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Remembering the Nangpa La Shootings

Remembering the Nangpa La Shootings

by Francesca Eldridge,
Photos by Sergiu Matei, International Campaign for Tibet

Click to enlarge

Chinese border soldiers move into Advanced Base Camp on Cho Oyu, after shooting dead a 17-year-old Tibetan refugee nun in full view of Western witnesses.
Photo: Sergiu Matei

In September 2006, a group of Tibetan refugees were fired upon by Chinese border soldiers as they attempted to cross the Nangpa La, an alpine pass on the Tibet–Nepal border. One refugee was killed and another wounded. Every year, thousands of Tibetans flee the oppression they endure in Tibet, travelling on foot through the Himalaya during the colder months when there are normally fewer soldiers patrolling the border. The Nangpa La is an old trade route between Tibet and Nepal and it is also used as an escape route by refugees.

What makes the 2006 Nangpa La shootings unique is that they were witnessed by up to 100 Westerners at Advanced Base Camp on nearby Cho Oyu, and filmed by one climber. Although many people witnessed the shootings, the vast majority were not willing to speak up about what they had seen. Because of the actions of a few witnesses, the shootings came to the attention of governments and media worlwide, yet were barely reported by the NZ media. For the first time in New Zealand, Mountainz tells the story of the 2006 Nangpa La shootings, the aftermath, and the New Zealand connections to this event.

On the morning of September 30, 2006, around 75 Tibetan refugees trod through deep snow toward Nangpa La, a Himalayan pass at 5,716m that is within view of the area used for Advanced Base Camp (ABC) on Cho Oyu. Exhausted from their two-week journey through the mountains in inadequate clothing and with scant food and water, the refugees were around 20 minutes from Nepal. Their goal was to reach India, meet their spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama and make a new life as Tibetans-in-exile in Dharamsala.

Cho Oyu (8201m) is one of the easier 8000m peaks and hence is popular with guiding companies. It is often used as a high-altitude test for clients hoping to eventually summit Everest. That September morning, approximately 100 international climbers – mostly guides, their staff and clients – were at ABC on Cho Oyu, breakfasting and preparing to head up the mountain. Casting their eyes toward the line of refugees snaking slowly up the pass, some noticed children among the group.

Gunshots rang out and climbers froze in their tracks or emerged from dining tents. Chinese border soldiers from the People's Armed Police (PAP) had appeared in camp and along moraine ridges nearby. Armed with rifles, they fired on the Tibetans in full view of the climbers at ABC. According to eyewitness reports, the shooting went on for at least 15–20 minutes. As the refugees struggled onwards in the thin air and deep snow, several of them fell down. All but one eventually got up again.

The person who remained on the ground was Kelsang Namtso. She was a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, on her way to Dharamsala to further her Tibetan religious education – something she could not do in her homeland under Chinese rule – and meet the Dalai Lama. It is believed Kelsang Namtso died from a gunshot wound to the back or side. Her body was never returned to her family.

The majority of the refugees managed to escape over the pass but some were captured and brought into ABC by the soldiers. Around a dozen of those captured were children and they were later released to their families after a period in custody, upon their parents paying a fine. The International Campaign for Tibet, a 20-year-old organisation that reports on China's rule in Tibet, intervenes on behalf of political prisoners and supports Tibetans in exile, later reported that all the refugees over 16 years of age were beaten and tortured with batons and electric-shock prods while in detention.

A young Tibetan man, Kelsang Namgyal, had been shot in the leg as he moved up the pass and he too was brought into ABC by the PAP soldiers. There were rumours that he died soon after, giving a body count of two. However, Namgyal survived and today the International Campaign for Tibet is fairly certain that Kelsang Namtso was the only refugee murdered at Nangpa La.

During the shooting, climber Sergiu Matei – a TV cameraman in his native Romania – had grabbed his camera and filmed what was happening to the point where Kelsang Namtso fell and did not get up.

'I didn't want to film her dying,' he would later tell The International Campaign for Tibet.

At right, Matei's footage of the shootings can be seen in a television report on the Nangpa La shootings that featured on Romania's ProTV in October 2006.

The late Slovenian climber, Pavle Kozjek, managed to photograph the soldiers marching the child refugees into ABC. Later, from a distance, Kozjek took photos of Kelsang Namtso's body where it lay in the snow. He was the first person to provide images of Kelsang Namtso's body to the media.

Kelsang Namtso's body remained on the glacier overnight. The following day, a group of around 12 officials gathered around her body, taking notes and photographs before wrapping her body in what looked like a blanket and dumping it in a crevasse. Their actions were observed and photographed through a telescope by a British climber and expedition manager, who would later anonymously share his photographs with the International Campaign for Tibet. Danish doctor and guided climber Pierre Maina also witnessed Kelsang Namtso's body being dropped into the crevasse from a distance, along with Sergiu Matei.

The reaction in ABC

American Luis Benitez was working as head guide on Cho Oyu that season for New Zealand's biggest guiding company, the Wanaka-based Adventure Consultants (AC). Benitez was 34 at the time and had previously summited Everest six times, his first time at the age of 28 with blind client Erik Weihenmeyer. Working alongside Benitez was British-born New Zealand guide Paul Rogers. The two guides had five clients and several Sherpa with them.

When the shooting occurred, Benitez was at ABC and Rogers was ahead of the group, acclimatising at Camp 1. Benitez first noticed the line of people approaching the pass around 8am, as he was leaving the dining tent.

Click to enlarge

A Google image prepared by the International Campaign for Tibet, showing the approximate location of ABC on Cho Oyu and where the refugees were when the PAP border soldiers opened fire.

At the sound of gunshots, Benitez froze and looked toward the pass. Three clients and one Tibetan porter joined him, and together they watched the refugees try to flee from the gunfire and over the pass.

'My clients acknowledged what was going on, but it was so far away from all our scope of understanding that I think none of us really quite comprehended what was happening at the time,' Benitez later said in an interview with The Tibet Connection, an online radio programme dedicated to Tibetan issues.

By the time the PAP soldiers marched the captured refugees into ABC, Benitez and his clients were leaving camp as he felt the safest thing to do was get out of there and start moving "up the hill". Other climbers did the same – it was business as usual. Benitez assumed international media would hear about the shooting within the day, if not within the hour.

Climbers in ABC later told Benitez that after the shootings, New Zealand guide Russell Brice – the Chamonix-based owner/operator of Himalayan Experience (Himex) – was seen treating soldiers who had no sunglasses for snow blindness.

Matei, the Romanian cameraman, was now in possession of highly important footage. For the first time since China’s takeover of Tibet, visual evidence of the shooting of Tibetans by Chinese troops at the border had been recorded.

After the shootings, a Tibetan kitchen boy approached Matei and told him someone was hiding in the toilet.

Matei gave the following account to the International Campaign for Tibet:

'I took my camera to witness that moment. I don’t want to know what went through the Tibetan's mind when he heard my steps and couldn’t see anybody. I realised what he was thinking when I saw his eyes. I think he was thinking "I’m done, it’s over".

'He didn’t understand English, I talked to him in Romanian, tried to make the tone of my voice warm and nice so he would understand I didn’t mean any harm. I told him, "Stay there and I’ll be back with some food". I took some pancakes and some cheese, some leftovers from lunch, and I gave all that to him. I asked him if he was going to see the Dalai Lama and he just put his hands together as if in prayer, so I knew we understood each other.

'I went away from the tent and I tried to convince the base camp manager and the other guys he needs a hot cup of tea and some warm clothes because he’d turned blue. The base camp manager and his staff were very, very scared and they said that we can’t do this, if they catch us they will shoot us. I told him there’s no point in being scared because if they come here I’ll just tell them that I hired him. They said no, no, for a few hours. Then they just gave in. The base camp manager didn’t give permission [for me to help the Tibetan] but I just did it. I took him out of the toilet and into the kitchen tent; we walked right past some soldiers. I put a hat on his head and put my arm around him and tried to make it look natural, as though I was discussing something with him.

Click to enlarge

The Tibetan refugee rescued by Sergiu Matei. Photo: Sergiu Matei

'I gave him as much food as I could. The base camp manager and some kitchen boys just told me to be very careful because they heard the Chinese knew that at least two Tibetans [from the group] were missing and were trying to find them. I gave him some warm clothes ... he sort of indicated that he was already feeling better by making shaking actions, and then not shaking.

'At around 2:30am it was dark, and there were no soldiers or climbers around. We just stood and looked at each other. Then his eyes looked down and he went into himself I suppose. Probably he was thinking and saying that he really must go now, it’s pretty dark, I’ll make it. When you see your friends getting shot across the glacier ... you think you will have the same fate. I gave him a pat on his back and showed him the shortest way across the glacier and said "God will be with you".'

The refugee was a 27-year-old farmer. He arrived safely in Nepal the following day and, having been unable to finish his education in Tibet, went on to study at a Tibetan exile school in India. His family later joined him in exile.

He would later tell the International Campaign for Tibet, 'I would like to thank the climber who saved my life at Nangpa La. I have in fact no words to express my gratitude to [the] one who had helped me hide in a safe place where the army didn’t see me or catch me.'

'There is a story that is not being told.'

Three days after the shootings, Benitez returned to ABC at the end of the expedition. He was disturbed by rumours among Tibetan staff that another seven refugees had been shot further up the pass, their bodies dumped in crevasses. Benitez was then shocked to learn that no mention of the incident had appeared anywhere in the global media.

Benitez decided to send an email containing a short report on what he had witnessed to Explorer's Web (Exweb), an adventure website that publishes mountain, polar and ocean expedition reports. Benitez also sent the email to a friend of his at National Geographic. In the email, Benitez asked to remain anonymous and for the AC name to be kept out of the story as they were still in Tibet.

'I did this so there was no danger to me, my clients, or the AC permit,' Benitez explained. Exweb heeded his request and published the story, identifying Benitez only as "a reliable source". The following is a copy of Benitez' email to Exweb and his friend at National Geographic, which Exweb provided and Benitez gave Mountainz permission to publish.

John and Tom,

Sorry for the brief email, but I have just returned to Basecamp here on Cho Oyu in Tibet, back down with client who could not make the summit. There is a story that happened here on the 30th and the 1st that is not being told. It is tragic, it is haunting, and it is apparently all too real for Tibetans.

On the am of the 30th, I walked out of our dining tent to gaze over towards the Nangpa La (this is the pass between Tibet and Nepal, commonly used for trading, also used by people trying to escape China). As I looked across the broad expanse of the pass, we saw a line of Tibetans heading towards the start of the pass – a common sight, as the trade routes are open this time of year.

Then, without warning, shots rang out. Over and over and over. Then the line of people started to run. Uphill. At 19,000ft. Apparently the Chinese army was tipped off about their attempted escape and had showed up with guns. Watching the line snake off thru the snow, as the shots rang out, we saw two shapes fall. The binoculars confirmed it, 2 people were down and they weren't getting up.

Then more Chinese army swarmed thru Basecamp. I figured the safest place for my person at this point was up the hill so in the midst of this, I made the choice to move my people up for our summit push.

The story just gets worse. From Tibetans I know here in camp, apparently 7 – yes, 7 – people were shot then shoved into a crevasse, just below where a huge international presence, namely Basecamp, sat and listened.

Tom, please don't use my name 'till I get out of Tibet if you relay this story on Exweb. John, this story needs to be told big format. Apparently it happens all the time. I want to do a story where we try to get across the pass, do a little background on this incident and tell the world about this little corner of the planet, where people are dying attempting to reach for a better life.

Benitez and Exweb broke the news of the shootings to the world. The rumour about seven Tibetans being shot further up the pass was never confirmed, and Exweb soon updated their story and changed the body count to two. At that stage, it had not been confirmed that Kelsang Namgyal, the young Tibetan man who was shot in the leg, had survived.

Kate Saunders, Director of Communications for the International Campaign for Tibet, commented, 'China takes great efforts to block information flow from Tibet and in a closed society, rumours and misunderstandings are rife because the truth is generally not reported and there is a climate of fear. It is routine for conflicting information to emerge and for confusion about the real situation to arise.'

Over the next few weeks, the story of the Nangpa La shootings spread around the world. It made primetime TV and headline news in Europe, the US and Asia. However, it received only a brief mention in the New Zealand print media. The day the Chinese publicly denied the killing, Matei's footage, edited down to a few minutes to show the shootings, was broadcast in Europe. Matei's footage showed that the Tibetans had come under fire while they had their backs to the soldiers and that they were unarmed and offered no resistance. Even so, China maintains to this day that the shootings of the "stowaways" were done in self-defence after the Tibetans "attacked the soldiers". The Chinese reports did refer to a death but incorrectly stated that "one injured person died later in hospital due to oxygen shortage". (People's Daily and Xinhua, October 12 and 13, 2006.)

Both the US and the European Union (EU) delivered a demarche – an official diplomatic complaint – to China. While Finland held the presidency, the EU also raised the shootings during a human rights dialogue with China in Beijing on October 19, 2006. The EU expressed frustration at China's lack of response during the dialogue. The Canadian government condemned the shootings and asked China to make a full investigation into the shootings, punish those responsible, and immediately release any Tibetan children still being detained.

Members of the Australian, Dutch, French, Norwegian and British parliaments also expressed their concern over the Nangpa La shootings.

Click to enlarge

Looking north to Tibet, this photo was taken from the Nangpa La a few weeks after the shootings and shows the area where Kelsang Namtso was killed. A Western researcher and buddhist took the photo after travelling from Kathmandu to the Nangpa La. 'It was more of a personal tribute and homage to those Tibetans who risked and still risk their lives in their attempt to cross the border to escape Chinese oppression .... I can scarcely imagine how ill-equipped children, wearing just sneakers and thin jackets, make this journey. The area is permanently covered in thick ice and there were visible crevasses.' Photo: International Campaign for Tibet

Response from climbers and the New Zealand guiding community

The majority of climbers who were at ABC on Cho Oyu that morning were not willing to speak out about what had happened, at least not on record. The International Campaign for Tibet noted that of those who did speak up about the shootings, most were from countries that have experienced Communist rule in the past.

Kate Saunders travelled to Kathmandu as soon as she heard about the Nangpa La shootings. She recalled, 'I found a listing of all [guiding] companies with expeditions on Cho Oyu at that time, then one-by-one we called as many of the companies as possible. Often they wouldn’t give precise details of guides who were up there. I also reached out to mountaineering contacts in Kathmandu and elsewhere; David Breashears and Conrad Anker are on the ICT's board so I asked for top climbers' help too, but still we didn’t get to speak to everyone and some companies were quite unhelpful. It was only when climbers themselves started coming out of Tibet that I started to speak to them direct, in Kathmandu.'

There were four New Zealanders on Cho Oyu that season: AC guide Paul Rogers, who says he did not witness the shootings because he was acclimatising at Camp 1; Russell Brice, Himex' director and expedition manager who was at ABC when the shootings occurred; and international competitive freeskier Todd Windle and guide Lydia Bradey, who were with Brice's expedition.

Mountainz approached all four for comment. Todd Windle did not respond to an email request for an interview. Lydia Bradey responded in writing and said she had seen "the body of the girl and the (few) Chinese, and so on" but did not comment on the shootings. Russell Brice responded, saying he did not want to comment on the shootings. He wrote:

'I am sorry I do not want to comment on the Nangpa La shooting incident. As a person who has been shot at by the Chinese Army I know very well what it feels like. I have a lot of respect for Tibetan people and I continue to help them but in my own quiet way. I do not want to jeopardize this by making public comments on an emotive topic that I cannot solve.'

Brice added that in 2007, his company Himalayan Experience donated $25,000 worth of solar panels and lighting equipment to a monastery and school in Tibet, and in 2008 donated 300 shop second sleeping bags to elderly and unwell Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu.

In an excerpt from Nick Heil's Everest book, Dark Summit, published inOutside magazine in May 2008, Brice acknowledged that he had treated the PAP soldiers for snow blindness, saying "They were human beings who were suffering". Brice also said he did not realise anyone had been killed at Nangpa La until he saw Kelsang Namtso's body on the glacier later in the day.

Paul Rogers was the only New Zealander on Cho Oyu that season willing to discuss the Nangpa La shootings. He also took part in the 2008 TV documentary, Murder in the Snow. In the documentary, he commented on the email Benitez sent to Exweb and expressed frustration that Benitez had passed on the rumour about seven more refugees being shot.

Some guides have criticised Benitez as being irresponsible for emailing the media while still in Tibet, saying this put the safety of AC clients and staff in jeopardy and that Benitez should have waited until he was out of Tibet before contacting the media.

Yet in his email to Exweb and National Geographic, Benitez explicitly asked for his name and the AC name to be kept out of any reports. Exweb honoured this request and National Geographic published only a short opinion piece on the shootings months later.

Click here to see Exweb's original report on the shootings, which was published on Exweb on October 2, 2006, Central Daylight Time (Exweb is based in the United States).

Mountainz asked Rogers what worst-case scenario might have occurred had the Chinese discovered that an AC guide had emailed news of the shootings to the media. Rogers responded in writing:

'Guy [Cotter] had been arrested in '98 while in Lhasa, during rioting in the City. He sent a fax from the hotel and the secret police intercepted the message. This is the last time Guy has worked in Tibet. Guy specifically asked me to not do anything in-country to draw attention to our expedition.

'If all Luis had done was to email Explorers Web stating what everyone had actually witnessed there would be no problem. But at the time, Luis started reporting a completely different incident with a larger body count "massacre" which he hadn't witnessed and may not have happened.'

Mountainz pointed out to Rogers that the seven-further-Tibetans-shot-further-up-the-pass rumour never seems to have appeared in mainstream media written reports and that Benitez had never reported the rumour as fact. We also pointed out that Exweb retracted the rumour and updated the body count to two. We asked Rogers why, three years on, he still felt it was an issue that Benitez had passed on the rumour. Rogers replied, 'There were unsubstantiated claims of other deaths that Luis did not witness. Best you don't comment on these to the media unless you want to exaggerate the situation, bring fame or glory.

'There's a difference between professional responsibilities and our own moral sensibilities and priorities. My loyalty was to the organisation and my clients, Sherpa and local Tibetan staff. This is my first time in Tibet and to be accused of being part of a cover-up is not fair.'

From July to September 2008, as well as contacting the four New Zealanders who were on Cho Oyu when the shootings occurred, Mountainz emailed a further 29 New Zealand mountain guides, including AC owner and director Guy Cotter. Of this group of 29, some had guided in the Himalaya but the majority had not. In this email, we asked guides who had not been on Cho Oyu in 2006 if they were aware of the shootings, and how they felt about reporting human rights abuses they might witness if guiding abroad.

Of the 29 guides, nine responded. Of these nine, only one said that human rights abuses must always be reported. That guide was the late Gottlieb Braun-Elwert. His family have given Mountainz permission to quote him from his response.

I was unaware of the shootings at Cho Oyu base camp. One hears snippets here and there and journalists are being bundled off. Only if these atrocities are fully reported will there be any hope for the locals.

Human rights abuses need to be reported wherever they happen. Germany fell through the cracks when the Nazis took power and everybody was too concerned not to stick out, to avoid being picked up themselves. This may explain why today we see many Germans speak out. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, met the Dalai Lama in spite of the pressure being put on by the Chinese.

Only if everybody takes a courageous stance will there be hope to see atrocities being exposed. Climbers and guides should certainly report human rights abuses. Looking in the other direction only makes things worse in the long run.

Better to have a steady presence and some watchful eyes in Tibet. During the Communist time in East Europe, all Western travellers were keenly met by the locals. It was a constant source of encouragement and information that flowed to and fro. A lot of the democracy work was done underground. Sometimes it is best to do things on the quiet. Well, it is a kind of war. One fights it in the head first and only when the conditions are right other means are being used. It is important not to lose the objective. Yes, a steady flow of reporting of human rights abuses is vitally important.

Following are comments made by several New Zealand guides regarding the Nangpa La shootings.

'I haven't heard about this either through rumour or in the press, but then I don't have much contact with the main guiding company guides.'

'From what I heard, I believe the Tibetans knew the risk they were taking and had been warned not to cross the border. Warning shots [were] fired and ignored.'

'If I report [human rights abuses] publically then can I go back to Tibet? But publically isn’t the only way of reporting.'

'[Everest and Cho Oyu] are both good and safe mountains to climb and guide successfully; however this is being done by Westerners in another country, so you’re always going to have to play by [China's] rules.'

'[Your email] is the first I have heard of this incident.'

'Luis loves media attention, it’s all about him.'

'What you or I say in public will not make one bit of difference.'

Via email correspondence, AC director Guy Cotter made the following comments on the Nangpa La shootings.

'The issue as I see it is that Luis' approach to this has distorted the viewpoint to a weird position where the bystanders have become the villains and the perpetrators seem to be getting away with it! That Luis is taking this angle makes it all about him, the guy who spoke up. In my view, a guide has a (primary) responsibility to keep his clients safe and one has to question whether Luis' approach to this situation didn’t negate that responsibility. There was every reason to alert the media and the world to this atrocity – yet a few days (when they would have been out of the country) would not have made any difference to the outcome.

'I agree there are responsibilities we have as expedition leaders in foreign countries and when faced with situations like this. We also have to understand that our naive Western views on freedom of expression and basic rights are in contrast to the reality of living in the third world and that makes it more difficult for Western people to judge in a rational manner about events such as these.

'I personally am always horrified by the thought of people killing each other and the Nangpa La situation is no different. I think this style of killing probably goes on a lot around the world and it is very telling that the soldiers who did this were not cognizant of the impact this act would have when witnessed by Westerners, as they have effectively been immune from criticism in their own country for their acts of violence against their own people. However, to put it into some sort of perspective, I believe that many nationalities would be prepared to shoot if they discovered people crossing their borders illegally – not that I am implying these people were crossing illegally because I really have no idea about that. If I lived in Tibet, I’d be wanting to get out too.'

Guy Cotter did not answer questions regarding whether or not his company had ever reported the Nangpa La shootings to any authority, including the New Zealand Government or any human rights organisation; and whether or not he allows and encourages his guides and clients to speak out about any human rights abuses they might witness. He also did not respond when asked whether or not there was pressure on his company from Chinese authorities not to comment on the shootings or why he felt it was safe to take clients to Cho Oyu in 2007 and 2009.

In response to Guy Cotter's remarks, Benitez commented, 'I indeed want to make this about the Tibetans and their issues, not about me. That has always been my goal.

'I think a few days would have made a difference to the outcome. Who waits to tell a story such as this? We were in no danger, and again, the email I sent was anonymous.'

As of 2008, Luis Benitez was no longer working for AC. On July 17 this year, he gave evidence in the Spanish High Court as part of an investigation into the Nangpa La shootings. Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, Spanish courts are allowed to reach beyond national borders in cases of torture, terrorism, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Click for big version

The frostbitten feet of a Tibetan child refugee who crossed over the Nangpa La in 2005 to reach the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Photo: International Campaign for Tibet

Response from the New Zealand Government

Demarches from the US and the EU, condemnation from Canada and concern from the Australian, British, French, Dutch and Norwegian parliaments – so how did the New Zealand Government react to the Nangpa La shootings?

It took a few weeks for the news of the shootings to spread around the globe. Meanwhile, on October 3, 2006 – the day Benitez emailed Exweb about the Nangpa La shootings – New Zealand's then Minister of Trade, Phil Goff, was continuing trade dialogue with the Chinese Commerce Minister, Bo Xilai, at the second Joint Ministerial Commission.

On October 9, the New Zealand Government began its ninth round of negotiations with China to secure a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The NZ–China FTA was eventually signed in Beijing on April 7, 2008, and came into force on October 1, 2008. It took fifteen rounds of negotiations over three years to secure the FTA.

2006 was an important year for NZ–China relations. As well as continuing to negotiate the FTA, the Government had welcomed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on April 6. In her welcoming speech, former Prime Minister Helen Clark noted that trade between China and New Zealand was worth $5.5B a year and that the number of Chinese tourists coming to New Zealand was growing.

Toward the end of her speech, Ms Clark said, 'Over the years, China and New Zealand have built a strong relationship based on building on our common interests and discussing differences openly and freely.'

On June 1, 2006, a delegation from China's Yunnan province visited New Zealand to sign an agreement with Fresh NZ, forming the Yunnan Fresh Fruit and Flower Company Limited. Fresh NZ is one of New Zealand's largest pip fruit exporters and owns 50% of 'Yunnan Fresh'. The company was formed to develop and market the Yunnan-grown red pear, with Fresh NZ gaining the exclusive contract to market the pear internationally.

Michael Cullen, who was Finance Minister at the time, addressed the delegation and stated that China is our fourth largest export market and also our largest source of imports.

On August 9, 2006, then Tourism Minister Damian O'Connor welcomed China's Tourism head Chairman Shao. In his speech, O'Connor stated that visitors from China had generated $403.9 million for New Zealand in the previous financial year.

O'Connor added that Air New Zealand’s non-stop flights from Shanghai to New Zealand would commence in November 2006 and that Tourism New Zealand intended to develop a Chinese version of the website, which would advertise the '100% Pure New Zealand' experiences.

On November 14, then Trade Minister Phil Goff launched a television documentary series in Beijing, New Zealand Journeys, which would showcase New Zealand to an estimated 300 million Chinese viewers.

Goff stated, 'With tourism from China to New Zealand for the first time breaking the 100,000 mark, the TV documentaries will assist greatly in giving New Zealand a significantly higher profile.'

In the midst of all this tourism promotion and trade dialogue, the Nangpa La shootings barely made the New Zealand news. Mountainz did not find any mention of the shootings in the Beehive's online speeches and documents archives after several searches, and could not recall any Government action or public comment on the shootings. Mountainz approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) communications' team and put the following questions to them. Mountainz was asked to attribute the responses to an MFAT spokesperson.

Was the MFAT aware of the Nangpa La shootings? If so, what action did it take?

'New Zealand was aware of this incident and raised it with the Chinese government on two occasions, once in October 2006 and once in November 2006. The matter was also raised with the Chinese Ambassador in Wellington at the same time. New Zealand expressed its deep concern at the incident and urged Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of this incident and to ensure that others in the group were free to return to their families.

'The Chinese said the border guards had acted in self defence when attacked by the group, whose crossing had been organised by "criminal snake head gangs". They asserted that it was not a human rights issue. New Zealand said they saw it as a human rights matter and asked that it be thoroughly investigated. The Chinese said as it was a border administration issue and should therefore not be of interest to Western countries.

'A number of other governments made separate representations to the Chinese government on this matter as well. All received similar responses.

'The New Zealand Government received a considerable amount of correspondence from concerned New Zealanders on this issue around this time.'

Does the MFAT communicate directly with the Government about incidents such as this?

'MFAT serves the Government as its lead adviser and negotiator on foreign and trade policy, and diplomatic and consular issues. It provides advice directly to the Government on a wide range of issues, including human rights.'

Does the MFAT have any official procedure it follows when alerted to human rights abuses abroad?

'The New Zealand Government has made a number of statements since 2000 on the issue of human rights and Tibet. These statements have either been specifically focused on human rights in Tibet, or have been made as part of wider comments on the New Zealand-China relationship. There have been at least five statements made by the New Zealand Government on this issue this year (2008). To see these statements go to and enter Tibet into the search field. (Please note, none of the five statements are about the Nangpa La shootings and a search of the Beehive's online archives did not turn up a single written or spoken statement on the Nangpa La shootings. The five statements MFAT referred to are speeches either made in Parliament or to the 2008 Amnesty International AGM and it is difficult to know how strongly such statements are followed-up when NZ politicians meet with Chinese leaders in person. -Ed.)

'New Zealand has a strong record on protecting and promoting human rights. This is done via our bilateral relationships through exchanging views about human rights and providing practical assistance. New Zealand is a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, other key human rights treaties and is currently working to gain a seat on the Human Rights Council.'

Mountainz then asked MFAT the following further questions by email.

1. Did the NZ Government ever directly confront the Chinese government about the inaccuracies of their previous statements, which claimed that the refugees were being trafficked and that they attacked the border soldiers, who then 'fired in self-defence'?

2. You said that the NZ Government urged the Chinese government to allow all the captured Tibetan refugees to return to their families. Did the NZ Government ever try to find out if the captured refugees had been released from the detention centre, where some were tortured, and returned to their families? And did the NZ Government ever follow it up with the Chinese government?

3. How can the NZ public find out exactly what requests the NZ Government has made to China on human rights abuses in Tibet, both inside and outside the FTA?

4. China claimed that their border security should not be of interest to Western countries. Has the NZ Government ever pointed out to China that, under international law, the Nangpa La shootings were illegal?

MFAT sent a two sentence reply, saying "go to to see answers raised on Tibet in the House".

So Mountainz tried asking question 3 again, stating that we were seeking specific details and not general replies that had been given to Members' questions in Parliament.

We received the following final response from MFAT.

'To reiterate the previous answer, New Zealand did take this event seriously, raised its concerns with China three times (twice in Beijing and once to the Chinese Ambassador in New Zealand) and asked the Chinese authorities to investigate the incident. The concerns it raised are in line with New Zealand's strong commitment to advancing and advocating for human rights.

'New Zealand was one of a number of countries to raise this issue with the Chinese authorities and the response it got to its concerns was similar to that received by those other countries. China asserted that it was not a human rights issue and that as it was a border administration question, it should not be of interest to Western countries.

'New Zealand maintained it was a human rights issue and raised a number of concerns with the version of events given to it (and other countries), in particular that Chinese media accounts of security personnel opening fire in self-defence did not match with multiple eye-witness accounts of the incident.

'The New Zealand Government made a specific statement in response to violence and riots in Tibet in March 2008.

'New Zealand citizens can ask about New Zealand's response to other human rights concerns, such as you have done in this case, and the Ministry will reply to them in accordance to its responsibilities under the Official Information Act. Beyond that, individuals are free to make their own choice as to where they might direct further questions.'

Mountainz then contacted two politicians who are known for supporting Tibet. Green Party Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Spokesperson Keith Locke, who has been the only New Zealand politician to regularly raise the issue of Tibet in Parliament in the last few years, responded to our questions as follows.

'We were aware of the killings. They were shocking. I don't recall us doing anything formal on it such as issuing a press statement. However, it was one of the incidents of mistreatment I referred to in promoting the Tibetan cause around that time. Tibetan rights are something I raise in a number of political contexts, such as in meetings and in interviews. I try to illustrate my argument with current examples of arrests, killings, etc.

'I appreciate your questioning. The reality is that with 6 MPs and 15 portfolios each, [the Green Party] cannot do full justice to any one important issue, and we never will until we get more MPs. We do our best.

'Unfortunately, Labour and National's commitment to the FTA does make them more cautious about any Chinese or Tibetan human rights questions. Those parties are fearful that New Zealand will lose out if the Government is too inquiring or vocal on such matters. The Greens operate in a more principled way. Although we are not in the Government, our criticism helps embarrass the Government to take, hopefully, a somewhat stronger human rights stand. The FTA has been a political background factor that would have applied at the time of the Nangpa La shootings. However, it is useful to report incidents like the Nangpa La shootings because some people in New Zealand and around the world will be influenced to take up the issues, putting pressure on governments such as New Zealand's. The circulation of photos, videos and reports on the internet also enables more citizens to put pressure on their governments to take a stronger stand.'

United Future leader Peter Dunne takes an ongoing interest in Tibet. He formally met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2007 when former Prime Minister Helen Clark would not. Mr Dunne responded to Mountainz as follows.

'We were not specifically aware of the Nangpa La shootings at the time so did not take any action. Had we been aware of the shootings we would have certainly been very vocal in our criticism and condemnation of the incident, and would have been calling on the New Zealand Government to make strong protests to the Chinese authorities about what had happened.

'United Future was extremely critical earlier this year (2008) of the New Zealand Government's lack of response to China's intimidation of Tibet (the Lhasa riots). Indeed, I pulled out of the New Zealand delegation to Beijing to sign the Free Trade Agreement because of it. I have no doubt United Future would be as vocal again in any situation where human rights are threatened in Tibet.'

Mountainz asked Mr Dunne if there is any benefit in encouraging ordinary people to report human rights abuses they may witness in Tibet if the New Zealand Government does not then follow up such reports directly with Beijing. He replied, 'Absolutely yes. While the New Zealand Government is tardy on these matters, I think the main way to change their approach is for people to keep speaking out and drawing abuses to their attention. The New Zealand Government will eventually be forced to act if it realises it is defying a substantial body of domestic opinion by continuing to "softly, softly" these issues with China.

'What are the most effective ways for ordinary New Zealanders to voice their concerns on Tibet? I would suggest three steps: letters to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs; letters to and meetings with local MPs; and public awareness meetings.'

Mountainz interviewed politicians during the build-up to the 2008 New Zealand elections. On the advice of an experienced political journalist, Mountainz did not contact then Prime Minister Helen Clark about the Nangpa La shootings because we were told Ms Clark "would not touch the issue". Mountainz attempted to make contact with Ms Clark via her UN office in New York this year. The Director of Communications for the UN Development Programme, Stéphane Dujarric, responded as follows.

'Many thanks for your interest in interviewing Miss Clark. Unfortunately, she will not be available as she has now assumed her functions as the head of UNDP.'

Mountainz also contacted Phil Goff this year, as he was Trade Minister at the time of the Nangpa La shootings and is the current leader of the Labour party, which was in Government at the time of the Nangpa La shootings. He responded promptly, thanking us for our letter and saying he recalled the Nangpa La incident "from the media coverage of it at the time".

He went on to say that he had not been privy to Foreign Affairs briefings on the issue and therefore did not know the specific answers to the questions Mountainz had raised. He said he "deplored the shooting of people without cause in the incident" and suggested Mountainz direct any questions to the MFAT.

Mountainz also contacted Winston Peters, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs when the Nangpa La shootings occurred. Among other questions, we asked Mr Peters if it was he who had raised the shootings with China and what he had specifically communicated to the Chinese government at the time. Mountainz also asked why there is no public record of the NZ Government’s response to the Nangpa La shootings in the MFAT and Beehive archives, and if the NZ Government’s decision not to condemn the shootings publicly was rooted in maintaining the ongoing NZ–China FTA negotiations. Mr Peters never replied.


With a few exceptions, there was a disturbing lack of outrage from those who were on Cho Oyu that season and from a New Zealand Government so determined to secure a Free Trade Agreement with China.

While it is understandable many climbers and guides would have felt it dangerous to contact media, their governments or human rights organisations while still in Tibet, why didn't more people speak up once they had returned home? Guides and climbers may argue that to speak up would mean losing access to Tibet and possibly Nepal, given China's influence there. It is a fair argument that a loss of access to the Himalaya would be disastrous for local porters and expedition staff who depend on the income they receive from international guiding companies. Another argument is that it is better to maintain a foreign presence in Tibet to keep an eye on things and that the privilege of access therefore cannot be risked. A further argument is that many guiding companies generously donate to charities in Tibet and Nepal or fund the building and staffing of local schools and health clinics, and hence are already doing their best to help.

Yet these arguments beg the questions: Why didn't more guides and climbers speak up anonymously about the Nangpa La shootings? The news of the Nangpa La shootings had already gained a global audience – so why not support the story? What point is there in having eyes on the ground in Tibet if no one is prepared to report human rights violations? And what glory is there is there in a climber's high summit, and what good does it do to throw money at poverty, if you are not prepared to stand up after a 17-year-old girl is gunned down simply for wanting a better life than the one she had, and say 'This is wrong'?

Those who reach the upper echelons of the guiding industry make an undoubtedly nice living while travelling the globe. Two guides who have worked on Everest told Mountainz that the pay cheque for this job ranges, according to a guide's level of seniority, from US$15,000 to US$35,000. With such attractive salaries and a privileged lifestyle at stake, it could be easy to assume that this is what keeps guides from speaking up. But again – why not speak up anonymously?

Just as many of us take pride in being a mountaineer, many of us are proud to be from New Zealand. We like to think of New Zealand as the small but brave country that has stood up to super powers, such as the French over their nuclear testing in the South Pacific and the US over their nuclear ship visits and invasion of Iraq. Isn’t this something we love about our country – that our silence cannot be bought? This is not true of course, as the incident at Nangpa La and the situation in Tibet has highlighted. We are no better than any other nation in this sense, and worse than many.

It is understandable that politicians feel they have a responsibility to build the economy. Yet what message does it send to the Chinese government when our brief protests about China's treatment of Tibetans are undercut by our desire to see trade access progress? If our leaders are not willing to be a voice for those who are grossly oppressed, for fear that they might ruffle the feathers of the oppressors, what next? New Zealand investment in mining projects in Tibet that benefit only Chinese and China's eastern seaboard cities? Censorship of New Zealand media outlets that report atrocities in Tibet? Our Prime Minister John Key has said he will not meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he comes to visit New Zealand next week, despite promising during his electioneering that he would. New Zealand making 'friends' with China appears to have come with the condition of our passive tolerance of China's treatment of Tibet. Is this who we really want to be, as a nation?

It would be fair to assume that most mountaineers associate their climbing with positive human attributes. We all climb for different reasons but climbers have long talked about how climbing shows a love, and valuing, of life. Others would simply say that they have their priorities right, in removing themselves from the everyday world to partake in something more real and rewarding. In addition, mountaineering is a path to self-discovery and, it can’t be avoided, bravery. Surely we are better people for the time we spend in the mountains.

It would be nice to think all this enlightenment means we climbers are a compassionate group, motivated to look out for our fellow human beings irrespective of personal expense, consequence or fear. And there are many examples where this is true – Sergiu Matei looking after and aiding the Tibetan refugee found cowering in the toilet at ABC, rescues from the highest mountains, Sir Edmund Hillary's establishment and support of the Himalayan Trust in Nepal, and guiding companies that ensure their porters are paid fairly even if it means increasing the price tag on their expeditions. But there are times when we can surely do better. There are always reasons for not looking out for others, in the same way there are always obstacles to completing a climb. Yet merely stating that there is an obstacle to helping others only indicates that there is a lack of will to do so.

There are always those who say that things can’t change, or in this case, that the situation in Tibet can’t change. History shows that is an absurd of statement – nothing in the history of human civilisation has ever stayed the same. Both Tibet and China have stated that they are fighting their battles in the long term. The situation will change one way or the other and it will be at an ever quickening pace, as is the case for all global change. It is often said that one person can’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things – but one person was never meant to. Millions of people are what make a difference, with each person playing their small role.

Mountaineering will take some of us around the world. Despite the opportunities mountaineering may provide to strive for personal achievements, experience new cultures and even make a living, these are insignificant compared with the opportunities to help those who we meet along the way – people like Kelsang Namtso, who risk everything to live a life free from oppression and fear. Whether we are climbers or politicians, if we maintain buttoned lips to achieve summits or secure business opportunities while others suffer for our fear of taking a stand, will we be truly proud of our achievements in the long-term?

Click for big version

Tibetan yak herders cross the border at Nangpa La every year with few difficulties.
An American who lived and worked on the Nepal side of the Nangpa La told the International Campaign for Tibet: 'Sherpa and Tibetan traders from border villages on both sides of the pass are allowed to travel freely for purposes of informal trade, and those who transit the Nangpa La regularly say it is not uncommon for the People's Armed Police to chase refugees well into Nepal.' Photo: International Campaign for Tibet

Would you like to help young Tibetan refugees further their education? Visit read about the Kelsang Namtso Fund and how you can get involved. The fund was set up by the Australian film makers who created the documentary Murder in the Snow, and is supported by the International Campaign for Tibet.

This work is dedicated to Pepe.

This article was cross posted to Scoop from MountainNZ:


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