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Bhutan: The Refugees are crying out for justice-Update no. 27.


Note No. 172                        23.01.2003

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

Finally it had to happen. The Bhutanese Refugees, frustrated with lack of progress in repatriation to their homes, have started a non violent protest movement in the form of "Satyagraha" in the Kudenabari camp. Kudenabari camp is the only camp of the six, where verification was completed more than an year ago.

The reasons for starting the protest movement were

* There were no signs of the Bhutan King relenting on the issue of return of even lawful citizens who are languishing in the camps.

* India for reasons best known, continues to sing the tune that it is a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan to be sorted out. The Indian Ambassador at Kathmandu reiterated the same position in his talks at the meeting of the Reporter’s club this month.

* The efforts of Human rights organisation and the Amnesty International to bring justice to the refugees have yielded no results.

* The UNHCR has been giving indications that their support may not continue indefinitely and that it may terminate in the next two years.

* Nepal beset by its own internal problems has little time for the refugees who at any rate are too far away from the capital at Kathmandu to make any political impact. Some of the politicians who should have taken up the cause, seem to have been mesmerized by the wining and dining as guests of Bhutan government when they visited Bhutan on the invitation of the Bhutan government.

With all avenues closed the refugee groups have started to take the issue in their hands without the involvement of the political parties. On January 2nd, the camp Secretary of Kudenabari camp and the programme coordinator of the camp management committee issued a press statement declared that "We, over a hundred thousand Bhutanese nationals languishing in refugee camps can no longer remain as refugees. We want to lead normal lives as any human on earth." A legitimate demand indeed. The refugees also made an appeal to the international community to listen to them and put pressure on both the Nepalese and Bhutan governments to resolve the problem.

On 7th January, a group of refugees from the Kudenabari camp went on an indefinite hunger strike to press their demands. On the first day 116 refugees including 68 women participated. On the following days, relay fasts are taking place. Each day over a hundred refugees participate in the day and another twenty five in the night. There has been enthusiastic response of volunteers from all the camps. Ex ministers from Nepal and the media from Nepal and India have visited the camps. There has been support from the refugees from all the camps and it is expected that relay fasts will continue indefinitely.

A three-member delegation of the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Support Group (BRRSG) led by Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay, a former foreign minister visited Delhi to lobby international support for the repatriation of the refugees One of the members termed the refugee crisis as one that is no longer confined to Nepal and Bhutan alone, but as an international problem and to be solved through international mediation. The delegation appealed to the donor countries to withdraw their aid to Bhutan.

It is said that a high level delegation comprising envoys and representatives from foreign missions based in Kathmandu will be visiting various refugee camps. It is expected that the delegation would also include representatives from the European union.

The protest movement has all the elements to snow ball into a mass mobilisation movement. The demands of the protesters in the Kudenabari camp are basically three in number. Firstly they want the results of the verification made in the camp by the JVT (Joint Verification Team) be made public. They have checked among themselves and have discovered that over 90 percent of the inmates of the camps have valid documents of their citizenship and have a suspicion that Bhutan is deliberately withholding the details with a view to delay the process. The second demand is to repatriate those genuine refugees back to Bhutan and they are not interested in the sophistry of "harmonisation" prior to repatriation as is made out by Bhutan. The third which is equally a legitimate demand is to continue the process of joint verification in the camps without further delay. It is not clear why the refugee groups should not demand Nepal to unilaterally release the figures if Bhutan refuses to do so. One way would be for Nepal to withdraw from the talks.

Observers who have visited the Kudenabari camp say that there is "tremendous enthusiasm" of the inmates of the camps to continue the "mass fasting" and sooner or later other camps will be joining this movement.

Enter Tek Nath Rijal: Tek Nath Rijal who was released from jail after ten years on 17th December 1999, under international pressure has been keeping out of the camps in the hope that he would be given an audience by the King when he can put forth his views on the refugee problem and find a solution to ensure " stability, peace and prosperity" of Bhutan. On release he wrote a long personal letter to the King explaining the circumstances under which he was victimised and thrown into jail and how he was tortured and humiliated under a sham trial. In a moving appeal he said that "he would be most happy to trade off (his) freedom and life in securing a fair and just solution that would allow (his) people to live in peace and perfect social harmony." He reiterated his loyalty to the King and his commitment to move forward with "malice" towards none.

Since 2001, he has been hoping against hope that the King would grant him an audience that would give him an opportunity to at least explain his position and his continued loyalty. To his dismay he found that the King continued bear ill will towards him. No hotel keeper in Phuntsoling was willing to keep him out of fear and he has been left penniless after his property and his residence were appropriated by Bhutan government and handed over to a senior member of Drukpa community. At the time of release he was given a royal sum of Rupees hundred and twenty as bus fare to Nepal and he was not supposed to eat en route either!

There has been no response from the King to his letter and there would be none either. Though Rijal has not given up his hope of reconciliation, he is now trying to consider the appeal of the refugees to take over the leadership to find a just solution for their return to their homes in Bhutan. A reluctant Rijal, it is heard, is taking over the leadership of the poor and hapless refugees. Rijal has been a "prisoner of conscience" of Amnesty international and he has the ability to rally the frustrated refugees to find a solution through non violent methods.

With Rijal’s involvement, the movement is likely to get internationalised as no one has suffered more than Rijal himself on the ethnic cleansing that has taken place in Bhutan. It is time that the issue is taken up with the International court of justice too. There will always be many well meaning NGOs who can take up their cause. They should in the first instance meet many of the victims who have undergone torture and deprivation at the hands of Bhutanese officials and a case could be made for bringing some of those who carried out ethnic cleansing with official backing before the court..

The UNHCR, having failed to expedite a solution that the international community may not support the refugee camps as their priorities shift to other crises in the world. In an interview to a newspaper, a visiting senior UNHCR official said on the joint verification of the refugees of the Kudenabari camp that "Over the last year and a half we had been very hopeful, . but now we are very concerned that the harmonisation of position between Nepal and Bhutan has still not taken place even so long after the verification of the refugees in one of the camps." He indicated that they are in touch with both Nepal and Bhutan as well as other countries including India to find a just and durable solution. There was an indirect warning that if the there is no solution in the near future the UNHCR may withdraw support. For twelve long years the refugees have waited for a just solution and their patience is running out.

First draft Constitution presented to the King. In a carefully orchestrated move, media reports give the impression that the King has decided to go for a constitutional monarchy and that the draft will be discussed at all levels before it is finalised. In an address to the nation on the national day he said that the draft will be distributed to the 20 dzongkhags and that he would visit all the dzonkhags along with the members of the drafting committee that would "bring forth a constitution that will fulfill the aspirations of the Bhutanese people, promote national interest, safe guard Bhutan’s security and sovereignly.

Notwithstanding the hype from the media, it is our view that it is too early to make any comment on the Constitution until the details are known. If past record is any indication, we have reasons to doubt, as the present King completely reversed the modernisation steps taken by his late father whose rule was known more as an era "political reforms and modernisation."

The case of Shabdrung: Some refugees are under the mistaken impression that the present incarnation of Shabdrung who is generally resident in Himachal Pradesh could take up their cause and help them return to Bhutan. Shabdrung is seen to be very active and has been visiting various monasteries. He appears to be amply supplied with funds. This is not the place to discuss the history of the Shabdrungs and their relationship with the current rulers. Suffice it to say that the refugees should continue to fight their battle themselves and not get involved in the politics of the rulers.