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Bhutan- the Refugee question- An update


Note No. 8                                          19.1.1999


Three major events took place in Bhutan recently and all the three are in one way or other connected to the current refugee problem of southern Bhutanese.

Senior officials from Bhutan and Nepal met at Thimphu for "informal talks" in the last week of  November 1998.   A Press release at the end of the talks, said that the talks were "very useful and productive" and that the discussions covered "multifaceted bilateral relations."  It is clear from the statement that no progress was made at all and it is doubtful whether there was any sincere effort  to find a solution.  It appears to us, that both Nepal and Bhutan are not interested in the plight of the poor refugees languishing in southern and eastern Nepal.  The only serious decision they took was to hold the next formal Ministerial Joint Committee meeting "in the near future," a statement as vague as the informal meeting itself.

Nepal's delegation had many heavy weights, including the well-known activist Mr. Hiranya Lal Shrestha, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations and Human rights.  
Despite an encouraging editorial in the official Bhutanese paper Kuensel, no sense of urgency  is seen in solving the refugee problem.  Hiranyalal Shrestha visited Bhutan again heading a parliamentary delegation for an official goodwill visit.  Before leaving for Bhutan, he was good enough to describe the Refugee problem as a serious one which had "social and environmental impacts."  How the Refugee problem has an impact on the environment was not made clear by him.  What he should have said is that it is a human problem for thousands of refugees who have left their land, their homes and are surviving on doles given by the UNHCR. The delegation according to Kuensel agreed with their Bhutanese counterparts that there should be no problem for "Bhutanese Refugees" unlike the non Bhutanese, to return to Bhutan.  This is begging the question.

The problem is that the Bhutanese authorities do not consider any of the refugees now in Nepal as Bhutanese citizens and for them the refugee question is already solved.  How else can one explain their move to distribute the land left by the Lotsampas to the Sarchops from western Bhutan.  This will only convince the more extremist elements amongst the refugees that peaceful methods for the return of refugees will not help. This is an explosive situation which needs attention. 

The second important event was, that a delegation comprising former assembly members and elderly people now in exile, visited Delhi to meet Rongthong Kunley Dorji, chairman of the DNC/UFD who is facing extradition charges at Delhi.  The members could not meet the political leaders in India though they tried.  They could not meet officials dealing with Bhutan and Nepal either,  as any meeting formal or informal would be against the current policy of the government and could have been done only if there was political backing.   The seriousness of the problem is not yet being felt in Delhi.  The delegation however managed to give a Press briefing in which K.B.Chavan, N.K.Koirala, Parsu Dahal and others spoke on the Refugee issue and more importantly on the need to introduce democratic changes in the system of governance.

 Sensing that the Refugee question will inevitably get mixed up with the demand for democracy, the King has made certain changes in the matter of governance.  This is the third event of importance. The cabinet council is now elected.  The old guard has been removed and the new "elected" cabinet council which looks after day to day administration is young and hardworking.  To this extent even the exiled leaders concede that it is a positive change.  Now the King can be removed from the  throne if two thirds of the members of the National assembly so desire.  But who are the  elected members of the National assembly?  The National assembly itself is not fully representative.  Out of 150 members, only 100 are supposed to be elected.  In actual fact, the district administrators nominate the members and the selection is confirmed by the people.  Even among the hundred, only 16 seats are given to the southern districts where according to a rough estimate, more than 43% of the population lives.  In the north and east every block has one assembly member and in the south at least four blocks form a constituency, a trick followed in Nepal too, to keep the Terains from greater representation due to them in the National Parliament.

The exiled leaders representing the refugees are also in a dilemma- whether to work for democracy in Bhutan or for the repatriation of refugees.   Some people  (Bhutan Today Issue No.6) argue that the "sole issue in Bhutan today is establishment of democracy, as all the remaining issues will be solved when the dawn of democracy ushers in Bhutan."   There are others who argue that the return of His Holiness Shabdrung Jigme Namgyal, now living in Manali, may bring in national unity and communal harmony.  The latter move will be a retrograde development.  It was very many years ago that the dual system of governance was given up once and for all and it has no place in society now.  Also, this would bring in fresh problems leading to instability in Bhutan

The present King has a difficult situation on hand.  Unlike others, he is a serious and well-meaning person  attuned to the socio-political and economic demands of the country.  He is the only unifying factor in a country divided by two major ethnic groups as also between the Ngalongs and Sarchops.   Bhutan is not ready for any cataclysmic change.  Changes will have to be evolutionary and the King is in a position to effect a smooth change.  The Refugee question has the potential to derail the evolutionary process.  Wiser counsel should prevail and India's role, we maintain, is critical.