Bhutanese Refugees: Trapped and Tantalized
By Hari Bansha Dulal
It’s been more than one-and-half decades since the first group of refugees reached eastern Nepal from Bhutan. However, their collective sufferings resulting from the tragedy of forced exile continue unabated; they have no way of knowing what their situation will be from one day to the next. With respect to land, they lost the possessions that gave meaning and dignity to life and their personal history.
The forceful mass expulsion of Nepali speaking Lhotshampa of southern Bhutan by the Drukpa regime is a living example of state sponsored apartheidism. The Lhotshampas became sacrificial lamb because economically well-off, better educated, and freedom loving Lhotshampa were an eminent threat to Drukpa regime’s autocratic aspirations. However, in a desperate move to annul the threat to his autocratic regime, former King Jigme exhibited a worst form of guardianship by chasing the very people he was supposed to protect as a monarch.
Even after languishing in refugee camps in eastern Nepal for more than a decade and half now, Bhutanese refugees cannot stop thinking about returning home. Although their decade long battle for the right to return home has not borne any fruit, they have not given it up altogether. The hope of being home someday has kept them going.
India, the regional power house and closest ally of Bhutan, has so far shirked its responsibility in solving the Bhutanese refugee problem by calling it a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan. However, everyone, including Bhutanese refugees themselves, knows the key to voluntary repatriation of Bhutanese refugee problem rests in New Delhi.
The Indian government is indirectly obstructing the rightful repatriation of Bhutanese refugee by shirking its responsibility in solving Bhutanese refugee issues. As Bhutan is India’s closest ally in South Asia and has always blindly toed Indian line at the United Nations and other forums, India does not want to upset Bhutan King’s aspirations for autocratic regime by pushing for rightful repatriation of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
Bhutanese refugees have witnessed 15 tumultuous years pass by and 15 rounds of talks held between the Nepalese and Bhutanese government fail. Nepal has failed, miserably, to force Bhutan to accept its people. The time is ripe for some hard talks. Nepal should put Bhutan on the spot and ask if it is going to take back its citizen or not. If yes, when? Nepal should push for definite time line. The refugees cannot and should not continue to stay in the camps for long. Bhutanese refugees deserve much more than the mere enjoyment of Convention rights in exile.
In addition, the Nepalese government has two options: it can do what the Ivory Coast did or express the inability to pressure Bhutan and thereby ask Bhutanese refugees to explore the option of resettlement in third-world countries. During the influx of Liberian refugees in 1989, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny set such an example by declaring the refugees from Liberia as “brothers in distress” and refused to warehouse them in camps. He asked his people to accept them as a part of the Ivorian society. Let those willing to accept local integration be part of a Nepalese society. If we do not have that big of a heart and courage to do what Félix Houphouët-Boigny did in Ivory Coast, lets stop showing Bhutanese refugees false dreams. The 15-year of diplomatic efforts have already shown that with India on Bhutan’s side, Nepal will not be able to score decisive victory and pressure Bhutan into repatriation of refugees.
The warehousing of Bhutanese in refugee camps in eastern Nepal has not contributed to anything. Instead, it has increased idleness and dependency of Bhutanese refugees, which in itself, is a violation of human rights. Warehousing these men and women that have an ability to change the face of any nation is a denial of rights and a waste of humanity.
Nepal should put up a bold face and acknowledge once and for ever that we are not able to help our brothers in distress. Given the limited prospects for return to Bhutan in the foreseeable future, Bhutanese refugees should be asked to explore other viable options. In a scenario whereby local integration may not be desired by most of the Bhutanese refugees and voluntary repatriation does not seem to be happening in the foreseeable future, what options are left? For Bhutanese refugees languishing in refugee camps in eastern Nepal resettlement in third countries may be, in fact, the best—or perhaps, the only—alternative. Bhutanese refugee leaders should be extremely cautious and should not allow this problem to go unsolved any longer for their personal political gains. The settlement in third-world countries is not the best option, as no place is dearer than one’s birth place, but is far better than a foreign land whereby one is forced to spend dependent and idle life at the mercy of relief agencies. Furthermore, if the problem remains unsolved much longer, it will fall off the radar screen of the international community into an Orwellian memory hole. Bhutanese leaders should not ignore what is happening with Palestinian refugees languishing in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Neglected by the international community, more than 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled Israel in 1948 and who, along with their children numbering in the millions, are now forced to live uprooted lifes indefinitely.
Bhutan's foreign minister Khandu Wangchuk recent remark, “bringing back the "highly-politicized camp people" into Bhutan would mean importing ready-made-terrorists” clearly shows that Bhutan does not want to take back these refugees anytime soon. Refugee leaders should acknowledge the truth once and for all. With India on its side, Bhutan may, theoretically, continue its delay tactics forever. In turn, Bhutanese refugees warehoused in refugee camps may never again be able to see their land. As Israel will likely never accept Palestinian refugees who fled Israel in 1948, as acceptance would change Israel from a Jewish state into an Arab state, Drukpa regime may never accept forcefully evicted Lhotshampa. Accepting these forcefully evicted Lhotshampa will turn Bhutan in to a democratic state which is dead against the aspirations of the King and his cronies in Bhutan.
The Bhutanese refugee leaders should shun their future political ambition if necessary for the greater good of Bhutanese refugees. The western nations have pretty well studied the complexity surrounding the issue or else they would not be exhibiting their willingness to take Bhutanese refugees in their land. Western nations will not do anything that will displease emerging economic power house, India, which is on Bhutan’s side when it comes to the Bhutanese refugee issue. In addition, India’s overindulgence in Nepal’s internal political affairs has subtly threatened the careers of political leaders who dare to dissent on the Bhutanese refugee issue. Therefore, many politicians in Nepal are hesitant to openly criticize India’s reluctance in solving Bhutanese refugee crisis.
Bhutanese refugees should acknowledge the complications surrounding the issue and be ready to make painful decisions of settling in third-world countries. As far as democracy in Bhutan is concerned, the remaining Lhotshampa and democracy-loving Drukpas, if any, will sooner or later rise and defeat autocratic Drukpa regime. It’s just a matter of time. Ten, twenty, or thirty years is not long in the history of a nation. The leaders should think about the futures of the brave men and women and their families that dared to stand against Drukpa regime, which as a result, are now forced to live an idle and dependent life in refugee camps and be ready to make hard and painful decisions.
Bhutanese refugees in Nepal have suffered too much and for too long. They deserve a better life for themselves and generations to come. Political ambitions of few refugee leaders should not be allowed to dwarf the future of fellow citizens. In addition, it is a duty of refugee leaders to provide younger generation refugees languishing in refugee camps with an opportunity to enjoy the rights to the freedom of movement, education, access to employment even if it is on foreign land. It is far better to be a citizen of sovereign nation than live a life of refugee forever. Warehousing these productive brave men and women in refugee camps is a waste of humanity.
The author is a doctoral candidate of Environmental Science and Public Policy at George Mason University, Virginia and can be reached at hbdulal @ gmu.edu