At least one person was killed when Chinese border guards attacked unarmed Tibetan refugees just outside the advanced basecamp for Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest peak.
Around 8 a.m. on September 30, Chinese soldiers opened fire on a group of Tibetan refugees attempting to cross Nangpa La pass, on the border between Tibet and Nepal. Kelsang Namtso, a nun, age 17, was killed during the 15-minute barrage of shooting.
The group of nuns, monks and children was attempting to cross into Nepal, seeking a religious education not possible in Tibet due to restrictions imposed by China.
Soon after the attack, Chinese diplomats in Kathmandu, Nepal, tracked down Western climbers and Sherpas who witnessed the killings. One of the people contacted was a British police officer and climber, Steve Lawes.
Lawes, in an interview with The International Campaign for Tibet, described an “intimidating” atmosphere as Chinese security personnel “took over” the Cho Oyu camp. He said that about half an hour after the shooting, nine children, aged between six and 10, were marched through basecamp.
“The children were in single file, about six feet away from me. They didn’t see us—they weren’t looking around the way kids normally would, they were too frightened. By that time, advance basecamp was crawling with soldiers. We were doing our best not to do anything that might spark off more violence.”
In an interview with the British paper The Independent, an American climber, who witnessed the event and asked not to be identified, questioned the failure of other climbers to act.
“Did it make anyone turn away and go home? Not one. People are climbing right in front of you to escape persecution while you are trying to climb a mountain. It’s insane.”
Sun Hepig, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, asserted in an official statement that there were no “refugees,” only illegal immigrants to Nepal who should be punished according to the law of the land. All eyewitness accounts contradict China’s interpretation of the events, and a videotape of the incident shot by Segiu Matei, a Romanian cameraman with Pro TV, clearly shows that the Tibetans were unarmed and had their backs to the soldiers. There was no resistance, and Kelsang Namtso, the nun, was shot in the back.
Each year between 2,500 and 4,000 Tibetans, typically monks, nuns and children sent by their parents, cross the Himalaya seeking refuge and religious freedom in India.
China has occupied Tibet for almost 60 years, during which human rights have been habitually abused. The Chinese have attempted to suppress Tibetan religion by dismantling temples, destroying artifacts and torturing and killing monks and nuns. Ironically, the Tibetan religious tradition is one of nonviolence and unconditional compassion—values still espoused by Tibet’s political and religious leader, the Dalai Lama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who lives in exile in Dharamsala, India.
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