Saturday, August 07, 2010
Future of Bhutanese Refugee Movement
Deepak Adhikari and Pranab Kharel
Nearly two decades ago, the hitherto-tranquil kingdom of Bhutan hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Southern Bhutanese—Lhotsampas (literally, Nepali-speaking people of South)—rose against the establishment, demanding civil rights and democracy. The protests erupted as a response to state policies that aimed at disenfranchisement of the community.
The root cause of the opposition was the 1985 Citizenship Act, an act with a retroactive effect that made it mandatory for Lhotsampas to produce documentary evidence of legal residence in Bhutan before 1958. Based on the Act, the government in 1986 conducted a census in the South of Bhutan, and those who failed to produce the evidence were declared non-citizens. Bhutanese rulers then forced the Lhotsampas to wear the gho and the kira, thick, robe-like national dresses unsuitable for the South’s climate. The state also required them to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ in order to work, to get a license or to attend a school. Moreover, Dzongkha, an underdeveloped Tibetan language, was made the mode of education in schools and colleges, withdrawing the curriculum in Nepali.
By the mid-90’s, nearly 100,000 Lhotsampas were forced to leave the country. The refugees initially spilled into India but ultimately landed in south-eastern Nepal in the seven UNHCR-run camps.
From their camps in Jhapa and Morang, Bhutanese refugees have staged various attempts to go back to their homeland. But none of the attempts have succeeded so far. The closest that they came was in 2007, when the refugees, under the banner of a ‘long march’, tried to cross the Mechi Bridge and enter Bhutan through India—an act that resulted in clashes with Indian security forces, in a which a refugee died.
Since then, not a single attempt has been made in that direction. Instead, Bhutanese refugees are increasingly opting for resettlement in Western countries, thanks to a 2006 offer floated by the international community. In a process described by UNHCR as world’s largest refugee resettlement programme that began in November 2007, European countries and the US have pledged to resettle over 80,000 refugees, with the US alone accepting 60,000.
With over 32,000 of the refugees already resettled, the issue has entered a new phase. A chasm has appeared between the older generation which favours repatriation and the younger generation that has grown up in the camps and is attracted to third-country resettlement.
Where does the Bhutanese refugee movement stand after two decades of failed attempts at repatriation? The first observation analysts make in this direction is the fact that the refugee leadership has not been able to forge a united front. “We have not been able to stay together,” agrees Tek Nath Rizal, a refugee leader. He attributes this disunity to the absence of democratic culture among the leadership, while pointing out that Bhutanese themselves were never exposed to a democratic set-up. “They were socialised in an environment where the king was the final authority and whatever he said was the law of the land,” says Rizal who himself was once a confidant of the king and a Royal Advisory Councillor. A similar sentiment is echoed by Balaram Paudel, President of Bhutan People’s Party, who says that the need to survive forced the leadership to disperse in different directions.
Journalist I.P. Adhikari, who is also a Bhutanese refugee, negates the argument that a united leadership would have enabled the movement to gain momentum. “The leaders lack vision for Bhutan and are unaware of what’s going on inside the country. They still rely on their outdated perceptions of the 90’s,” he says, “Those living inside the country don’t trust them.”
Bilateral talks between Bhutan and Nepal have yielded very little. The closest the Bhutanese side came to resolving the crisis was during the joint verification process in 2003. But the process came to a halt after a dispute occured in the Khudunabari refugee camp and the Bhutanese delegation abruptly left for home. With Nepal plunging into its own political crisis since then, bilateral talks have been pushed to the backburner.
“Our movement has not been able to yield results as expected as we don’t have a significant say in the dealings between the two governments,” agrees Rizal. Paudel argues that by projecting the Bhutanese refugee issue as an ethnic problem and not that of democracy, the media and the international community have not helped their cause.
One of the most important developments in the movement has been the third-country resettlement option that many refugees have chosen. Initial reports suggested leaders like Rizal opposed the move, but he clarifies, “The issue of third country settlement and repatriation to Bhutan should go together.” Adhikari believes resettlement will work in favour of the refugees in a more subtle way. Indeed, the growing activities of advocacy in Western countries in recent times—a shadow report presented in Geneva early this year at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review contradicted the Bhutanese government’s claim of a clean human rights record, while the Bhutanese government-sponsored Gross National Happiness conference in the US saw refugees offering a different narrative of ‘gross suffering’--seem to give credence to Adhikari’s views.
Opinions are currently divided on the issue of resettlement. Rizal says that those opting for the resettlement are younger people, and that it would be difficult for the movement to go on in their absence. But among the refugees themselves, there is little hope that repatriation will happen during their lifetime. Rizal says, “This (repatriation) would be a formidable challenge as the entire society is in exile.” Thinley Penjore, a former Secretary General of Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry and now the head of the Druk National Congress (Democratic), says the Bhutanese movement will have to take a different tack from now. “A physical war is not possible,” he says, “We have to work for reconciliation through peaceful means.”
Despite the differing views on how the movement will shape up, the only thing certain for now is that more and more refugees are opting for resettlement. The Bhutanese government seems highly unkeen to resolve the issue, though Bhutan itself saw a wave of democracy with its first elections in 2008. Even then, those who have opted for resettlement believe their move will ultimately help the movement. Adhikari, for instance, moved to Australia on Wednesday, but still harbours the hope that his country will change. “The more we advocate internationally, the more people inside Bhutan will benefit. They can’t directly raise their voice for reform, so the onus is upon us to do that now.”
This appeared in today's The Kathmandu Post.
My piece in Nepali at Blogmandu on World Refugee Day (with pics).
Pieces on resettlement here and here.
On Tenzing Zangpo: here and here.
Review of Tek Nath Rizal's book.
My report from camp on KB Khadka's murder.