While Tibetan Buddhism is squeezed inside of China's borders, there is a place where it still survives intact: Upper Mustang - a once forbidden kingdom high in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Al Jazeera's Steve Chao travels there to document the fight to preserve an ancient culture, as China expands its influence into Nepal, and the modern world slowly creeps in.
|Mustang vs China: A losing battle?
By Steve Chao
|In a former Tibetan kingdom a fierce debate is raging over how to preserve their culture and to limit China's influence [Al Jazeera]
I will never quite forget that morning. One moment my cameramen and I were filming monks praying in an open courtyard in a remote Tibetan monastery, the next we were sprinting for the closest exit to try and catch up with a large group of Tibetan horsemen who had appeared suddenly and were descending on the town we were in.
It was the spring of 2008, just months before Beijing's proud moment hosting the Olympics, and we were already well into a week of historic protests by Tibetans. The demonstrations had started in Lhasa and were spreading to outlying communities.
Overnight we had found our way to a place called Bora, a small town nestled in the hills of what China calls Gansu province, and Tibetans, Amcho.
As we reached the monastery gate, we were met by an incredible scene: men and women in animal skins and Tibetan dress, on horse and on foot, shouting for freedom from 'oppressive rule'. Hundreds had come to charge a government building, into which a unit of armed Chinese paramilitary police had just moved.
Paramilitary commanders had told villagers they were there to 'maintain order'. To the people, that meant, arrests, beatings, torture and the restriction of their ability to practice their religion, as experienced in the past.
With the world's attention soon to be on the Olympics, Tibetans in Bora told us they believed this was their moment to speak out against decades of repression.
The Olympics came and went. And since that spring of 2008, I watched as Tibetans came under one of the heaviest clampdowns on political and religious freedom in recent memory. Thousands have been jailed. Tens of thousands have been forced into 're-education' programmes. An unknown number have been executed.
China's control over these communities is absolute. And with a constant military presence, the government has made it near impossible for international journalists to get close enough to document what is happening.
'We now call Kathmandu little Lhasa'
From that time in 2008, the Tibetans and their struggle has left a deep impression on me. When I learned through contacts that China was moving to extend its control of Tibetans into neighbouring Nepal, I decided I needed to see for myself what was happening. And that is what this documentary is about.
In June of this year our team travelled to Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. In the cobblestone alleys around the Boudhanath stupa, the holiest Tibetan site in the country, we learned of how effective China has been in getting the Nepalese government to carry out its policy of control.
Back in 2008, the protests in China, were followed by six months of street demonstrations by the Tibetan exile community. (Some 20,000 Tibetans fled across the border into Nepal when China seized Tibet in 1951.)
The protests embarrassed China. And ever since, Chinese officials have made it a point to pressure Nepal's Maoist government to put an end to such things. And it has.
Tibetan demonstrations are now banned. Social gatherings of more than two people are considered illegal. And the community is no longer allowed to celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday. Even carrying 'His Holiness's' picture around the Boudha stupa could land you in jail.
"With all these new rules, we now call Kathmandu little Lhasa," said one man. What is further troubling is that where once Nepal's government upheld an unspoken "Gentleman's agreement", in which newly-arrived Tibetan refugees would be handed over to the care of the UN Human Rights Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), in recent months, there have been several cases where Nepalese police forcibly returned Tibetans, some young teens, to China.
In exchange, Nepal has received unprecedented funding for such badly needed infrastructure projects as dams and roads; some $20mn is going towards training the Armed Police Force (APF). The paramilitary unit was once tasked with putting down the Maoist insurgency. Now that the insurgency is over, and the Maoists are part of the government, some 10,000 members of the APF are being deployed to guard the border with China. Jhala Nath Khanal, Nepal's former prime minister, told me that keeping Tibetans from escaping, and preventing unrest is the primary goal of the APF in these regions.
The 'hidden' kingdom
There is a reason for China's concern. In the 1960s, shortly after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, a Tibetan resistance movement was formed in a place called Mustang.
Mustang, or Lo, as locals call it, is an ancient Tibetan kingdom that is now part of Nepal. Hidden in the Himalayas, the world's highest mountain range, it is protected by its remoteness, and the fact the only way in and out for centuries was on horseback.
The resistance fighters who sought to make Mustang their base were called Khampa warriors. And supported and trained by the CIA, they led lightning raids against Chinese forces from this sanctuary.
But in the early 1970s, CIA support ended. And in 1974, following pressure from China, Nepal sent a brigade of troops to demand the Khampa's surrender. Fearing a bloodbath, the Dalai Lama urged the Khampas to lay down their arms. Most did, but some, unwilling to surrender, slit their throats or jumped into the river and drowned.
From that time, Mustang and other Himalayan communities along the border have been closely watched by China.
In 2008, following the protests in Tibet and Kathmandu, Nepal's government officially removed the king of Mustang's title. Up until then, it was run virtually independently.
In June, we travelled by horse to Mustang. It takes five hard days of riding, through harsh terrain that has been described as being more like the moon than anywhere on earth. Despite this, there is incredible cultural wealth. Explorers in the early 1900s described Mustang as a 'hidden kingdom', where the practice of Tibetan Buddhism remained unchanged since the 14th century.
Culture in peril
With the culture in peril in Tibet due to China's control, the Dalai Lama has called on Mustang and other ethnically Tibetan Himalayan regions to preserve his peoples' way of life. But that is becoming increasingly hard to do. China is funding the construction of a road that will soon cut through the former kingdom. It has already reached the Chinese side of the border. Once it is built, life there will change forever. Besides bringing in electricity, and modern ways of life, people know it will also usher in more government control.
Already there are plans to build a garrison to house the APF, who will patrol the border with China. People in Mustang used to let their sheep roam freely across the border, a barbed wire fence stretching for kilometres, now stands in their way.
In Mustang's capital, Lo Manthang, a fierce debate is raging over how to preserve the culture, and more to the point, keep China's influence out. But for many, it already feels like a losing battle. Chinese goods make up 90 per cent of all items now sold in the markets. There is also growing fear for the safety of Tibetan exiles who come to teach the language in the community, as daily there is word that Chinese spies are now watching over everything.
Residents told us that while they are barred from crossing the border, Chinese military officials, from a nearby army complex, come and go as they please.
While 75-year-old Jigme Palbar Bista no longer holds the title of king, he continues to hold the reverence of the people. In the past, he has been wary of publicly sharing his personal views on Tibet, so as not to anger China, or Nepal. But with age, there is a sense that he is less willing to hold back. During my meeting with him, the former king, whose wife is Tibetan, told me he has always believed that people should be free to practice their beliefs in their homeland.
There is uncertainty now in Mustang and in greater Nepal as to whether that freedom will continue.
In 2008, as I left Bora to file our story, and to avoid certain arrest (as international media was banned from the area), we saw a column of Chinese troops entering the town. Occupy and control; Tibetans tell us that has been the policy of the government. And it has been an effective one.