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BHUTAN: update No.6: 25th anniversary of King's coronation:



Dr.S.Chandrasekharan.                                                   20.6.99

Bhutan celebrated the 25th anniversary of His Majesty the King's Coronation on June 2 and 3.  The King addressed the nation in the first live broadcast over the national radio in the evening. The celebrations were generally in a low key.

The King referred to the successful achievement of all the national goals and objectives, development policies and the fulfillment of the aspirations of the people.  India was mentioned twice, once for the "unstinted assistance, goodwill and cooperation" and again their appreciation for agreeing to a considerable increase in the power tariff of Chuka Project which would enable the government to increase the pay and allowances of civil servants and the security staff.  The Indian Ambassador was given a special place in the day long celebrations.

On the security side, the King mentioned about the threat posed by the "presence of armed militants from Assam" and the importance for the security of the country to make these militants leave as soon as possible.  He gave his pledge "to take full responsibility to safeguard and ensure the security and well-being" of the country.  This should be music to the ears of the government of India.

It is sad and unfortunate that the King made no mention of  the festering Refugee question of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal.   For the King, the problem does not exist. This is an ostrich like view.  It is no surprise therefore that the Bhutanese officials  have been heard saying that not a single refugee will be taken back. 

The refugees on their part spent the day in their seven camps with fasting and prayers.  The President of the Bhutan People's party sent a long letter to His Majesty on the eve of the 25th anniversary highlighting the services rendered by the Lhotshampas and their present state of haplessness and statelessness.  The appeal ends up by mixing all the issues, the refugees, reinstatement of Shabdrung to his legitimate position, establishment of multiparty system, parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy, human rights and the rule of law.  This shows the dilemma faced by the leaders- whether to focus on the return of the refugees or go for the larger question of establishment of democracy. 

Future of 22 million Refugees all over the world:

The Wall street journal of June 8, 1999 carries an editorial piece on the refugees by Kenneth Rose, the Executive Director of Human rights watch and it is significant for the Refugees in Nepal.  He said 
 "the future for most of the world's displaced people is bleak.   Now that the cold war is over, the world's powers have fewer reasons to sustain interest in faraway refugees.  The global attention to Kosovo is welcome.  But let us not draw the line in Europe.  International action on the scale of NATO bombing campaign would not be necessary to ameliorate most of the world's refugee crises.  What is needed is diplomatic pressure, consistently applied."

But who is to apply the "consistent diplomatic pressure" in the case of the Bhutanese Refugees?  The only country that has to, is India and it is not willing to interfere unless there is a perceived national interest at stake.  The King of Bhutan is fully aware of this situation and the pressure, on the other hand is on India from Bhutan, not to intervene.  The statement of the King on the militants of Assam operating from within Bhutan is also to be seen in this context

With Kosovars returning to their homeland with NATO protection, the Bhutanese Refugees will form the largest group in the world in exile in terms of highest proportion to the total population.  It is estimated that roughly 17 to 20 percent of Bhutan's population are languishing as refugees outside Bhutan.

BRRRC: Concept is good even if implementation is not satisfactory:

Mass petitions sent by the refugees under the aegis of Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee (BRRRC ) to Ms. Robinson earlier, seem to have had no effect.   Some of the refugee leadership is not happy with the selection of the repatriation committee and the involvement of NGOs in repatriation.  There could be differences in the mode of election or even in methods adopted.  But conceptually no one can deny the need for a committee and the involvement of the refugees themselves in finding a solution for their problems.  A fresh election could be held and the parameters for independent functioning of the BRRRC can be worked out.  But failure to unite and put forth a united approach either to the UNHCR or to any other country will only make the organisation ineffective.

An organisation calling itself Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF-B) has launched some programme at Phuntsoling and other places in Bhutan for bringing in democracy in Bhutan.  This organisation seems to draw inspiration for a "Greater Nepal" starting from Nepal to the State of Arunachal Pradesh.  This is a very sinister move and government of India will look with disfavour any move of the refugees to join hands with such organizations.  What is more- any involvement will only strengthen government of India's determination not to intervene at all.  It is good that Rongthong Kunley Dorji, of Druk National Congress, has issued a press release dissociating itself  from GNLF-B. 

The case of the State sponsored settlers:

There are unconfirmed reports that in Galeyphug, some residential huts of settlers brought in by Bhutan government in the lands once occupied by the refugees were set fire to and there was loss of life.  If  this incident is true, it only confirms the fears that state settlement of Bhutanese from eastern and central regions in the land once occupied by the refugees will only create tension and lead to uncontrollable ethnic strife.  One need not go too far to see the havoc created by state-sponsored settlements that occurred in Sri Lanka.  Now the people in Sri Lanka are paying a very heavy price for the follies of the ethnically motivated settlements.

It is not too late to stop the settlements tilll the refugee question is solved.  The settlers themselves are not too keen to stay on in unfamiliar surroundings and amidst hostile neighbours.

Solution to the Problem
Can a solution be found for the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal?  Yes, if only some flexibility is shown by both sides.  The King of Bhutan cannot continue to maintain that all the hundred thousand refugees in Nepal and another 30,000 in India are not Bhutanese citizens.  At the same time the leaders of the refugees cannot maintain that either all the refugees in the camps return to Bhutan or none. Secondly, India has to be a part of the solution and not outside.

The categorization and identification of refugees into four categories agreed to by both Bhutan and Nepal in the first round of talks has not worked. The criteria for categorization was itself flawed. Perhaps a new approach which allows incremental return of genuine refugees may work, provided all the three countries- Bhutan, Nepal and India agree to such steps. 

The first step could be the return of those refugees who had voluntarily signed the forms and gave up their citizenship rights and left the country.  They were genuine citizens who were forced to sign the forms under disturbed conditions and under duress.

The second step could be the return of those citizens who had the required papers but were sent away without proper scrutiny and those residents, though genuine settlers could not produce supporting documents.

The third will be the doubtful cases of those who perhaps came both from Nepal and India and do not meet the criteria laid down under the Bhutan Nationality laws.  Both India and Nepal are large enough to absorb these refugees. 

Each of  three categories may roughly form one third of the total number of refugees.  The steps suggested may be fine tuned but some forward move is essential to keep the refugees from getting desperate.