Refugee problem haunts Bhutan
By KAMATCHY SAPPANI
This incident highlights laidback Bhutan’s startlingly hardline approach to preserving its traditional culture and identity. This pillar of its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, has not been helpful in lending happiness to some segments of its population.
Bhutan’s bid to preserve its unique identity is rooted in its Buddhist beliefs, but it has to resolve the problem of thousands of Hindu Bhutanese Nepalis languishing in refugee camps and the small but growing Christian population who seek recognition of their religion and to be allowed to build churches.
The biggest blot on Bhutan’s history is its attempt to deal with the Nepali people within its borders. The Nepali claim brutality. The Bhutan government says they are illegal immigrants.
People of Nepali descent have been settling in southern Bhutan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as Bhutan has a porous border with hardly any immigration control. By the 1950s the number of Nepali immigrants swelled to such an extent that a Citizenship Act was passed in 1958 to stem the flow.
Those who could show proof that they have lived in Bhutan at least 10 years prior to 1958 could stay but those who could not were deemed illegal immigrants.
In 1988, the government conducted its first real census exercise and decided to force out the “illegal” immigrants, perceiving a threat to the country’s cultural identity. But poorly trained census officials who were sometimes arbitrary in their classification of who were non-nationals triggered a great deal of tension.
About the same time, the government also started enforcing the Bhutanese traditional dress and language code.
These measures combined to alienate even the genuine citizens of Nepali descent. Militancy grew in the south and and turned violent in September 1990 when protest marches were held in different districts.
Schools were torched and local government officials stripped of their national attire.
The army responded with mass arrests that triggered more protests and arrests that sent thousands of ethnic Nepalis fleeing the country between 1990 and 1992.
They settled in seven UNHCR refugee camps in South-Eastern Nepal.
Meanwhile, many poor, border-dwelling Nepalis claimed to be refugees in order to receive aid, and within a year, the camps’ population grew to more than 100,000, according to UNHCR.
The United States, Australia, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark offered to resettle the refugees and by the end of 2010, 40,000 of the refugees were resettled and more are slated to be resettled in the coming years.
It is often these resettled Bhutanese of Nepali descent who work hard to ensure their plight is not forgotten abroad. For them, and for some of the ethnic Nepalis still in Bhutan (about 150,000), Bhutan’s promotion of Buddhist culture has been a source of distress.
This festering refugee problem looks set to haunt Bhutan in the international arena for years to come.
Another brewing problem is among the Christians, estimated to be between 6,000 and 15,000, who would like to see their religion recognised. They are not allowed to build churches or proselytise.
Several stories have appeared in Bhutan’s newspapers claiming that converts were being paid money by Christians from Western countries, which Christian leaders in the country vehemently deny.
But the government is deeply suspicious of Christian evangelism and under proposed Section 463 of the Penal Code that carries a jail term, “a defendant shall be guilty of the offence of proselytisation if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” according to the government-run Kuensel newspaper.
Prime Minister Jigmi Yoser Thinley told Compass the proposed clause in the penal code was “essentially… to deter conversion,” saying there was no reason why Christians should seek to induce others to join their faith.
“There are a few Christians and followers of other faiths as well (in Bhutan), and there is no difficulty with that,” Thinley said.
“That is good… we promote diversity of cultures. But then, when there are those who try to convert others without understanding the values, the principles, and the essence of the other religion, we have here what constitutes the worst form of discrimination.”
While the constitution recognises a citizen’s freedom to religion, only Buddhist and Hindu organisations have been registered by the Chhoedey Lhentshog – the country’s authority which regulates religious organisations.
About 75% of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist, and Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepali, account for around 22%.
Bhutan’s Minister for Home and Culture Minjur Dorji told Compass that the passing and implementation of the penal code amendment “may take some more time, due to procedures involved.”
Asked if the law could be misused to make false allegations and thereby create religious disharmony, as in Indian states with similar anti-conversion legislation, Dorji said he would not allow that to happen.
The Christians remain hopeful that the country’s leaders will move beyond the distrust of their religion and discussions are going on.