Forced out of the Bhutan’s cabinet, exiled, extradited unofficially, imprisoned for life, and again, forced out of the country! This is the ordeal of Mr Tek Nath Rizal, the unrecognised Nelson Mandela of Bhutan.
ex Ponto Magazine nr. 3/4
A new trend in the sphere of human rights violations is flourishing! In contrast to Bhutan’s development philosophy called ‘Gross National Happiness,’ which many delegations visiting Bhutan are proclaiming a ‘good lesson’, Bhutan also offers a bad lesson: strategic violence in the form of ethnic cleansing, a lesson the world powers will find difficult to deal with. The ordeal of Tel Nath Rizal reflects how the state’s violation of one person’s rights spilled over to affect an entire minority. The minority population has already been reduced dramatically.
For 14 years until 1988, Mr Rizal was a representative to the government of Bhutan for the Lhotshampa minority. Now he is representing those Lhotshampas forcibly exiled by the government since 1990. More than 100,000 Lhotshampa people, about 20% of Bhutan’s population, have been forcibly exiled to India or driven into Nepal as a result of their demand for democratic change. Rizal sought refuge in Nepal twice, first in 1988, but he was extradited unofficially to Bhutan where he was imprisoned for ten years.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. Bhutan’s supreme court sentenced him to imprisonment for life, but he was subsequently released on the occasion of the King’s silver jubilee on December 17, 1999. He wandered around the country for four years hoping to reclaim his land and property, which had been seized by the government. However, the state denied him this justice, and again he felt that his life was in danger. This forced him to flee to India, but fearing incarceration there, he sought refuge in Nepal once again in 2003. Now he is facing a dilemma: should he campaign for the repatriation of the refugees back to Bhutan, where they will most likely suffer from repression? Or should he try to arrange for a third-country resettlement? The latter would mean, however, that these people would have to part with their Bhutanese identity and culture.
Although it may not result in as many casualties as conventional weapons, strategic ethnic violence can have just as many victims. Such violence can be termed ‘passive terrorism’. A brute example of such terrorism is the state-sponsored, forced-exile of Bhutan’s ethnic minorities. This approach, unless dealt with accordingly, could become a new world problem. Such problems can be very severe in states whose polity encourages nationalistic chauvinism to meet the interests of the elite alone. The international community has so far failed to counter this form of terrorism in the case of Bhutan. As a result, Bhutan’s Lhotshampa are now living in dire circumstances, both in their homeland and as refugees abroad. Recently, however, the US has stepped forward and offered resettlement as a solution for the Bhutanese refugee problem. Nevertheless, some also see this gesture as encouraging the Bhutanese government, who want to get rid of the ethnic minorities. Bhutan’s King Wangchuk thanked the US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, for the proposed solution during her state visit to Bhutan in November of this year. The Bhutanese regime welcomed America’s offer to resettle the exiled Lhotshampas. Perhaps the government wishes that the rest of the Lhotshampas living inside Bhutan may also kindly be taken elsewhere.
For years, the international media has ignored the agony of the Bhutanese minorities, and romanticised the country’s elite. This has affected Bhutan’s democratic transition process that is now shaping itself to be favourable only for one segment of the population: the ethnic Drukpas. The Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander’s visit to Bhutan last month and the press coverage of his trip did not do any justice to Bhutanese minorities. Not one word was mentioned about the violation of freedom and human rights. On the contrary, the delegation members said that they are inspired by the development philosophy of ‘Gross National Happiness’, an artificial principle to legitimise the policy of ‘One Nation One People’ that seeks to eliminate multicultural diversity and secure the monoculture of the elites alone. How can there be happiness when the atrocities against one segment of the population continue unabated?
The “use and then throw away” principle
When India was under British rule, there was the question of which country should remain as a buffer between India and China. At that time, the Lhotshampas were an asset for Bhutan’s protection and development. Later, when the Bhutanese regime was confident of the state’s sovereignty, the regime became critical of the ethnic Lhotshampas. This began after Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1971, and the tug of war between India and China ended with India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975 and China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. The Lhotshampas were brought in from Nepal and settled officially in four historical periods in the years 647, 1625, 1640 and in early 20th century. The Bhutanese regime allowed their immigration only at crucial times when the country needed more citizens for defence, economic development, and to qualify for the country’s entry into world communities such as the UN. They were entitled as Lhotshampas or ‘Southern Bhutanese’ to own land and settle permanently. Otherwise, it was impossible to enter Bhutan, which has very stringent immigration rules. They were given Bhutanese citizenship according to the law enacted for the first time in 1958. But 32 years later, in 1985, the regime deemed the Lhotshampas as alien to Buddhist values and Drukpa traditions, as well as economic competitors.
Because the Lhotshampas are settled along the border with India, the government felt they would be contaminated with democratic values that may pose a potential threat to the institution of the absolute monarchy. This fear grew more intense since the population size of the elite groups – namely the Ngalong Drukpas – is smaller than the other ethnic groups, particularly the Lhotshampas. The government then sought to reduce the population of the Lhotshampas so that they could never come into power even if the monarchy would give way to democracy.
Recognizing such dubious motives of the regime, Mr Rizal submitted a petition to the King on 9 April, 1988 in which he asked the government to refrain from racism and promulgation of the discriminative laws. The King turned down the petition and gambled with the peace and homogeneous social integrity of the country. The petition provoked dismay among the governing elites, who directed their anger against the entire population of Lhotshampas and evicted them using military force.
It was difficult even to speak out against the oppression, which I also observed personally while working as a news reporter for Bhutan’s national radio till 1998. It is very strange to see a head of state, a head of government, a Buddhist monarch turning against his poor, simple subjects who are of another ethnicity. Although the Lhotshampas have a different faith, culture and religion than that of the elites, they regard the King as the incarnation of the God Vishnu and never offended him. Their demonstration on September 29, 1990, was a cry against the government in order to seek freedom to create a new social order, maintain their dignity, and express their personalities in the way of their own cultural heritage, not in the way prescribed by the ruling elites. It was the expression of their desire to be treated as humans, not things. Not subjects, but objects of respect, to themselves and to their children, as well as to the outsiders. Peace is an undebatable commodity and diversity is the strength of the nation, but His Majesty, in my opinion, envisioned it differently. Mr Rizal, who requested an audience for over a decade and was always turned down, lost his faith in His Majesty completely.
Mr Rizal often frequented the assembly sessions of the United Nations in Geneva and New York in pursuit of a solution to the Bhutanese refugee crisis. In his recent sojourn to the UN, I invited him to The Netherlands. He gave me a long interview recorded on video, hoping that it could be useful one day. I set the interview in my temple room to ensure that we spoke truthfully, however bitter the truth may be. I informally asked him about Bhutan’s current human rights situation. Mr Rizal took off his glasses and said, “Since you fled from Bhutan because the rights of the Lhotshampas are being violated and threatened, I should be very careful in answering you”. He added, “There (in Bhutan) are no rights for the ethnic minorities!”
The loss of magnanimity
Referring to the situation when he submitted a petition to the King in 1988, Mr Rizal said that had the King heard the voice of the Lhotshampas, there would be no refugee problem today. If the democratic transition and the devolution of power was done without evicting the Lhotshampas, our king would have enjoyed favourable world recognition. But according to Mr Rizal, the regime stumbled in their conviction that the minorities populations must be reduced gradually by any means. This conviction, which had been secret, was suddenly divulged in the petition which was then assumed to be a revolt against the monarchy. The regime then provoked more insurrection in the South so that there would be enough grounds to brand the Lhotshampas as anti-nationals and throw them out of the country. Mr Rizal says that Bhutan told India that there are about eighty thousand people illegally residing in Bhutan who must be evacuated. Tempted by geopolitical and economic interest, India permitted Bhutan to do whatever it wanted. India’s role in depriving the Lhotshampas of rights and freedoms is the cruellest betrayal given that the Lhotshampas are Hindu, with Indian culture and traditions. If these Lhotshampas were Muslims the situation would have been very different.
If the forcibly-exiled Bhutanese had stayed in India instead of being forced into Nepal, there could have been no solution. Thousands of Indian Kashmiri Pundits are living as refugees in their own country. Besides these there are thousands of Bangladeshi Hindus forced out as a result of the Islamicising of the state. These refugees have neither remedy nor recognition. Although Nepal failed to come to an agreement with the Bhutanese to repatriate the Lhotshampa refugees, these refugees have demonstrated to the world that a considerable population of Hindus exists in Bhutan, a minority who have not been included in Bhutan’s official history. It would be wonderful if at least some of the refugees could go home to Bhutan. Their return may prevent the remaining Lhotshampa from being forcibly evicted.
The Nepal-Bhutan score
During the fifteen rounds of talks that Nepal had with Bhutan (which failed), Mr. Rizal argues that both the countries had a win-win score. When Bhutan said that these people are not Bhutanese, Nepal said they are not Nepalese. Bhutan tricked Nepal by insisting on dividing the refugees into four categories. Whoever fell in the category called ‘emigrant’ is also a Bhutanese by birth or by naturalisation! However one categorises the refugees, it proves anyway that they are Bhutanese. Finally Bhutan has to acknowledge that about 75% of the refugees are Bhutanese. The remaining 25% are also Bhutanese. Eventually Nepal defeated Bhutan by making Bhutan accept that these refugees are originally Bhutanese citizens. Bhutan defeated Nepal by categorising refugees as emigrants and criminals.
In whatever way the refugee crisis comes to an end, the risk of its reappearance does exist. This is because the newly written constitution of Bhutan is drafted without including representatives from the Lhotshampa community. It does not incorporate religious, cultural sentiments of the Hindus nor the rights of the minorities. Lhotshampas are being looked down at with disgust. There is no guarantee that the ethnic cleansing will not continue in the future.
Before the democracy could mature and establish itself firmly, uprising against the government has often occurred. In view of the consequences of the 1990 movement for democracy, which led to the forcible eviction of about half the population of the Lhotshampas, the future uprising might also lead to similar consequences. It might be even worse because, in Bhutan, there are two kings – the retired king and his son, the present king. A good father naturally will not tolerate the offences committed against his sons and daughters. According to Mr Rizal’s observation, the monarchy was behind the chaos in the Southern districts that spread across the entire South Asian region. Owing to many years of oppression, people are conditioned to take it personally when any criticism of the government’s conduct is expressed. Therefore, any form of future uprising against the policies of the royal family will be tackled mercilessly. Whoever may become the head of government of the democratic Bhutan, the monarchy will still hold the remote control of state affairs and may create the same sort of chaos, which will have to be tackled by the new government in question. If the government fails, the democracy tumbles back into the hands of the monarchy. Therefore it is opined that Bhutan’s monarch may pose a danger for the future peace and tranquillity of the Bhutanese people, particularly the ethnic minorities. The world communities must look closely to counter such passive terrorism.