal treaties that govern their status under international law.) Provided they have a Nepalese Refugee Identity Certificate (RC), Tibetans who arrived before 1989 can remain in Nepal with certain limited rights, but they are not even counted among the official population. The young people I spoke with did not even have an RC. "I was supposed to get the refugee card when I was 18, but I didn't receive it," says Zamling. "All I have is a document from the Tibetan exiled government that states I am Tibetan. But that's it."

One of the only rights Tibetans in Nepal felt they had left to exercise -- the right to participate in their own democracy and vote for their exiled government -- was deprived of them last October during the primaries when Nepali riot police seized ballot boxes in and around Kathmandu. This March, Tibetans in Nepal were once again barred from voting in the final elections for prime minister and members of parliament, based in Dharamsala, India.

Tashi, ordinarily soft-spoken, allows his frustration to show, "The Nepali government should either offer everyone citizenship or deport us all," he complains.

Since 1989, the 'gentlemen's agreement' between the government in Kathmandu and the UNHCR has allowed Tibetans safe transit from Tibet through Nepal en route to Dharamsala, India. But in July of last year, Nepal forcibly repatriated three Tibetan refugees. Two of them -- a monk and a young woman -- were sent directly to jail in Tibet.

Back in 2006, Nepal and China set up an intelligence-sharing program on security matters. The program, which includes China's training Nepali security personnel, was aimed at containing so-called "anti-China activities." But the definition of what constitutes an anti-China activity has expanded from street protest to ordinary social functions.

A gathering where a photo of the Dalai Lama is displayed, pilgrimages to holy sites, even basketball tournaments -- in fact any time more than a handful of Tibetans assemble, the police intervene and call a halt. Two days earlier, a group of about thirty Tibetans, mostly elderly women and children, had been prevented from traveling to a Buddhist pilgrimage site. They had hired a bus to pick them up from the Tibetan refugee center but were prevented from boarding. The police explained that they were "following orders from the Home Ministry".

"We can't even hold a dinner dance," says Sonam. "We organized one last year and sold all the tickets, but at the last minute we were told that we couldn't go ahead because of orders from the Home Ministry. We just wanted to perform traditional music. Even a prayer gathering is now considered political."

It's Losar -- Tibetan New Year -- but Sonam tells me that this year's celebrations have been strangely subdued. Traditionally the Tibetan community gets together for feasts and cultural performances over the New Year period, but instead people observed the occasion in small gatherings of close friends and family.

Before I get up to leave, Zamling offers me a bowl of kapsey, the spiral-shaped cookies that are a Losar specialty. As I took a bite, I found myself wondering... if we invited a few more Tibetans to eat with us, would this be regarded an anti-China activity?

See my photo-essay of a police crackdown on March 10th in Nepal.