By Claire Cozens (AFP)
BELDANGI REFUGEE CAMP, Nepal — Seventeen years ago, Narad Muni Sanyasi was forced to flee his native Bhutan in the middle of the night, leaving his home and all his possessions behind.
Sanyasi was one of more than 100,000 Bhutanese who fled the country when ethnic tensions flared in the early 1990s and who ended up in eastern Nepal, where they have lived ever since in camps run by the UN refugee agency.
Now, the 65-year-old former member of Bhutan's parliament is once again facing threats -- this time apparently from within his own community.
Last month Sanyasi's name appeared on pamphlets distributed by an anonymous group in the Beldangi refugee camp where he works as camp secretary, threatening him and eight other community leaders with death.
The pamphlets accused Sanyasi of supporting the resettlement of the refugees in Western countries and turning his back on the fight for their repatriation in Bhutan -- a charge he strongly denies.
"I am neither against repatriation nor against resettlement. But I was accused of sending my family members to be resettled in a third country," he told AFP in the small bamboo hut that functions as his office.
"No one is so brave they would not be afraid of a death threat. But where can I go? I am responsible for the people in this camp."
The anonymous threats have exposed bitter divisions within the Bhutanese refugee community over a UN scheme under which more than 20,000 of the exiles have resettled in third countries, the majority in the United States.
The ethnic Nepali refugees fled Bhutan, claiming ethnic and political persecution, after the Buddhist kingdom made national dress compulsory and banned the Nepalese language.
Bhutan's government says the people who left were either illegal immigrants or went voluntarily. The refugees, who have no legal right to work or own land in Nepal, insist they are Bhutanese citizens.
Numerous rounds of high-level talks between Nepal and Bhutan have failed to reach an agreement on repatriation.
Police in the nearby town of Damak say they have increased security at Beldangi, the largest of seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal, after a 45-year-old male refugee was murdered there last month.
No one has yet been convicted over the murder, but police say they believe it was linked to the resettlement issue, and they are also providing protection to the eight community leaders whose lives have been threatened.
But with the refugees allowed to move freely in and out of the camps during the day, police say there is a limit to what they can do to protect people.
"Tensions are increasing day by day. We have 50 armed police stationed at the camp, but there are 40,000 refugees there and it is not enough," Damak police inspector Navin Karki told AFP.
Gandhivraj Syangtam, head of the armed police unit at Beldangi, said the murder had exacerbated tensions, but cautioned that not all reported threats were genuine.
"People have been afraid for a long time, that's the nature of refugee camps," he said.
"Those who are threatened will receive protection help from us. But there are also those who claim to be threatened in order to be given priority for resettlement. We have to be very thorough in our investigations."
The UN refugee agency UNHCR points out that the situation has stabilised since resettlement began in 2007, when buses belonging to the International Organisation for Migration were bombed and one refugee died in a scuffle with police.
"Overall the security situation is pretty good. It is very different from two years ago when resettlement started because that created a big debate in the camps," said Mads Madsen, the UNHCR's local field safety adviser.
"Many people were in favour, but there were some who were aggressively opposed, and there were threats and even physical attacks against those who supported resettlement."
Facing little prospect of being allowed to return to Bhutan or settle permanently in Nepal, most of the refugees in the camps have now asked to be resettled, and applications continue to pour in.
"There is no work and no future in the camps, and anyway we don't feel safe here," said Milan Kumar Rana, 22, who hopes to go to Australia with his family.
But there are those who say they will only leave Nepal if it is to return to Bhutan -- and some are prepared to fight to achieve their aim.
Ramesh Chettri fled Bhutan aged just nine, after his family heard reports of what he calls ethnic cleansing.
Now 27, he says he and a group of fellow refugees are preparing a "violent political movement" to fight for democracy in Bhutan, but fear resettlement will weaken their case.
"If the refugees are resettled we will not be able to achieve our goal of returning and fighting for democracy. It will weaken us and strengthen the tyrannical government of Bhutan," he told AFP.
"I understand the temptation to leave the camps. But I am convinced that one day I will return to Bhutan, so I have no difficulty staying here."