The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bhutan: Shangri-La or Ethnic Cleanser?

Bhutan: Shangri-La or Ethnic Cleanser?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 @ 22:28 UTC
by Sonam Ongmo

A few years ago when the Fourth King of Bhutan voluntarily stepped down to make way for democracy, there was a spate of articles in the media about Bhutan. Almost all these articles – with a few exceptions – could be grouped into two camps: one glorified Bhutan as the last Shangri-la, the others claimed that it practiced ethnic cleansing.

The National Geographic aired a documentary which named Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom as the world's last Shangri-La. It celebrated its mountains, glacial walls, alpine highlands and misty forests and mentioned “Bhutan is a Living Eden where respect for life, in all its many incarnations, endures like the land itself”.

Landscape of Bhutan. Image by Flickr user Jmhullot, used under a creative commons license
Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar at Real clear World said:

Bhutan has done many things to deserve its Shangri-La reputation. Its forest cover is a very high 72%, and it has pledged to keep this above 60 % for eternity.

Meanwhile, Nanda Gautam at Ex Ponto countered:

A new trend in the sphere of human rights violations is flourishing! In contrast to Bhutan’s development philosophy called ‘Gross National Happiness,’ which many delegations visiting Bhutan are proclaiming a ‘good lesson’, Bhutan also offers a bad lesson: strategic violence in the form of ethnic cleansing, a lesson the world powers will find difficult to deal with. The ordeal of Tel Nath Rizal reflects how the state’s violation of one person’s rights spilled over to affect an entire minority. The minority population has already been reduced dramatically.

Most of these writers, if not all, were not Bhutanese. So how is it that they came to view this small country – the size of Switzerland and a population of 600,000 – in such extremes?

The first group, the admirers, usually came from the west where capitalism has led to a way of life that may have equipped them with material contents, but left many with a gaping spiritual void. They are people seeking for things they do not find in their own cultures; yet find it elsewhere. Often in places like Bhutan – largely mysterious, exotic and peaceful. So when they find it, they tend to see only the things they want to see and find only the things they want to find.

But this also applies to the second camp, the ones who hate Bhutan. They have little or no understanding of the country’s geo-political situation. They don’t understand the history or the complex nature of the refugee problem; and they are either sympathizing with the cause, or they just need a cause.

For the first camp, the search for Shangri-la didn’t just happen; it has been ongoing since 1933 when James Hilton depicted a Shangri-la in his novel, Lost Horizon based on an article by Joseph Rock about his travels to the Tibetan borderlands. But more often than not, it is Hilton’s version that they are after thus refusing to see Bhutan as a country like any other – inhabited by human beings, with its share of problems.

Bhutan is far from being the Utopia despite its largely tranquil history. As a poor country Bhutan has its share of social problems and challenges and the biggest blight to its good reputation so far has been the issue of the refugees.

A nation-wide census in the 80’s found thousands of illegal settlers along the country’s southern borders. Most of these people were Nepalese people from Nepal and India who came to Bhutan seeking economic opportunities and utilize the large tracts of free agricultural land along porous borders. Free health and educational facilities were also an added attraction. At around this time, some Lhotsampas (Ethnic Nepali-speaking Bhutanese) who were educated by the Bhutanese government in overseas universities like Harvard and Cambridge returned to Bhutan nursing their own political ambitions.

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Image by Sudeshna Sarkar, ISN Security Watch
The problem came to a head when the Bhutanese government demanded all illegal settlers, leave the country. This decision was opposed by the ambitious Lhotsampa leaders who sympathized with the settlers and so mobilized protests against the Bhutanese government demanding democracy and overthrow of the monarch. The environment to nurse their political ambitions was extremely favorable. They galvanized the southern people’s discontent with violent protests in which they decapitated heads of two Bhutanese and planted them at a government office. The Bhutanese government who had never experienced anything like this cracked down and arrested many of the leaders while some escaped to Nepal.

What resulted was a situation where both sides accused the other of what unfolded. Lhotsampas claim that anybody who was Nepali-speaking was forced out of the country. As the Bhutanese Community of South Australia blog mentions:

From 1988, the human rights situation aggravated, when Royal Government enacted discriminatory policies to depopulate the Lhotshampas - Southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, predominantly Hindus.

The Royal government treats Lhotsampas as second class citizens. They are persecuted, discriminated and denied the most basics like access to education and health facilities. They are deprived of their cultural rights and are forced to adopt the cultural tradition, costume and language of the ruling elite. In the late eighties, the Royal Government adopted retroactive citizenship legislation and started to disenfranchise and depopulate the Lhotshampas. Tens and thousands of them were forcibly evicted, who ended up in the United Nations established refugees camps in Nepal. [..]

Having failed to see the possibility of repatriation, a vast number of Bhutanese refugees have accepted the offer given by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherland, New Zealand, Norway and United States for third country resettlement.

The Bhutanese government claimed that while some were asked to leave, many citizens left voluntarily under threats from their own leaders. Bhutan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley wrote at Bhutannica:

The situation in the south is not a simple problem. Its causes are complex and perplexing as the resultant human drama that is unfolding before us. Just who is the victim or villain is a valid question. The answer must be sought with a deeper understanding of the problem. [..]

Among the villagers in' the south, every day is a nightmare. But their voice is not heard by the media, and their human rights appear not to be of any importance. Explanations by the Government are dismissed as propaganda and plain untruths. Even concrete evidence is seen as fabrications.

The Bhutanese feel that they have been betrayed by a people they had welcomed, in whom they had placed their trust and with whom they were willing to share a common destiny. But the general attitude of the Bhutanese toward their southern compatriots do not indicate any rancour.

The adoption of human rights is a convenient banner that the dissidents and the Nepalese supporters have raised before the international community. But their greater aim is to generate international sympathy for the dissident cause, which is to grab political power.

The story got complicated as the refugees arrived in Nepal. UNHCR set up camps for the Bhutanse refugees in which free food and stipend was given and in a few years the numbers rose from 5000 (1991) to 100,000. The handouts attracted many people other than Bhutanese to those camps as more than half of Nepal's population live on less than a dollar a day.

Ethnic cleansing is a very serious charge. People who make that accusation about Bhutan should visit the country and see that thousands of Nepali-speaking people still live and work there; that even before the crisis the Fourth King encouraged integration of the ethnic groups through inter marriage with special cash incentives. Many even hold very senior positions in the government.

So what is Bhutan? A ‘Shangri-La' or ‘ethnic cleanser'? Neither, is the answer. And it would be nice if people really stopped imposing their dreams of an Eden, or their disillusionment of failed political causes and ambitions, on this little Country.

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