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BHUTAN- Time for a New Initiative


It is well known that a  combination of the amendment to the  citizenship act in 1985 requiring all Lhotsampas  (Bhutanese of Nepali origin) to produce documentary evidence of having resided in Bhutan before 1958 and the Bhutanization programme of dress code, language etc. sparked off the protest and subsequent exodus of a large number of Nepalis from Bhutan to India and then to eastern Nepal.  In  fairness to the King of Bhutan, his initial response was to find a solution to the genuine grievances of Lhotsampas, but soon the hard line officials took over.  What started as identification of Bhutanese citizens ended up as an "ethnic cleansing" programme. By one count there are more than 100,000 registered refugees in the districts of Jhapa and Morang in Nepal and several unregistered ones in the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Sikkim and West Bengal.  The UNHCR along with a few other international agencies is providing the basic needs of the refugees in eastern Nepal. The UNHCR programme cannot go on indefinitely and the refugees are facing an uncertain future.

Nepal's initial response to the flood of refugees to the eastern region was typically one of ambivalence.  They also had to contend with the similar treatment Nepal itself was meting out to the people of Indian origin in southern Nepal.  The Indian sensitivity was another factor - Bhutan is tied to India by special relations and any action to send the refugees back will have to have the concurrence of India too, as the refugees will have to cross 80 Km of Indian territory. 

Nearly three years later, in 1993, the then Prime minister of Nepal took courage to raise the issue with the King of Bhutan, during SAARC summit in Dhaka and agreed for a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement.

Eight rounds of talks have taken place so far and yet not a single refugee from Nepal has returned to Bhutan.  This suits both sides.  The King of Bhutan with the support of India has managed to keep the problem from being internationalised.  The lands left by the refugees are being reallotted with no protest from Nepal.  The government of Nepal has had so many change of ministries since 1993 and the political leaders have no time for the poor refugees languishing in eastern Nepal.  One example- on August 29, 1997, the two leading parties NC and ML signed a 25-point agreement concerning the policies and  priorities of the new coalition government.  While all other problems, some not so relevant were mentioned in detail, the problem of Bhutanese Refugees was mentioned in passing, for steps to be taken "with the cooperation and goodwill of friendly India."  With elections to the National Assembly coming in May 1999, the politicians in Nepal are least concerned about the Bhutanese refugees now.

Nepal made the initial mistake of agreeing to classify  the refugees into four categories with no agreed norms or tools to make the classification and all the eight rounds of talks have been wasted on the modalities of classification, a position engineered by and well suited to Bhutan.  The official position of Nepal government appears to be to distance itself away from the classification, but in the absence of an alternative policy/procedure, the talks have virtually frozen.

It is in this context that we should see the recent initiative of the Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal in forming the "Bhutan Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee" at Biratmod in Jhapa.  The organization is headed by M.B.Subba and in the first statement issued, it said that the UNHCR High Commissioner Mary Robinson had been requested to solve the Bhutanese refugee problem in Nepal through the formation of an impartial international team. 

Another tentative move made by the refugees was to cross into Bhutan openly defying the Bhutan government.  They, few in number, were quickly arrested and sent back to Nepal with the help of Indian authorities.   If the move had been made not by a few but by thousands and thousands, it would have had a definite impact both on India and Bhutan.  Unfortunately the march was hastily organised and badly planned.

It has been successfully argued by Bhutan government that the so-called leaders of Bhutanese refugees are unnecessarily inciting the refugees who are not eager to return to Bhutan and thus developing a vested interest in continuing a problem which according to them no longer exists.

If the new refugee organization is to have some credibility, it will have to elect in a transparent manner in the presence and supervision of UNHCR authorities a set of committee members and leaders to represent their cause.  The body so elected could then demand that their voice be heard in the bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan.

There appears to be some confusion among the exiled Bhutanese leaders as to how go ahead in dealing with the problem in which no one in Nepal or Bhutan or even India is interested.  The world is so concerned about the possibility of thousands of Albanian refugees in Serbia and NATO is even willing to go to war on this issue.  But for the 100,000 refugees suffering under inhuman conditions in one corner of Nepal which in itself is a tiny country, there are no sympathisers or other NGOs and social organizations to take up their cause.  The Nepali diaspora in India is also not taking up their cause.  This is unfortunate. 

Some of the leaders are taking up the issue of the legitimacy of the institution of monarchy itself. (See Bhutan today, December 1998 issue).  The institution of Shabdrung was founded in the seventeenth century when the fugitive ruler of Ralung Monastery in Tibet came to Bhutan.  It was he, who united the tribal principalities and made it into a political entity.  Reincarnations of Shabdrung ruled the country till 1907 when the British intervened and brought in monarchy.  The present King is a descendant of the Wangchuk dynasty.  The present religious leader His holiness Shabdrung Jigme Nawang Namgyal, aged, 45 is now living in Manali under the full protection of govt. of India.  Efforts to bring back the Namgyal will not only cause instability in a sensitive and strategic region of India but will also be a retrograde step.  It is our hope that the present King who, we maintain is a modern outward looking individual  is in a position to take back the genuine residents of Bhutan, now as refugees in Nepal.  Where power is concentrated, vested interests surrounding the power centre will always prevent any liberal approach.  It is for the King to break away from such interests and take a "statesman" like view of the problem and solve it, no matter whether Nepal is interested or not.

There is a move and a welcome one that the refugee bodies are thinking of a new approach to determine the authenticity of the refugees.  This consists of 

* the authenticity of the Bhutanese citizens residing in refugee camps for return to their home land is to be determined on the basis of a census conducted by the Block headmen (mandals)and district representatives in association with the newly elected refugee body.

* an independent body to review lists of people who left and the property left by them after signing the so-called voluntary forms.

*  to stop reallotment of land to others until the question of determination of genuine residents is resolved.

* to involve the UN officials or well-meaning international organisations like Carter Center or any neutral body in all the processes involved from identification to repatriation to resettlement.

Some refugee bodies see the larger question of introduction of democracy in Bhutan as a necessary pre-condition for solving the dispute  and even the very institution of Kingship is called into question.  These problems in our view are not to be mixed up with the Refugee question.  The problem of Refugees is a human one and not a political one.  If this is accepted, it is necessary for all the political leaders of Bhutan now living in exile to support the democratically elected Refugee representatives and make all efforts for early repatriation.  The Refugees have been away from their homes for almost a decade and soon a frustrated generation will grow up with all consequences. There is therefore an urgent need to solve the problem.  

Dr.S.Chandrasekharan.                                       12.3.99