Jan 15th 2009 | GOLDHAP AND THIMPHU The Economist
Going west rather than home
“I HOPED the king might ask us to come back. But it’s been 19 years and we still haven’t been called back,” Vidhyapati Luitel laments. Toothless and wheezing, the 79-year-old solemnly holds up his Bhutanese citizenship card. He and his family also have title deeds for land they owned in Gelephu in southern Bhutan, where his father migrated in 1919.
Now, though, home is a small bamboo hut in Goldhap, one of seven camps where over 100,000 Nepali-speakers have been living since—they say—fleeing or being ejected from Bhutan after 1990. There had just been big demonstrations, and some violent acts of terror, by members of the ethnic-Nepali minority. This followed new laws which deprived many of them of citizenship, strictly imposed the national Tibetan-related culture and ended the teaching of Nepali in schools.
Mr Luitel says soldiers started knocking on doors at midnight and asking who had demonstrated. He says that he had not, but it made no difference. “They took some young and old people to the river bank,” he says. “They made us get down and beat us hard with a stick. Later they told us to leave the country and go to Nepal.” Others say they were imprisoned, tortured and only released on condition that they sign documents promising to leave Bhutan.
Such accounts are dismissed by the government in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, a pleasant town of clean streets and bracing mountain air. A minister, Yeshey Zimba, says the allegations of violence are untruthful propaganda. “That is not in the nature of the government nor the people of Bhutan to do such things.” Indeed, the then king did on several occasions ask ethnic Nepalis not to leave. But most testimony says officials and soldiers ignored this. The government maintains, though, that most of those who left were illegal immigrants. Mr Zimba says many Nepali-speakers entered the tiny country, then “felt comfortable” and so stayed. “But they are not Bhutanese.” Many Nepali-speakers remain among the population; some are government ministers.
Bhutan admits that some of those who left are its citizens but says the number is small. That assertion seems doubtful in the camps, where elderly people abound and the idea of Bhutan as home seems deep-held. But two recent developments appear to be dimming the refugees’ hope of returning. One is the growth of new far-left militant groups in the camps. Festering in Khudanabari camp, one young man says that northern Bhutanese have been resettled on land abandoned by those who fled. He praises a bombing campaign launched to overthrow the Bhutanese government. The emergence of such militancy has caused alarm in Bhutan.
Moreover, in the past year refugees have started leaving the camps to live in the West, a process instigated by America. Helped by the International Organisation for Migration, over 6,000 have left, and more are on their way. They know they will probably never see Bhutan again. At the airstrip nearest to the camps, two busloads arrive for a flight. Many, especially the elderly, look apprehensive. In Goldhap camp, Mr Luitel’s wife says she is too old to move to America but has few illusions about returning to her birthplace. “There might be a new king in Bhutan but I guess they will not take us back,” she says.