The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lack of International Pressure on Situation of Bhutanese Refugees

How keen is the global community to find a "just and lasting" solution to this long held up Bhutanese Refugee Crisis? Perhaps there is no denying that the International community is equally interested in finding a solution to this prolonged impasse. However, the degree of attention and interest displayed by the global community does evidently waver time and again. They suddenly demonstrate periodical keenness, after a while such enthusiasm tends to recede. And this "once in a blue moon" pressure tactic has failed to maintain the momentum for too long.

Every time the global community has displayed strong eagerness, a comparatively positive impact has emerged on the overall issue of finding a lasting solution to this protracted crisis. The agreement on the Modalities of verification; the verification of refugees in the Khudunabari camp; and the promulgation of verification results, however flawed they might be, are some of the progressive steps the International pressure has successfully yielded.

Under the pressure from the International community and Human Rights organizations, Bhutan agreed in May 1993 that "the Royal government of Bhutan will accept full responsibility for [any] bona fide Bhutanese Nationals who has been forcibly evicted.”

Unfortunately such pressure is not sustained, thereby giving the entities directly responsible for creating such a demographic mess enough time and room to keep wrangling and sinisterly avoiding any serious discussions.

I sometimes feel that the Bhutanese refugee impasse has become more an issue to talk and show-off their charitable nature for the International community. They send their sympathy notes scribbled in pittance (read Dollars and Euros), and send plethora of delegation in various names -- quietly mocking the gullibility of this bunch of helpless and hopeless camp inhabitants, again and again.

The fate of Bhutanese Refugees languishing in seven camps in eastern Nepal has been tried and tested umpteen times, but nothing seems to work in their favor , except over a dozen of missions that come here every year from Europe and America for a "sightseeing" tour of the refugee camps. The assurances they bring are quite heavy to bear for a person with heart-ailment, well at the end --- as usual. Nothing moves. Nothing happens.

Many still accuse the global community of not doing anything to help avoid the orchestrated "ethnic cleansing." The United States and the European Nations knew what was going in Bhutan. Had they acted in time, they could have helped stop it from happening altogether.

The US State department has the full knowledge of the entire situation developing inside Bhutan. They could have helped to avoid the massive exodus as the situation deteriorated later in the absence of any international intervention.
An undated State Department country report on Human Rights in Bhutan speaks volume about the American Knowledge in this regard. It also underlines the absurd and impossible requirements Lhotshampas were asked to meet: “In recent years, assimilation has given way to Bhutanization…. The citizenship law [of 1985] retroactively stripped citizenship from Nepalese immigrants who could not document their presence in Bhutan prior to 1968, a nearly impossible requirement in a country with widespread illiteracy which only recently adopted administrative procedures."

Another similar report published by the State Dept. after the situation got out of hand endorses what Refugees have been telling all along. "Tens of thousands [of ethnic Nepalese] were forcefully evicted from the country voluntarily in the face of official sanctioned pressure , including arbitrary arrests , beatings, rape, robberies and other forms of intimidation by police and Army."

One finds enough reason to wonder as to why the International community especially the United States failed to take an initiative in Bhutan or Rwanda; and why it assumed moral high grounds and intervened in Kosovo.

One fails to understand if the basic doctrine of the Human Rights; the yardstick to judge the Rights violations is different in the east that from west. Although the United States displayed unequivocal support for the refugees in the year 2000 but by then much water had flown under the bridge. Karl Inderfurth and Julia Taft played a crucial role in getting the verification started. In his unprecedented move, President Clinton sided with the government of Nepal and the refugees, and urged Bhutan to reach an agreement with Nepal. Should Bhutan fail to agree in the tenth round, Clinton said he would urge multilateral donors to divert the international aid from Bhutan to refugee camps through UNHCR -- as a result Bhutan had no choice but to constitute JVT.

Though President Clinton set a time-frame for the Bhutan to agree, however he set no deadline for the completion of verification. Since his departure, the new administration has almost ignored this whole issue. Lately, the emergence of new Maoists across the sub-continent including Bhutan is worrying the US. Perhaps this new threat may hopefully bring a solution in disguise for the refugees.

India, being a part of the international community has a role to play. The unpleasantly conspicuous indifference of government of India has encouraged the Druk regime to delay and avoid serious discussions on the issue. India has long maintained that this is a bilateral issue and that it has no role to play. Most surprisingly, under the article 2 of Indo-Bhutan Friendship treaty of 1949, India can offer advice to Bhutan in regard to its external relations. But for some invisible reason India has made no move to exercise her prerogative for a noble cause.

After thirteen years of hectic activity, we suddenly find that the Bhutanese refugee impasse has reached nowhere. Instead it has become more complicated both in the matter of 'policy nightmare' of successive Nepalese govt. and in size. The head counts of these camp inhabitants has crossed the 100,000 mark and for obvious reason it won't take a downward turn or maintain status quo under the prevailing fertility rates.

As more refugees are arbitrarily being displaced into India, she will have to get involved eventually. But without a sustained International pressure neither Bhutan nor its patrons in South Block are likely budge substantially.

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