Monday, June 18, 2007

Forgotten on the other side of Shangri-la

Pamela Philipose

Sixteen years on, the Bhutanese refugees languish in the camps of southern Nepal. India cannot, it should not, continue to ignore their predicament.

As Jigme Singye Wanchuck abdicates Bhutan’s Golden Throne for his son, Namgyel Wangchuk, and asks his people to prepare for parliamentary democracy and elections in 2008, one difficult question remains unanswered. Will democracy in Bhutan be meaningful when one-sixth of its population remain in seven refugee camps in southern Nepal, as they have for 16 years? Officially, they are 106,000 in these camps, but over the years the numbers have swelled. Ethnically, 98 per cent of them are Lhotshampas. Here lies the tragedy of Bhutan and indeed the entire region. Lhotshampas (literally ‘those living in the south’) are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese and largely Hindu, although there are Buddhists among them. They were forced out of Bhutan in 1990-’91 through a succession of citizenship and land laws, possibly because they were perceived as a threat to the “ethnically superior” Ngalops who, although a minority, have ruled the country.

Last week, a fact-finding mission conducted by South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), of which this reporter was a part, spoke to the refugees themselves, their leaders, and a wide group of observers in Kathmandu. Many among them, ranging from refugee leaders to the US ambassador to Nepal, James F. Moriarty, characterise the eviction of these people from Bhutan as “ethnic cleansing”. Tek Nath Rizal, once a Bhutanese bureaucrat and representative to the Royal Advisory Council, who was later imprisoned for 10 years in his country, put it this way: “These people built modern Bhutan. They worked in the fields, constructed roads, contributed to civil society over decades. Now they are termed as ‘non-Bhutanese’. This is one of the biggest exercises in ethnic cleansing in the world and they have got away with it. No country, including India, has bothered to speak out against this crime against humanity.” Others, like Thinley Penjore, chairman of the National Front for Democracy, Bhutan, term it royalty-sponsored sectarian politics and believe that there is a lot of churning taking place within Bhutan today.

Meanwhile the refugees live in the hope that somewhere, somehow, they’ll finally go back to their homeland. Life in the camps set up by the UNHCR is basic. Deprived of their lands and property back home, these people are housed in hutments measuring 14 X 8 ft per family living on their allotted rations. Said 28-year-old Garjamna, who sits in protest outside the UN building in Kathmandu for the last seven months, “I came here as a young boy. Our relatives were killed, women were raped, our houses were torched, and many were imprisoned. After some of us started protesting, the repression grew worse until finally we had no choice but to flee.” He believes the world has forgotten his people. Life in these camps is dismal, “Since cannot earn a livelihood as refugees, we spend our time cracking our knuckles. Our houses are too small, so we only enter them to sleep. Otherwise, rain or shine, we stay out,”

Today, after 15 rounds of dialogue between Nepal and Bhutan, nothing has changed. Nepal’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, was frank, “We have held talks with Bhutan but we do not see any willingness on its part to solve the problem. This issue cannot go on forever, already one generation has emerged in these camps. We believe in complete repatriation. The refugees should go back to their country. Nepal cannot assimilate them. We are not even Bhutan’s neighbour. India lies in-between. In any case, we are a poor country, and are not even able to provide for our own people.” He argues that it would be patently wrong to view the refugees as Nepalis, because they speak Nepali. “Language and nationality are two distinct things. People of Australia speak English, but they are not British, they are Australian. Similarly, these people may speak Nepali, but they are Bhutanese.”

The problem is locked in a bilateral grid. Nepal claims it is an issue between the Bhutanese government and the refugees. Bhutan claims that it is an issue between Bhutan and Nepal. India believes that it is bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan. The US recently introduced a new dynamic by agreeing to take 60,000 refugees. Canada and Australia have made similar, although smaller, offers.

The US move has evoked sharply conflicting responses. Many believe repatriation, not resettlement, is the only way out. Resettlement in a third country would, they believe, not only blight any prospects of Bhutan becoming democratic and accountable, it would undermine the security of those Lhotshampas currently in Bhutan. Others, especially among the young, are in favour of the US offer and Ambassador Moriarty claims it is being viewed positively by the majority of refugees today. “These people will be given green cards and enjoy full citizenship rights.” He argues that his country is doing it for humanitarian reasons. “We have a law that requires us to provide refuge to 75,000 emigrants every year and the Bhutanese will, we believe, easily assimilate in the US.” When pressed, he added, “We do regard these camps as sites that could be susceptible to Maoist/terrorist influences.”

There are many in Kathmandu who maintain that strategic reasons -- like getting a foothold in Bhutan (where the US does not even have an embassy) in a region dominated by China and India – is the real reason behind the US offer. But they reserve their greatest consternation for India’s continuing apathy. Even Abraham Abraham, UNHCR representative in Kathmandu, who is reluctant to speak of the political dimensions of the issue, was clear, “This is a crisis situation. India should and can play an important role in settling it. In fact, if India does not play a more assertive role, the matter is pretty hopeless.” Ram Kumar Shrestha, coordinator, Friends of Bhutan, is more unequivocal, “We are simply puzzled over India’s indifference. It is a major democratic and economic force in the world and so has a responsibility to get involved. In any case, this is India’s problem as well. Everyone knows that the refugees came to Nepal through India.”
Senior journalist, Kanak Mani Dixit, editor, Himal, believes that India’s reluctance to intervene is driven by what he termed as the “1962 syndrome”: “Indian policy makers do not touch such issues unless they become hot potatoes. And the refugees are too insignificant, too voiceless, to make the issue a hot potato. Besides, there are innumerable strategic reasons why India does not wish to make Bhutan unhappy – apart of course from a committed supply of hydro-power.”
But the situation in the region is plainly getting more unstable and India may no longer have the luxury of staying aloof. Said Tek Nath Rizal, “We have been suffering for so long and Bharat sarkar has ignored the issue. It has to exert pressure on Bhutan to take back its people. If India doesn’t take its responsibilities in this region seriously, it will have dangerous consequences for the security of the entire region.”

Source: Indian Express
Img Src: Meiji Gakuin University

1 comment:

Salik said...

Nepali Akash, I like the way you put such news-stories related to Nepal in your blog. It's quite a useful resource to me and everyone who would like to find more information abt Nepal at once place.

Keep up the good work.