Bhutanese prime minister Jigme Y Thinlay has reportedly expressed Bhutan's desire to resume the derailed bilateral consultation with Nepal over the refugee issue. Bhutan has over the years, strategically, procrastinated the solution-seeking process and shifted the onus on Nepal. It has floated the propaganda that its seriousness over the refugee issue notwithstanding, Nepal's political instability and vacillation in its refugee diplomacy pre-empted a solution. With a new government in place in Kathmandu with a secure numerical strength, Thimphu will have no immediate alibi to further forestall bilateralism. Should Nepal opt to evade the alleged culpability, it must resume bilateral exercise at the earliest.
Here are a few significant issues for Nepal to be cognizant of while engaging Bhutan in the future bilateral exercise.
Human classification: A series of Nepal-Bhutan bilateral talks held over a number of years were based on a wrong premise of human classification. This was in turn based on Bhutan's maneuvering that there were non-Bhutanese in the camps. Bhutan's intention has been loud and clear: To minimize the southern Bhutanese population to fit its sectarian nationalist agenda that warrants minimizing the southern Bhutanese strength. Refugee classification is an effort to preempt return of as many Bhutanese as possible. Classification as malafide per se is unambiguous, given its result that criminalizes scores of infants classifying them in the criminal category!
Any future engagement needs to undo these wrongs perpetrated previously.
Conditions imposed upon possible returnees: The post-classification Agreed Position on the Four Categories (APFC) unnerved the refugees as never before. The APFC required the perpetrator government to repatriate just the first category accounting to a paltry 2.5 percent of the total verified. Having thus diminished its responsibility through diplomatic haggling, the Bhutanese government imposed a series of conditions upon possible returnees to be considered worthy of citizenship, a status that was robbed of them years ago. The process lacked transparency.
While the Bhutanese government claims that the conditions were integral to bilateral diplomatic process, the Nepali side maintains that Bhutan imposed them without its acquiescence and contrary to the terms and conditions as agreed in the Ministerial Joint Committee.
The conditions include a compulsory probation period of two years wherein the repatriates' "patriotism" would be tested. Other tenets of this weird examination are that one "must not be engaged in activities that contravene Bhutan's laws, should be able to speak Dzongkha, must have good knowledge of the culture, customs, traditions and history of Bhutan, shall not be associated with activities of any anti-national organization/individuals, must have no record of having spoken or acted against the king, country and people of Bhutan in any manner whatsoever".
Finally, the government reserves the prerogative of whether or not awarding citizenship status to the repatriates upon its subjective satisfaction of having fulfilled the criteria imposed. Any enquiring mind can fathom the mala-fide intention inherent in these set of conditions. Acquiescence to return under such constraints would leave the returnees at the virtual mercy of a very hostile government which precisely was the author of their misery.
And therefore, Bhutanese refugees cannot return under the terms of such draconian conditions. Any future engagement of Nepal with Bhutan must obviate such and other contingencies aimed to defeat the core reason and sanctity of the exercise. Repatriation must be undertaken with honor and dignity, not obviously under the government's whims and fancies.
Simultaneous repatriation: Upon voluntary determination by refugees to return, the two governments must undertake instantaneous repatriation without delaying for the completion of their diplomatic vagrancies. That was one of fallibilities of the past bilateral exercise. Despite determination of their status, refugees' return was delayed to eventually abort the process upon discovering a frail excuse. Bhutan is expected to continue its ingenious tactics of prevaricating the bilateral exercise and repatriation.
Reintegration in the original homesteads: The Bhutanese refugee situation is an expression of Bhutan's homogenizing agenda in perusal of its meta-objective of cultural nationalism. It has not only excluded southern Bhutanese by physical eviction, but has simultaneously unleashed a cultural onslaught on their distinct culture, tradition, customs, religion and language. Even if it were to agree to repatriation, its design is to assimilate them within the Drukpa ethos and to obliterate their distinct identity. This remains a clarion call of the Bhutanese brand of "unique nationalism" propagated in the name of "One Nation, One People." Nepal must raise this concern in any future engagement with Bhutan in right earnest.
Nepal's stake: Nepal must remain cognizant of its stake in the Bhutanese refugee situation. If a durable solution is not found for all the refugees, the responsibility lies with Nepal as the host country. That does not, however, justify any action in haste. Nepal needs to approach cautiously and consistently until the last human being in the camp is integrated either by repatriation or third country settlement. Reintegration is considered the anchor of repatriation, which entails the inclusion of the repatriates in all fronts of the country's mainstream. If that is not achieved, repatriation fails ensuring a holistic solution and remains a shift of venue.
Concerning Bhutanese refugees, repatriation sans Bhutan's serious commitment might usher another influx given Bhutan's ethno-politicking and India's approach. In that event, Nepal may need to face a second brunt. That calls for a conscious approach in its refugee diplomacy. It should work to forge a composite agreement with Bhutan and the core countries that have begun resettling refugees in their national territories. That would bind Bhutan to honor its commitment and also address Nepal's concerns for all the times to come.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Kathmandu School of Law)
Posted on: 2008-08-27 20:35:48 (Server Time)