The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, January 15, 2007

Bhutanese will have no right to return to Bhutan from US- Kazi Gautam

Repatriation vs. Resettlement Which Is More Plausible? [ 2007-1-14 ]
By Kazi Gautam

The Bhutanese refugee imbroglio has become a subject of hot debate in the recent years. With the peace process in Nepal and the growing concern of the international community about the crisis in Asia, this issue has been in the spotlight, putting the Druk oligarchy in trouble. The cause of this rising worry has been Khandu Wangchuk, the foreign minister of Bhutan, who has alleged that the refugees are terrorists. Another reason is the United States� resettlement package.

The US proposal publicised by Ellen Saubrey, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, has been a feel-good factor for some refugees, whereas some have been put at their wit�s end. Majority of the refugees, however, seem ambivalent about it. Some critics have said that the US package that has been proposed on humanitarian grounds would take the refugees out of their confinement in the camps and give them a better life. However, the political leaders in exile have viewed this move of the US as a tool to create a division among the refugees. As there is division among the refugees about choosing repatriation or the US proposal, the issue deserves special mention and needs to be analysed critically.

Provisions of the proposal

Crystal T. Kaplan, a refugee officer at the US Embassy while responding to the Bhutanese media, highlighted some of the criteria for resettlement in the US.

It is learnt that the resettled people would first get a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) which allows them to exercise all the rights of an American citizen. The LPR can be assisted to get settled by the sponsors. They would be given a language course and job training. After five years they can apply for American citizenship.

Let�s look at another facet of the proposal. The LPR has no right to vote. Unless citizenship is granted, the people can�t take part in a vote. Ironically, this signifies a denial to exercise one�s political rights. It also appears that the Bhutanese will have no right to return to Bhutan. The main objective of the Bhutanese movement was to establish real democracy in Bhutan. This objective would, thus, never be fulfilled. Hence, Bhutan shall continue with its malice without letting it be known to the world.

Numerous futile attempts have been made on and off by the refugees and the Nepalese government to solve the problem. Recently some 200 refugees were arrested at Phuntsholing, a southern gateway to Bhutan. So far 15 rounds of the joint ministerial level meeting have been held, but all of them have failed largely because of Bhutan�s insincerity. With the abdication of the throne in favour of his son, King Jigme Singye Wangchhuk has played another game to fool the international community. Indeed, this is another process of delaying repatriation.

It was an unfortunate faux pas that some people were accused of throwing stones at the Joint Verification Team of Bhutan at the Khudunabari refugee camp. In fact, the refugees were forced to do it as Sonam Tobgey, the head of the Bhutanese team, announced unnecessary conditions for the returning refugees. Citing this incident, Bhutan has been trying to stay away from its responsibility.

There was great hope when Pranab Mukherji, Indian Minister for External Affairs, made a recent visit to Nepal. But his cold remarks about the issue to be solved by Bhutan and Nepal only made everyone cheerless.

The policies formulated so far by Nepal have always been unsuccessful. It�s crystal clear that forming an ad hoc committee or high-level political committee is perfunctory unless India renders its helping hand. It�s time for Nepal to change its modus operandi. Till date no pragmatic approach has been sought honestly for Nepal was busy tackling its own interim political problems.

History shows that absolute monarchy can never respect the sentiments of the people. It was a long arm struggle, on one hand by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) and a peace movement led by the Seven Party Alliance, on the other, that could eventually curtail the powers of the king of Nepal. Neither is possible in the case of Bhutan.

India, which has dropped these refugees at Kakkarbhitta in trucks, never allows the refugees to enter Bhutan. Moreover, the Bhutanese in Bhutan are still not fully aware of what their kin in exile are fighting for. The point to be noted is that if the people are repatriated, will they be true citizens of the country as Bhutan�s new constitution denies their participation in government.

The refugees have already endured all kinds of hardships for nearly two decades waiting for a dignified repatriation. Having lived in confinement for such a long period has certainly affected their state of mind. The ongoing stalemate has brought great frustration to the youths, and its repercussion could be devastating.


During the 86th National Assembly, which was expected to discuss the Bhutanese refugee problem positively, Bhutan instead chose to call the people in exile to be �highly politicised and terrorists� carrying out activities against the Himalayan Kingdom. Precisely, this is another tactic of Bhutan to discard its people. The developing nature of the activities within the country related to the issue, the refugee benefactors� statements about the lack of funds and the bereavement of the refugees call on Nepal to seek an urgent solution to the impasse. It must discuss the matter sternly with the UNHCR, the Bhutanese leaders in exile and the international community to come up with a tangible alternative.

(Gautam is editor-in-chief of The Bhutan Reporter)

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