Sudhip Pathak is an unassuming man. Balding and doughy with a bad heart, he looks nothing like the tough human-rights campaigner that he really is. But to the 20,000 Tibetan refugees who live in Nepal – and to those Tibetans he helps free from prison every year – his status is close to that of a saviour.
“We have many friends, but they don’t come out publicly” to support us, says Trinlay Gyatso, the Dalai Lama’s de facto ambassador to Kathmandu. “In Nepal, Sudhip Pathak is the only person who comes out and tries to help Tibetans.”
If Pathak doesn’t look the part of a modern-day bodhisattva, or enlightened being, his CV certainly suggests a resemblance. Born and raised in Nepal, Pathak attended law school in Kathmandu in the 1980s, and joined the Nepali Congress party the following decade, where he quickly rose through the ranks.
In 2000, after helping to end Nepal’s bloody civil war by forging a peace agreement between the Maoist guerrillas and the government, he was elected president of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal (Huron), which fights for the political freedom of all Nepalis. Over the years, he says, he has been arrested 13 times for defending the human rights of Nepalis, and spent a total of three years in prison. Today, though, it is Tibetans behind bars who receive the bulk of his attention. For decades, Nepal has given sanctuary to the thousands of Tibetans who continue to flee China each year. Refugee camps, tent cities in the 1960s, are today vibrant communities scattered throughout this mountain nation. In the capital of Kathmandu, Buddhist temples and chalk-white stupas swarm with the constant murmur of pilgrims and monks. Inspiring to some, this peace-advocating minority has become a political liability to others.
“The government always thinks that if I go anti-China (and support Tibetans), then I cannot rule in Nepal,” Pathak explains. “The point is the principle. These are refugees, and we have to protect the refugees’ human rights.”
Ever since Tibetans fled their Chinese-occupied homeland in 1959 for India, Nepal and Bhutan, it had been assumed that the 14th Dalai Lama, their appointed leader and religious scholar, would bring salvation and provide security. This now appears unlikely. The Dalai Lama celebrated his 76th birthday earlier this week, four months after he officially stepped down as the temporal leader of the Tibetan people. But even before his retirement his isolation had been growing. Foreign leaders and governments had begun to cancel meetings with the man Chinese leaders have often called “a wolf in monk’s clothing”.
Tim Johnson, a former Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, writes in Tragedy in Crimson – a book published in February that explores Beijing’s squeeze on the Dalai Lama – that the Communist Party is now engaged in a “multi-pronged and often-subterranean battle to ensure that China’s dominion over Tibet becomes an immovable fact of life”.
This has manifested itself in massive pressure campaigns against governments that host Tibetan refugees. And this is where advocates like Pathak, a well-connected Nepali bureaucrat, may be better positioned to help Tibetans arrested, detained or deported than anyone else.
Last March I joined Pathak and two of his Tibetan colleagues – Sambhu Lama and Tenzin Lama – as they investigated reports of Tibetan refugees being picked up by police. In the three weeks I spent with him, 90 were arrested. One of them was Gyatso, the Dalai Lama’s representative to Nepal and a high-ranking official in his exile government (Tibetan refugees vote for leaders and maintain a parliament, though no foreign government recognises its authority).
On March 7, Gyatso was taken from his small office off a leafy Kathmandu boulevard by six armed police officers, put in a van and driven away for questioning. Though he was never charged with a crime, he spent hours being interrogated on Tibetans’ plans to demonstrate on March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in 1959.
Gyatso told me later what had secured his release: the phone call his staff made to Pathak and his people. But not everybody approves of Pathak’s solidarity with Tibetans. Surya Dhungel, a former constitutional adviser to Nepal’s president, says that bringing too much attention to Tibetans’ plight risked angering China to a point that could be detrimental to a nation of 30 million. Relations between Kathmandu and Beijing, never great, have warmed in recent years, and Chinese funds are flowing into Nepal.
“We are in a transition; our own system is not working well,” Dhungel told me. “We should be careful. The time [is not right] for us to support and allow our soil to be used by others to play openly.” During the time I spent with Pathak and Huron, I spoke with dozens of Tibetan herders and farmers, businessmen and youth activists who would argue differently.
All had personal stories of triumph and tragedy, families broken, lives upended. And nearly every one kept Pathak’s number handy. Huron’s phone rang again on March 8. A Nepali journalist had heard that two Tibetan pilgrims had allegedly been arrested at Namo Buddha temple, on the eastern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. Our first stop is a dank and musty police station in the Banepa district of Kathmandu.
“Who is your superior?” Pathak asked one officer. “Do you have Tibetans in custody?” he asked another. “Were any arrested? Where were they taken?” His enquiries are swiftly dealt with.
“The officer said he didn’t arrest any Tibetans or Buddhists yesterday. But he said he heard that two Tibetans were arrested in Namo Buddha,” Pathak told me moments after we leave the scene. From Banepa we headed for the district police station in Dhulikhel. Upon arrival, we were ushered into a courtyard where we were served freshly brewed tea before sitting down with the district’s top police official for a 30-minute meeting. Had Tibetan pilgrims indeed been arrested, wondered Pathak. Was this a wild-goose chase?
A week previously, Pathak had negotiated the release of 17 Tibetan who’d crossed the border from a small village on the Tibetan side. His influence had also secured the release of the Dalai Lama’s top official in Nepal. But on this occasion, he was unable to substantiate the report of the Tibetans being detained.
“I don’t think he’s lying,” Pathak said after the meeting had concluded. But he couldn’t be sure. He said he saw two possible scenarios for the dead end. Either the pilgrims had been detained and quietly released, or the deputy superintendent of police was telling the truth and they had never existed in the first place.
Pathak’s Tibetan colleagues were less convinced. “The police say two people are there, so we go there and the chief says ‘No’. Who can we trust now?” asked Tenzin. No one, interjected Sambhu.
With that, Pathak pondered the possibility that he’d been lied to after all. “Personal connections are very powerful,” he’d told me days earlier. “A lot of the police officers, chief district officers, they are my friends.” He thumbed through his mobile phone for another contact, another “friend” who might help him find the answer.