Articles Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet

Nepal-Bhutan Bilateral Talks and Repatriation of Bhutanese Refugees

Nepal-Bhutan Bilateral Talks and Repatriation of Bhutanese Refugees

Smruti S. Pattanaik, Researcher, IDSA

Ethnic conflict and the role of law enforcing authority in controlling it has not only resulted in internal displacements of population but has led to the problem of refugees. The problem of Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal camps remains intractable till date. Lack of political commitments on the part of both Nepal and Bhutan has left the problem alive even after seven rounds of bilateral talks. Both the governments have accused one another of backtracking from their commitments. The Bhutanese government attributes this inordinate delay in defusing the crisis to political instability in Nepal. The Nepalese government meanwhile perceives it as a problem of lack of commitment and an evasive attitude of the government of Bhutan to the problem of refugees.

Before analysing the impediment to the bilateral talks it is significant to understand the dynamics of the origin of the crisis. The problem of refugees is largely associated with the state-building process. The elite in the process of strengthening the institutions to facilitate the role of state as a governing instrument have hampered the process of nation building. Thus, while certain ethnic groups have got incorporated in the process of nation-building others have fallen out of the purview of such incorporation. The case of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin can be analysed within this framework.

Nation-building and the Lhotshampas1

Apart from the problem of citizenship and migration, the Lhotshampas face a threat to their socio-cultural identity in the Bhutanese framework of nation-building. Incidentally the process of nation-building constituting overtly Ngalong tradition and culture which was introduced in 1988 in form of Driglam Namzha arose from political dynamics, both internal and external. The internal political dynamics as per government sources includes large scale illegal immigration of Nepalese through the connivance of their kith and kin staying in the southern part of the country. Thus, the 1988 census indicated a large scale growth of Nepalese population which the government says is unprecedented.2 But the government’s view on the population growth also does not seem to be very rational and convincing taking into consideration various policies of the government aimed at importing human resources from outside. From time to time the Bhutanese government has regulated the movement of migrant labourers. The import of labourers has been banned since 1971 in government and private organisation except the Ministry of Trade and Industries which was permitted to import labour “for imparting training…and take responsibility for the imported labourer.”3 In the 60th National Assembly debates it was further required that the Dzongkhag Yangey Tshochungs (District Development Committee) of Samchi district with Food Corporation of Bhutan was to render all possible assistance to overcome labour shortage. Given this background it is not only difficult to settle in Bhutan because of constant vigil being kept over immigrants but even if a few people manage to evade laws to settle down, their number cannot be so large as is being quoted by the government. Moreover, the enforcement of various laws which makes the life of Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin so regulated, it is impossible for an illegal immigrant to even operate in Bhutan.4 Moreover, they are not entitled to social benefits like free education and health facilities as extended to the other citizens of Bhutan.

Genesis of the Refugee Crisis

The 1988 census held exclusively in the five southern districts where Lhotshampas constitute a majority, was based on the 1985 Citizenship Act. It included seven categories i.e. genuine Bhutanese, returned migrants, people absent during the census exercise, non-national women married to Bhutanese men, non-national men married to Bhutanese women, legally adopted cases, migrants and illegal settlers. These categories included even a genuine Bhutanese citizen of Nepali origin as an illegal immigrant because this entailed a provision to establish one’s credential through tax receipt dating back to 1954. The other internal factor which has led to the present crisis is the imposition of a cultural edict entitled Driglam Namzha which prescribes a Ngalong way of life for all Bhutanese. A dress code was imposed in the garb of prescribing a national dress. Dzogkha was introduced in the schools at the cost of Nepali language attributing the stoppage of mother tongue to scarcity of fund and so as not to overburden children with more lesson.5 All these factors added to the grievances of the Lhotshampas.

The external factors are many which led to the formulation of such incorporation (integration) policy in the 1980s. First, the Marriage Act was implemented to achieve socio-cultural integration through inter-ethnic marriages. It failed to achieve its purpose because of rigid caste considerations in a Hindu marriage. Though the Bhutanese elite from the beginning have had a conciliatory approach towards the Hindu religion and Nepalese cultural life, terming it as congruous with the Buddhist culture of Bhutan, they suddenly felt the glaring cultural difference due to political reasons and thus a need was felt for socio-cultural integration through the policy of cultural imposition. In Bhutan proselytisation of both Islam and Christianity is banned. The Bhutanese Citizenship Act discourages migration by making the spouse and their offspring aliens who have to go through the rigid process of naturalisation. The incorporation of Sikkim in the Indian Union was at the back of the mind of the Bhutanese elite. This reason is often cited by the governing elite and bureaucracy as the pressing need for imposing cultural integration. This is the explanation which is often given as a convincing answer to the western press to justify various policies. The movement for democracy in Nepal against the monarchy and the move for Gorkhaland had surely sent alarm signals to the Bhutanese on the assertion of Nepalese in southern Bhutan which has been evident since the introduction of such a parochial policy. What the elite have failed to notice is that the Bhutanese sense of alienation from the political system had not started before the integration policies were implemented. The southern Bhutanese are definitely politically more conscious compared to other ethnic groups in Bhutan. This can be largely attributed to the geopolitical location of the region with socio-cultural linkages with adjoining Nepali dominated area of India.

The discriminatory policy against the southern Bhutanese had started to take root way back in 1975, though it was not politicised. The Lhotshampas were required to get identity permit for movement within Bhutan. However, by law there is no restriction on any community to establish business and own land in any part of the country but it is difficult for non-Buddhist Bhutanese (except government officials) to buy property in Buddhist areas.

Against the background of these grievances and changing political equations between the ruler and the ruled in the region itself as was conspicuous in Nepal, the Lhotshampas demonstrated against the government policies in a tiny town of southern Bhutan on September 24 and October 4, 1990. Before the demonstration, a petition was submitted to the King by two Councillors of Royal Advisory Council, Mr. Teknath Rizal and B.P. Bhandari on April 9, 1988. These brought out the excesses done by the census team and genuine grievances of the Lhotshampas. However, they were arrested and dismissed from the Royal Advisory Council. All these factors attested to a feeling that the King was not prepared to give a sympathetic hearing to the grievances. Moreover, it would be pertinent to mention that the lack of a grievance ventilating mechanism has not only resulted in a communication gap between the ruler and the ruled but has given rise to a problem of enormous dimension in Bhutan. The communication gap is evident from the fact that when the government was emphasising mass support to the “Tsa-Wa-Sum’ by the southerners, the demonstration reflected quite the opposite of the government held view.6

A mass demonstration against the imposition of the cultural edict called Driglam Namzha was organised by Bhutan People’s Party formerly known as United Liberation People’s Front (ULPF) having its base in Siliguri.7 The Lhotshampas not only burnt the national dress to show their disapproval of the official policy but burnt schools and government property in a violent reaction to the concept of integration that had been introduced by the government.

A pamphlet “The Gorkha People of Southern Bhutan Must Unite and Fight,” that was circulated on the eve of the demonstration was explicit in its seditious content and demand. The objective was stated “to create another Gorkha state.”8 Expressing their anger against cultural imposition the pamphlet further stated “We Nepalese have far rich tradition and culture which is derived from the oldest religion in the world which is Hinduism and that our Nepalese-Hindu culture is immensely more superior to the cheap and concocted version of Sino-Tibetan customs, the Drukpa are so proudly calling Driglam Namzha.”9 Emphasising upon the transnational character of their community, the movement initially targetted at evoking the support of both Nepal and the Nepalese in India. It was very much evident that the Lhotshampa leaders were banking on common ethnicity to forge a larger identity to constitute a formidable political force to establish democracy in Bhutan and they made it clear that they would not hesitate to garner support from external sources. This is clearly explicit in the pamphlet which reads “like Tamils we must call upon the support of our brothers and sisters in Nepal and India in the liberation struggle against the despot Drukpa King and his corrupted Drukpa government.”10 But what the Lhotshampas failed to notice is that a movement against monarchy should be from inside the country. It can only later take external support through public opinion to build up pressure for political change.

The demonstration was watched with apprehension by the Bhutanese government. The Royal Bhutanese Army not only inflicted terror on the demonstrators but in certain cases forced Lhotshampas to sign voluntary emigration forms. Though the King was against such forceful eviction, but the bureaucracy largely Ngalongs who felt threatened by the southern Bhutanese skill and education did not miss this chance to get rid of their potential professional rivals. This was done with the connivance of responsible people in the bureaucracy. The National Assembly debates concentrated more on discussion about the treacherous nature of Lhotshampas and after 1990, the members were against any Lhotshampas being repatriated to Bhutan. However, the genuineness of the spontaneity of these debates is dubious given that the members are indirectly elected. They are largely encouraged to express their anti-Lhotshampa views and to a certain extent, the debate was used as an instrument for pleasing the monarchy, with little intervention from responsible ministers.

Arrival of Refugees in Nepal

Initially these refugees, whether forcefully evicted or a victim of insecurity due to mass exodus, took refuge in India but they were asked to leave West Bengal and in fact were carried in trucks and dumped near the Nepal border. The Indian decision reflects its strategic consideration regarding the implications these refugees could have on the volatile politics of Gorkhas in West Bengal. Moreover, the decision to a certain extent was dictated by the cordial relations between India and Bhutan and New Delhi’s reluctance to get entangled in a matter which it considered purely bilateral. The over emphasis on a greater Nepal factor by Bhutan to whip up Indian psyche against any sympathetic attitude to the Bhutanese refugees of Nepal origin can be largely regarded as a ploy to justify its action on southern Bhutanese people rather than a statement of reality. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) along with the Refugee Coordination Unit which was set up in mid-1992 are in charge of verification, registration and documentation of refugees seeking political asylum in the camps. It is important to mention here that there are many refugees staying outside the camp in Nepal and India. The details of Bhutanese refugee population staying in the refugee camps of Nepal as of December 1995 is given below.

Camps

No. at the time of reporting

Briths

Deaths

New arrival

Others

Total

Timai

8,389

80

6

0

-4

8,459

Sanischare

17,360

188

18

3

9

17,542

Goldhap

8,069

70

4

0

-1

8,134

Beldangi-I

15,201

165

15

0

-2

15,349

Beldangi-II

19,108

187

17

4

-9

19,273

Beldangi Extension

9,539

120

13

0

6

9,652

Khuduna bari North*

7,320

74

7

4

2

7,393

Khuduna bari South*

3,894

36

7

12

3

3,938

Total

88,880

920

87

23

4

89,740

Source: UNHCR/Nepal, no. 4/95, December 1995. *Khudinabari North and South was merged into one camp on July 1, 1996. **Other category constitutes re-registration (transfer in and out of the camp). As cited in Krishna P. Khanal,” Human Rights and Refugee Problems in South Asia: The Case of Bhutanese Refugees,” Paper presented in a seminar on Ethno-Sectarian Conflicts and Internal Dynamics of Regional Security in South Asia, September 2-4, 1996.

Bilateral Talks

The ground for bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan was prepared during the meeting between His Majesty, the King of Bhutan and G.P. Koirala, the Prime Minister of Nepal during the seventh SAARC summit. Nepal politely dismissed a request made by the King of Bhutan not to grant asylum to the refugees. He said that “he could not comply with the request as it would hurt the sentiments of the Nepalese people and the political parties would criticise him.’11 However on his return to Kathmandu, Koirala reiterated his government position to support “democracy and human rights anywhere in the world but will certainly not interfere in anybody’s internal affair.”12 The advent of democracy in Nepal changed Nepal’s outlook towards the refugee issue.13

Subsequently, both the leaders agreed for a joint committee to work out modalities to solve the refugee crisis. In the first meeting, held in Thimpu on July 17, 1993, the Home Ministers from both the sides agreed to establish a Ministerial Joint Committee comprising of three persons from each side to resolve the problem. The basic principles to be followed to tackle the problem were (a) to determine different categories of people claiming to have come from Bhutan in the refugee camps of eastern Nepal; (b) to specify the position of the two governments on each of these two categories; (c) to arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement on each of these categories, which would provide the basis for the resolution of the problem.14 The Nepalese side presented the number and the status of the refugees residing in camps which were as following: (a) 10,073 families with citizenship document (b) 1762 families with records pertaining to land ownership (c) 251 families with health documents (d) 40 families with education certificates (e) 2490 families with documents such as service in government, marriage certificates and court documents (f) 368 families who did not have any documents.15

The first Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC) meeting was held in Kathmandu from October 5 to 7, 1993. The refugees were divided into four different categories to determine each category according to the compulsion for coming to the refugee camps. This categorisation has been held as a fundamental cardinal principle to solve the crisis. However, as it appears now this has become the major stumbling block between both the countries.

The categories which were agreed upon by both the governments are (i) bonafide Bhutanese citizens forcefully evicted (ii) Bhutanese who had emigrated (iii) non-Bhutanese people (iv) Bhutanese who had committed criminal acts. In this meeting it was further decided that the mechanism for further verification would be determined at the next meeting of the MJC which was to take place in February 1994 in Thimpu. The two governments agreed to specify their positions on each of the categories and reach a mutually acceptable agreement.16

The third MJC was held in Kathmandu in April 1994. It was agreed to establish a Joint Verification Team and the procedures for its formation and its terms of reference were identified. The MJC also agreed upon the proforma to be completed by each person in the refugee camps. However disagreement surfaced over the issue of how to treat the four categories once identified.

The fourth meeting was held in Thimpu on June 28 and 29, 1994. The meeting confined its discussion to the harmonisation of positions of both the governments. The Nepalese side had problem with the second category, i.e. ‘the Bhutanese who had emigrated’. Nepal’s position was “Bhutanese who emigrated unwillingly for various reasons must be allowed to return back to Bhuan and regain their former means of livelihood including lands and property.”17 The Bhutanese government position on this issue was that “the people in the refugee camps of eastern Nepal falling under this category should be dealt in conformity with the citizenship and immigration laws of the two countries.”18 The fourth round of talks ended with a stalement with each side adhering to their respective positions on category two. The next meeting was scheduled to be held in Kathmandu in September 1994, but got cancelled because of interim political problems in Nepal.

The fifth round of talks was held in Kathmandu from February 27 to March 2, 1995. Although an agreement was reached on category two, the Nepalese delegation had problems with harmonising the position on category three, i.e. ‘non-Bhutanese people.’19 There was no agreement over the constitution of the Joint Verification Team. There was also disagreement over the exact mechanism to be followed for verification.20 Another problem surfaced during these negotiations on category one i.e. genuine Bhutanese who have been forcefully evicted. The manner in which to identify and determine them became the most challenging task and the most complicated issue. This was because there are many Bhutanese refugees with government documents which was a criteria to determine their citizenship in Bhutan. An agreement over the issue became more difficult because the Home Minister of Bhutan, Dago Tshering stated that the refugee problem was created by Nepal itself and that the so-called citizenship certificates said to be in the possession of the refugees could have been forged.21

On May 3, 1995, the King of Bhutan and the Nepalese Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari met during the 8th SAARC Summit to break the stalemate. The sixth round of talks later took place in Thimpu. But it did not break much ice and both the sides accused each other of being least interested in solving the problem.

The seventh round of talks was concluded on April 9, 1996. It was significant that for the first time the Foreign Ministers participated along with their delegations. As reported in the media the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, Mr. Dawa Tshering continued to maintain that it is not possible to accept those refugees who did not have any government documents, who voluntarily emigrated and entered Nepal five years ago and those who had committed any criminal act.22 Official sources from Nepal maintained that the Bhutanese refused to take back those who had committed criminal acts in Bhutan. However they could apply afresh for Bhutanese citizenship. Reacting to the statement of Bhutanese Foreign Minister, the “Nepal side maintained that applying National Laws of Bhutan would mean that most Bhutanese in the refugee camps could be stateless people denied their fundamental human right of nationality…This was against the UN Convention on Human Rights.”23 Thus it was not acceptable to Nepal. Nepal has taken a position that people falling in the categories 1, 2, 4 are genuine Bhutanese citizens who should be allowed to return to Bhutan safely and in a dignified manner. Nepal is yet to elaborate upon what it means by the term ‘dignified manner.’

Refuting the Bhutanese government statement that the refugees staying in the eastern Nepal camps are not Bhutanese nationals, and as such could not be repatriated to Bhutan, the Foreign Minister of Nepal, Mr. Prakash Lohani said that “a survey conducted in the refugee camps has found majority of the refugees in the possession of either citizenship certificates or land revenue receipts and this very fact proves that they are Bhutanese nationals as the Bhutanese law does not permit non-Bhutanese to purchase land and immovable property in Bhutan…The very fact that twenty per cent of the total population is leaving their homeland at normal situation when there is no armed conflict or economic stagnation in Bhutan, proves that Bhutanese allegation is far fetched and preposterous.”24

Presently after the seventh round of talks between both the governments, negotiations have virtually stopped. The slow progress in the bilateral talks can be attributed to various reasons i.e. political instability resulting in frequent changes of governments in Nepal, lack of political will, more concentration on various internal problems of governance especially survival and sustenance in power and above all, the rigid attitude exhibited by Bhutan in resolving the crisis. Many Nepalese politicians and intellectuals including the former Home Minister Khadga Oli have admitted publicly that agreeing to the categorisation of refugees was a mistake on the part of Nepal. During the sixth round of talks, due to intransigent stand taken by the Bhutanese government, Mr. Oli stated that the problem is between the refugees and government of Bhutan. Reacting to this and endorsing Mr. Oli’s view, former ambassador to India and a former minister in Deuba’s cabinet, Mr. Chakra Bastola said that “Nepal is not a party to the whole affair. We are not a part of mudda, this is an issue between Thimpu and the refugees, who happened to have entered our territory, whom Bhutan refused to accept, which is why they are in the camps. Bhutan has amended its law to dispose the second category and wants to wash its hand off them by involving Nepal. This may be possible under the Bhutanese laws, but not under international law.”25

Initially both the sides maintained that harmonisation of their positions on each of the category was important to proceed with bilateral talks. The problem arose regarding exchange of lists on people who had committed criminal acts. Bhutan government demanded a list of people staying in the camp and the Nepali side insisted on a list of people who had committed criminal acts to be produced to the Nepali government so as to proceed with identification. This problem dragged on till the seventh round of talks. It would, however, be worthwhile to mention what constitutes a criminal act in Bhutan. Crime committed against the ‘King, country and people’ constitutes a criminal offence. To elaborate on what constitutes crime it is interesting to note that anybody who causes harm to the above three elements, including causing death or making an attempt in this regard, challenging the three elements with weapons or without weapons, causing defamation, creating difference between Bhutan and a foreign country, corresponding or conversing with anti-national elements, hatching conspiracy against the three elements, providing food and water to anti-national elements would be treated as anti-national and liable to punishment for treason.26

Categorisation of Refugees: Obstacle to the Solution of the Crisis

An analysis of the four agreed categories gives rise to an apprehension that it would be extremely difficult to repatriate even genuine Bhutanese refugees. It not only reflects political immaturity on the part of the government of Nepal but the haste it exhibited in its attempt to solve such a complex issue. Though some responsible government officials do not fail to rationalise it by saying that agreeing to categorisation was the only option available to bring Bhutan to the negotiating table. But as it now appears such a decision reflects a myopic consideration rather than a compassionate and rational understanding. Moreover, Nepal should have considered long-term implications of the policy rather than short term gain. Ultimately Nepal did not gain much even from making such concessions as agreeing to categorisation of the Bhutanese as is evident from the present state of bilateral talks.

The highly compartmentalised and complicated categories of refugees, the first group, i.e. bonafide Bhutanese citizens who are forcefully evicted, is highly complex. Given that the criteria for proving one’s antecedent as a citizen of Bhutan is a citizenship identity card or land receipt dating back to 1954, this cannot be considered as conclusive proof. The Bhutanese government is on record that “…there are many illegal immigrants who had acquired property…producing citizenship identity card and tax receipt posed no problem as these could be easily duplicated…the government failed to take the precaution…and had printed the card in the commercial press in Calcutta.”27 The problem regarding the second category i.e. Bhutanese who have emigrated is also very complex. According to the citizenship law of Bhutan, a person voluntarily emigrating will lose his citizenship. Moreover, Bhutanese who leave without the knowledge of the Royal Government of Bhutan, even if their parents are Bhutanese, are liable to lose their citizenship. Apart from citizenship rules, there are many people who were coerced in to signing voluntary emigration form. Many people signed this form due to torture and punishment after the army crackdown. Consequently, a problem arises on how to differentiate between those who voluntarily emigrated and those who were forcefully evicted.

The third category comprises of non-Bhutanese people. The Bhutan government claims that many people who are staying in the camp are not Bhutanese. Rather, they are people who have flocked to the camps to take the advantage of UNHCR aid. The King told in an interview that “you get free housing, free electricity, drinking water, proper sanitation, free monthly ration, nutritional substance, free clothing and blankets, education up to class ten and $3 a day.”28 What Bhutanese elite fail to understand is that even if there is free food, it is not an enduring source since the aid by UNHCR will dwindle over a period of time. Thus, nobody would be interested in embracing a life of uncertainty by accepting such a myopic solution to their present poverty. The fourth category includes Bhutanese who have committed a criminal act. A provision of 1985 Citizenship Act is necessary to cite here. It reads, “any citizen of Bhutan who has acquired citizenship by naturalisation may be deprived of citizenship at any time if that person has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the King, Country and People.” The provision explicitly targets the Lhotshampas because all of them are naturalised citizens since citizenship was conferred on them in 1958. It is interesting to note here that Bhutan has refused to accept them as refugees and refers to them as ‘people staying in the eastern Nepal camps.’29 Voluntary emigration (sometime forced) was permitted and was even considered a welcome idea to get rid of southern Bhutanese population, a task which otherwise would have been extremely difficult. Once the King left after requesting Lhotshampas not to leave the country, the security forces would inflict terror that made people emigrate.30

India’s Approach

There has been a great degree of dissatisfaction pertaining to India’s approach amongst the refugees leaders and Nepal government. The Nepalese government argues that since refugees crossed India before entering Nepal, India is a transit point and thus a party to the whole problem. India’s stand on this issue is that it is a bilateral problem between the Governments of Nepal and Bhutan and thus needs to be resolved bilaterally. However, the governments of Nepal and India have discussed the issue informally in different forum.

The Bhutanese refugees are very critical about India’s role. Many of them refer to the Indo-Bhutan Treaty 1949, a clause in which reads that Bhutan is sovereign in its internal affairs but in the conduct of its external relations, its foreign policy, and defence posture it would be guided by India. However, while Bhutan has been sympathetic and considerate to India’s strategic and security concerns, it has been assertive on its foreign policy concerns. Bhutan became a member of the UN in 1971. It allowed the opening of Bangladesh chancery in Thimpu despite Indian disapproval; it is a signatory of the NPT; and, is negotiating its boundary dispute with China directly.31 India has a very cordial relation with Bhutan, with close economic ties and joint exploration of water resources. Bhutan is very assertive as far as its entity as a sovereign independent country is concerned. Though the 1949 treaty is a cornerstone of Indo-Bhutanese friendship, it leaves very little scope for India to manipulate without staking its relations with Bhutan. India has its own strategic interest. Though the presence of a large number of refugees across the border is not conducive to the political health of volatile politics in India’s northern frontier, it wants an amicable settlement of dispute between the two Himalayan Kingdom’s with whom it has close ties. Moreover, the problem of refugees is an internal, political problem of Bhutan associated more with the problem of governance than having any external dimension. Thus, India is not violating any international obligation, under the 1949 Treaty. Arrest of Rongthong Kunley Dorji, a Sarchop leader heading a party called Druk National Congress in Delhi was criticised by the Nepali press and refugee leaders. Moreover haste shown over his repatriation to Bhutan to face criminal charges was severely criticised by refugee leaders and intellectuals supporting the cause. But due to the intervention of Indian judiciary he was released recently.

Bilateral talks and the Refugees

The reason for the prolongment of the crisis can be attributed to the exclusion of refugee leaders in these talks. This has denied the splinter political groups32 operating in exile the status of being representatives of the refugees. Most of the refugees are political novices. Moreover UNHCR has banned any political activities inside the camp thus denying these groups any support base for political mobilisation. Thus, activities of an organisation like the Appeal Movement Coordination Committee, which organised a cycle march from Panitanki to Phuntsholling ended in a fiasco and many of its leaders were jailed for violating restrictions imposed by the Indian law enforcing authority. The Druk National Congress (DNC) has been successful in its poster campaign in 1998, both in Dzongkha and English, persuading people inside Bhutan to fight for democracy and human rights. Recently, the DNC and United Democratic Front (UDF) pasted stickers in Thimpu which carried the message “popular people’s participation in national affairs to build a free and prosperous Bhutan, able to contribute to world peace and harmoniously co-exist with its neighbour.”33 The event got due publicity in the media. The refugees are dissatisfied with the negotiation process and its various modalities which have prolonged the crisis. Moreover, it accuses the Nepalese government for agreeing to categorisation which had converted the whole process of repatriation hostage to mutual agreement on categorisation. However, the Nepalese government officials admit that informal consultation with the refugee leaders takes place before any bilateral talks.

There is a contradiction among the parties involved in the crisis. There is a consensus among the refugee leaders, irrespective of parties and groups, on the objective i.e. to establish a parliamentary form of government, constitutional monarchy, human rights and independent judiciary before the refugees are repatriated. However, the bilateral talks do not include all these issues. As the former Home Minister of Nepal has stated ‘establishing democracy, human rights etc. is the internal affair of Bhutan, that is for refugee leaders to resolve what kind of government they want, but as far as Nepal is concerned we want to solve the problem as soon as possible.”34 Bhutan is least interested to take back all the refugees and has included many criteria of elimination. Thus, change in the political structure is like chasing a non-existent dream. Given the contradictory objectives of the three parties involved i.e. Nepal, Bhutan and the refugees, the problem seems to evade solution, at least, in the near future.

There have been three secretarial level talks between the Nepalese and Bhutan governments to sort out modalities to resume the MJC talks. However the exercise is yet to bear fruit. The Prime Minister of Nepal and the Foreign Minister of Bhutan held informal talks during the Colombo SAARC summit and on the eve of General Assembly meeting in New York.

The attitude of the Bhutanese government is sending wrong signals to the refugees and their negotiator i.e. Nepalese government. To add to the miseries of the Lhotshampas the long pending resettlement issue of other ethnic Bhutanese in the land left behind by the refugees have started. Out of 3,504 applications received for resettlement, 1,574 households have been selected for immediate resettlement and till date only 1,027 households have already been resettled. This sends a wrong signal since it gives an impression that Bhutan is not interested to take back refugees who had left Bhutan in 1990. Moreover, suspending the relatives of the refugees who were in government services attests to the hardening of the stand of Bhutan as far as the refugee crisis is concerned. Of course, Bhutan had earlier issued a circular saying that “any Bhutanese national leaving the country to assist and help the anti-nationals shall no longer be considered a Bhutanese citizen. It must also be made clear that such people’s family members living under the same household will also be held fully responsible and forfeit their citizenship.”35 It was reported that 219 civil servants were sacked, in accordance to the demand made by the last year National Assembly held in June, for no reason except the fact that they are relatives of the people staying in the refugee camps.

Recent Political Changes and the Lhotshampas

In a recent political development, the newly constituted Bhutanese cabinet includes three Drukpas and two Sarchops, but conspicuously no Nepalese has been made a member of the cabinet. Trade and Industry Minister Mr. Khandu Wangchuk, Health and Education Minister, Sange Nidhup, Mr. Jigme Y. Thinely, Foreign Minister; Agriculture Minister Kingzang Dorji belong to Ngalong community whereas the Home Minister Thinley Gamtsho, Finance Minister Yeshay Zimba, belong to the Sarchop Community. The inclusion of Sarchops in important ministries indicates that the government cannot afford to alienate a majority ethnic community in view of demand for democracy made by Rong Thong Kunley Dorji, a Sarchop from eastern Bhutan, who is leading the United Democratic Front, an umbrella organisation of major political parties fighting in exile for democracy in Bhutan. Though the new cabinet includes a younger member but the presence of hardliners as Foreign Minister and Home Minister would not make much difference to the present problem. Inclusion of Sarchop and exclusion of Nepalese indicates that the regime is more accommodative towards the grievances of the Sarchop community and isolation of Nepalese is meant to give a signal that their aspiration for democracy is far fetched and futile. The present political arrangement suggests that the Nepalese are just an appendage of other ethnic groups in Bhutan. Instead of rectifying the lopsided representation which is against the interest of the Lhotshampas the present restructuring further consolidates their alienation. The under representation of Lhotshampas has been admitted by His Majesty the King of Bhutan.

Challenges Ahead

The problem of the Bhutanese refugees is highly complex. It is a political problem for a small country like Nepal. The refugee problem has not only resulted in environmental degradation due to cutting of trees for fuel but it is reported that refugees are replacing natives in unskilled and semi-skilled labour market. Moreover, many of the young people are without jobs and are mostly restless. They will not hesitate to engage themselves in separatist or armed struggle if the problem remains intractable. The prolonging of the problem has made them skeptical about an early solution. Moreover, their identity as refugees is affecting them psychologically and consolidating their feeling of disaffection for the polity of Bhutan. One must remember here that the volatile political region they are living in provides them an impetus wherein subnational groups are fighting against the state. There will be no dearth of money and material if these groups decide to extend their coveted help in the refugees’ struggle to establish democracy in Bhutan. An aspiration for democracy, opposition against misrule, political autonomy have been romantic ideal and democracy has become a cardinal principle of these groups fighting against the state. Moreover, the vulnerable and naive Lhotshampas are politicised due to their exposure to democratic innovations in Nepal. They are out of the protective umbrella of the ever-vigilant Bhutanese authority who keenly obstruct their exposure to satellite television and limited tourism.36 The recent steps like settlement of people from other part of Bhutan on the land left behind by the Lhotshampas and the suspension and expulsion of their ethnic stock on the ground of suspicion have alienated them further. The more time it takes to resolve the problem, the more difficult it is going to be for the monarchical government of Bhutan to assimilate them in the event of their repatriation. Many people who do not want to experiment with the innovative concept of democracy, but just want to be repatriated might be forced to reconsider their political inclinations. However, before the process of repatriation starts Bhutan will have to introduce certain democratic innovations, not a merely cosmetic exercise as it has done in the past. That is the only way it can win back the allegiance of its alienated population. If not, Bhutan can well expect more uncertainties in the days ahead.

NOTES

1. Lhotshampas are Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin. They are largely concentrated in southern Bhutan in five districts. The term was coined by the National Assembly and anybody using any other term to refer to them have to face punitive measures.

2. The population of a southern district Samchi had doubled. For details see Government of Bhutan, Anti-National Activities in Southern Bhutan: A Terrorist Movement (Thimpu, 1991), p. 2.

3. Government of Bhutan, Twentyfourth National Assembly Debates (Spring, 1966), res. 12, pp. 3-4. It was also decided that they cannot use land and should be transferred every year. See Twentyfifth National Assembly Debates (Autumn 1966), p. 4.

4. Refer to Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1985.

5. New Approach to Primary Education (NAPE) consisting of experts which included international educationalist were of consensus opinion for a need to reduce the number of subjects. This led to the decision to drop Nepali from the formal curriculum in southern schools…those who are genuinely interested in studying the language can join private tuitions or sanskrit pathsalas. Refer to Jigme Y. Thinley, “Bhutan: A Kingdom Beseiged” in Bhutan: A Traditional Order and Force of Change (Thimpu: Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1993), p. 21.

6. Refer to Smruti S. Pattanaik, “Ethnic Identity Conflict and Nation Building in Bhutan” in Strategic Analysis, July 1998, pp. 643-45.

7. Government of Bhutan, n. 1, p. 5.

8. The Voice of the Oppressed People of Bhutan, The Gorkha People of Southern Bhutan Must Unite and Fight for Our Rights, n.d., pp. 4-6.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 6.

11. Government of Bhutan, Seventyfirst National Assembly Debates, (October, 1992 res. 17, no. 9, p. 54.

12. Ibid.

13. In 1989 Mr. Teknath Rizal a refugee leader in exile, the first one to come out of the Kingdom and establish People’s Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan was repatriated to Bhutan during the Panchayat government rule. This was because any anti-monarchy movement was perceived with concern by the Nepalese Monarch who was himself facing turbulent times in the restoration of democracy movement. After the establishment of democracy the political parties are sympathetic to democratic movement anywhere in the world.

14. Joint Communique, Thimpu, July 18, 1993.

15. Krishna P. Khanal, “Human Rights and Refugee Problems in South Asia: The Case of Bhutanese Refugees.” Paper presented in a seminar on Ethno-Sectarian Conflict and Internal Dynamics of Regional Security in South Asia organised by School of International Studies, JNU, September 2-4, 1996.

16. Joint Press Release, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thimpu, October 7, 1993.

17. Government of Nepal, Problems of Bhutanese Refugee in Nepal, (New Delhi, April 8, 1996).

18. Ibid.

19. Government of Bhutan, Seventy Third National Assembly Debates (August, 1995), res.6, no. 5, p. 62.

20. Hindustan Times, June 5, 1994.

21. Gorkha Express, Kathmandu, March 7, 1995 as reproduced in Nepal Press Digest, March 8, 1995, no. 43/95, p. 32.

22. Hindustan Times, April 10, 1996.

23. Ibid.

24. “Nepal-Bhutan Ministerial Level Talks on Refugees: April 5-8, 1998,” Foreign Affairs Record: News and Views (Kathmandu), April/May 1996, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 14.

25. Kanak Mani Dixit, “The Dragon Bites its Tail,” Himal (Kathmandu), August/September, 1992, p. 9.

26. Refer to Government of Bhutan Thrimshung Chhenpo, Tsa-Wa-Sum, Chapter-17, Ministry of Home Affairs, Thimpu.

27. Government of Bhutan The Southern Problem: Threat to Nation’s Survival, (Thimpu, 1993), p. 42.

28. His Majesty the King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuk, in an interview to Ramesh Chandra, Times of India, November 11, 1992.

29. Bhutan, A Brief Report on Bhutan-Nepal Dialogue, (Thimpu, n.d.), p. 2.

30. DNS Dhakal and Christopher Strawn, Bhutan: Movement in Exile (Delhi: Nirala Publishers, 1995), p. 305.

31. Initially India was the chief negotiator on behalf of Bhutan to discuss the boundary dispute with China but China refused to accept India as a negotiator and preferred to negotiate with Bhutan directly. Thus Bhutan negotiates with China on the demarcation of disputed Bhutan-China boundary.

32. Political groups operating in exile include Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP), Druk National Congress (DNC). These parties have come under one umbrella known as United Democratic Front (UDF). The Chairman is Rongthong Kunley Dorji, a Sarchop from eastern Bhutan. The Human Rights group include People’s Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan (PFHRB), Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB), other groups are Student Union of Bhutan (SUB) and Appeal Movement Coordination Committee (AMCC) who are fighting for repatriation.

33. POT, Nepal Series, vol. 4, no. 15, February 15, 1998, p. 112.

34. In an interview with K.P. Oli, Home Minister of Nepal in the UML government on November 7, 1995.

35. Ministry of Home, Circular (Thimpu, August 17, 1990), as cited in INHURED International, Culture Cleansing: A Distinct National Identity and the Refugees from Southern Bhutan (Kathmandu: 1993), p. 31.

36. Bhutan had opened its door to tourism in 1974 but stopped promoting it from 1986. A limited number of people are allowed to visit the country every year in a guided tourism package with an exorbitant price tag of $200 per night. Also see Hindustan Times, September 25, 1990.

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