The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Going Nowhere

Some 90,000 ethnic Nepalese have quit Bhutan. Officials say it was voluntary; the "refugees" say they were forced out. The truth lies somewhere in betweenStory and pictures by Thomas Laird

"We're Citizens" The government says the ID cards are forged and that these people are illegal Nepalese immigrants; the "refugees" say they're Bhutanese and demand justice

The way Thakhur Prasad Louitel tells it, his eviction began at 9:30 one morning when the police arrived as his farm and marched him to their camp. "They didn't begin to torture me until 1:30 p.m. They kept me tied up and took turns beating me with sticks. I passed out. After I woke up they started beating me again. That went on all night. The next morning they threw me out and said, 'You'd better get out of Bhutan, or we're going to burn down your house with you in it.'" That was Dec. 3, 1991.

Today Louitel, 50, inhabits a mud-floor hut in southeastern Nepal, one of 90,000 southern Bhutanese of Nepalese descent eking out a life in camps supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Like Louitel, most are Hindu and say that the state engineered their eviction -- a claim that is backed up by Amnesty International, among others. Not so, says the Bhutan government: these people voluntarily emigrated after an "anti-national" revolt led by illegal Nepalese immigrants collapsed in 1990.

Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering states the government's case. "We're a tiny nation of 600,000, the last outpost of an ancient civilization, threatened with extinction, wedged between the two most populated nations on earth. So for us, national survival is at the top of our agenda, always. We are so small we can vanish without the world even thinking twice about it. Our feeling was that within a generation we would become a minority within our own country. Not from the legal Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens, but from illegal immigrants. Still, we never used extra-legal means to correct this. We are Buddhist, and this is just not part of our culture."

Om Pradhan is Bhutan's minister of trade and industry. The highest-ranking Bhutanese of Nepalese descent in government, he reminds me that despite the exodus, one quarter of Bhutan's civil servants are of Nepalese descent, as is 30% of the population. He flatly denies that Louitel, or anyone for that matter, was forced out of Bhutan. "I have not heard of any case like this," he says. "All I have heard are rumors." The same goes for high court judge Dasho Katwal -- though he acts nervous when asked how many cases of forced eviction have reached court. "Not a single case," says the judge.

If the government is telling the truth, then Louitel and his 90,000 counterparts are illegal immigrants or Bhutanese citizens who "voluntarily" renounced their citizenship. Visit the camps, however, and every person you meet pulls out his or her Bhutanese citizenship ID card (forged, says the government). And land tax receipts, many going back 30 years or more (illegally acquired, says the government). And photos of smiling families in front of their farms and schools in Bhutan. Surely something made these people leave their homes.

The government gives many reasons for the exodus but nothing enrages camp inhabitants more than the oft-repeated line that they left for the free food and opportunity to shirk work. Bhim Subba, an exiled civil servant, gets very upset when he hears this. "Is there any human being, however poor, who would exchange his simple home for a bowl of rice in a refugee camp? Do I have to defend us against this slander?"

So polarized are the two sides that many people in Bhutan believe the UNHCR created the refugee problem. They say the prospect of free food "pulled" camp residents out of southern Bhutan, where most ethnic Nepalese live. Such exaggerations are not confined to the government. Consider the "refugees'" claim that none of them threatened the state. Says Bhim Subba: "The government alleges there are refugees because there was a political disturbance. But it is the reverse: it's not that we were politically active and then thrown out. Forced out, we had to develop a political structure to get home."

Yet Bhim has certainly read the incendiary pamphlet published in the late 1980s by now-exiled leader Ratan Gazmere, just before demonstrations shook Bhutan. Seditious by almost any measure, the tract reads: "The hour has struck for the historic conflict. Now has come the time for us to demand our freedom. A handful of Drukpas [northern Bhutanese] are ruling Bhutan in a very brutal and uncivilized way. Once Chhoygal Raja of Sikkim ruled his country in a similar way but that led the country to become an Indian state. At present the Drukpa rulers are marching the Chhogyal way."

Again and again, both sides point to Sikkim, where Hindu-Nepalese migrants eventually outnumbered the Buddhist natives and then voted the independent state out of existence. The issue remains controversial; to this day China does not recognize India's sovereignty over Sikkim, as President Jiang Zemin made clear last month in New Delhi. The Bhutan government points to Gazmere's pamphlet as evidence that there was a conspiracy to populate Bhutan with illegal Nepalese immigrants and obliterate the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.

"The fact of the matter," says Foreign Minister Tsering, "is that Nepalese people are migrating. There is a population explosion in Nepal. The economy is not well-managed. Many people are leaving to look for jobs." In a barely veiled reference to the sex trade, he adds: "They are exporting girls and women. When you start exporting women, you are scratching the bottom of the barrel."

For every charge there is a counter-charge: round and round it goes. As with any family dispute outsiders quickly lose interest. In a world with 25 million refugees, 90,000 more barely register. India, which could bring to bear its influence, insists it is a matter between Nepal and Bhutan and urges both to continue talking. Not that it is hard to see where Delhi stands; as people fled Bhutan, it pushed them into Nepal and today arrests those trying to return to Bhutan via India. The other Asian powers sit silent, while the West focuses on its own domestic concerns.

And so the camp dwellers mount protest marches and letter-writing campaigns, or sit around waiting (and making terrorist attacks on southern Bhutan, says the government). Bhutan and Nepal have been negotiating the fate of these people for three years. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel characterizes the talks as "too slow," but won't describe the people in the camps as "Bhutanese refugees," saying this is the very point being negotiated. The differences between the two sides show no sign of convergence. Who are we to believe? What really happened? And why?

After six months of investigation in Nepal, Bhutan and the camps, several things seem clear. The Bhutan government tried to preempt what it saw as a demographic war, and many citizens of Nepali descent fled or were illegally expelled. Some camp dwellers (and Nepali politicians) gave Bhutan reason to suspect they wanted to oust the government. Both sides now try to hide any complicity. To understand how all this came about we must go back to when Nepalese began migrating to Bhutan.

Nepalese have looked beyond their borders for work ever since the British started recruiting Gurkhas early in the last century. In the 1900s, a Bhutanese "baron" won the right to tax Nepalese who were settling and farming Bhutan's sparsely populated southern plains. At the time the country was enjoying unprecedented prosperity under King Ugyen Wangchuck. He had replaced a tottering theocracy with a hereditary monarchy, though Buddhism remained the national faith.

The king appointed a man named Ugyen Dorji to oversee Nepalese immigration. His great-grandson Benji Dorji, now secretary of the environment, recalls traveling around his father's southern "fiefdom" as a boy. "One thing I noticed is that every house had a picture of the king and queen of Nepal. Not the king of Bhutan. So there was no great sign of identification with Bhutan. And after they cleared the forests and built up a nice farmstead, they would sell up and leave. That is how it seemed to me."

The Bhutanese banned the Hindu settlers from moving to the northern Buddhist parts of the country. For many years the communities lived in mutual isolation and for the most part the northerners viewed the southerners as useful servants, certainly not equals.

In the 1950s, prime minister Jigmi Dorji, Benji's father, led a clique of young nobles bent on modernizing Bhutan. They found a ready sponsor in Bhutan's third monarch, King Jigme Dorje Wangchuck (1926-1972). The legal status of the Nepalese settlers was one of the first things the king updated.

According to Benji, his dad told the king that a modern Bhutan could not have parallel administrations, and the southern one was shut down. "In 1958 the word went out that there were not to be any new settlements. Then my father requested the king to legalize the status of Nepalese settlers as citizens. It was passed in the National Assembly that anyone settled before 1958 was a citizen. Everyone thereafter had to apply."

Northern Bhutanese like Benji tend to present King Jigme Dorje's reforms as if they took place in a political vacuum. They did not. In 1952, Nepalese settlers heartened by the birth of the Nepal Congress Party set up the Bhutan State Congress. Bhutan's first political party launched a democracy movement (northerners call it "the first anti-national revolt") and urged the king to grant citizenship and political representation to Nepalese settlers.

Not so coincidentally democracy was stirring nearby, in newly independent India, as well as Nepal. In fact, it is widely suspected India's Congress Party covertly aided sister groups in Bhutan and Nepal. Certainly Girija Prasad Koirala, Nepal PM from 1991 to 1994, says he went to Bhutan in the '50s to organize his brethren. In 1991 he said: "Yes, I organized Bhutan State Congress after the 1950 revolution in Nepal. We wanted Bhutan [to] be free of the dictatorial system."

The remark won him few Bhutanese friends. Says Dorji: "Koirala made it clear he has tried since the 1950s to depose the 'despotic regime of the King of Bhutan,'" he says. "And this is the same man who welcomed the refugees. Can't you see the Nepalese were using the refugee issue as part of an attempt to overthrow our government?" (Some in Nepal's current government question Koirala's handling of the refugee crisis.)

Ironically, what Koirala helped start in Bhutan in the 1950s did not immediately take root in Nepal. In Bhutan, however, King Jigme's outreach to the Hindu minority (forced or not) paid handsome dividends. Even exiles say that for many years the northern Bhutanese made Herculean efforts to integrate southerners. The government paid bonuses to couples who wed across ethnic lines. Schools, roads and hospitals were built in the south and a third of the civil servants were drawn from there.

Within a generation, South Asia's most effective and meritocratic civil service had overseen the transformation of Bhutan. It was this explosive growth that helped spark the current troubles. The government could not pay its citizens enough to build all the roads, dams, hospitals and schools. So once again Bhutan began importing cheap Nepalese labor.

During the '60s and '70s tens of thousands of Nepalese contract laborers entered Bhutan. Northerners say many never left, thanks to southern census record keepers who allegedly helped economic migrants acquire false documents. For some reason it took 10 years for South Asia's most efficient civil service to notice that anything was awry.

By the late 1980s the population in some southern districts had doubled, and suddenly the government woke up. Its initial response: a more rigorous census. Precisely what happened next is difficult for an outsider to determine. Somehow a climate of fear and distrust developed between two communities that at least outwardly had learned to coexist.

From the southerners' view, the census was conducted with obvious ill intent. They say 30 years after the fact authorities suddenly demanded a 1958 land tax receipt as proof of citizenship. The government says this is a distortion fabricated by illegal immigrants to frighten legal Nepalese citizens into joining the "anti-national movement." Whatever the truth, between 10,000 and 100,000 people were classified non-nationals, though the government has never released exact figures.

At this tense juncture the government made two tactical errors. It halted Nepali instruction in the schools, and required all citizens to don the traditional robe of the northern Bhutanese when visiting government facilities or attending public gatherings. Officials admit mistakes were made, but insist they scrapped Nepali in the schools because young students could not absorb three languages: English, Dzongkha and Nepali. They also deny the new policies were enforced with fines, jailings and harassment, as southerners claim.

"There was some misperception and the Nepalese were frightened," says Dorji. "I had a southern girl working in my house. One day she came home from school crying and said the teacher made her cut her hair. I called the director of education and said, 'This isn't government policy. Call that teacher and punish him. Tell him what this policy means and what it doesn't mean.'"

Dorji laughs when I suggest that the hair cut was exactly the sort of act repeated many times by northerners that fueled the exodus. Nor did he take seriously the theory that if such things could happen to the servant of a minister then probably much worse was taking place in the countryside.

It was in this chaotic climate that a series of protests broke out in southern Bhutan in the fall of 1990. Of course each side blames the other. Southerners say they were subjected to a government-led campaign of terror. Northerners say the Nepalese torched schools, hospitals and census records and tore legally required robes from people. The Nepalese say they demonstrated to protest against the language, dress and census policies -- and to plead for more democracy. The government says these issues were a pretext for a rebellion that was inspired by a "People's Movement" that had re-established democracy in Nepal a few months earlier.

MORAL AUTHORITY The king vowed to abdicate pending a permanent solution of the "anti-national problem" -- and shortly the exodus began

The protests either fizzled out for lack of popular support or were fiercely repressed. Either way, at that point there was no exodus, and for nearly a year there was a pause in the chain of events. The tense peace came to a end in late 1991, shortly after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck informed the National Assembly that he would abdicate unless he could find a permanent solution to the "anti-national" problem. For once, there is ample documentation of what happened.

"The Proceedings and Resolutions of the 70th Session of the National Assembly of Bhutan" make clear strange things were afoot in October of 1991. The document goes on for some pages, detailing government largesse to southerners. "Despite this," it reads, "they had turned and bitten the hand that had been feeding them." The outrage was palpable in the Assembly."The public is ready to fight these anti-nationals," said one assemblyman, "and requests the government to grant permission to the loyal citizens to fight them."

Twenty proposals were debated regarding the eviction of "anti-nationals" due to "treachery." While some members believed "only those involved in anti-national activities should be evicted," most said "all southern Bhutanese should be evicted," even civil servants and those wed to "original" Bhutanese. Said Home Minister Lyonpo Dago Tsering: "The public would identify anti-nationals and evict them."

DEMOCRACY AT WORK In October, 1991 the National Assembly debated 20 proposals regarding the eviction of "anti-nationals" due to "treachery"

Also on the agenda was a government plan to reclaim large tracts of land in southern Bhutan held by "illegal means." There was more. The government would acquire land because southern Bhutanese were "selling [it] and leaving the country." This is odd because at the time less than 5,000 southerners had left and it was only in the coming year that 70,000 people would flee ("voluntarily apply to migrate," says the government), leaving large swathes of real estate in the hands of the state. Yet here were officials already suggesting that the land be "distributed to the security forces and militia volunteers" -- the very people, say the refugees, who kicked them out.

And where did the king stand on all this? According to the record, he "was pleased representatives of the government and the public had brought up the proposal of evicting anti-nationals with the objective of safeguarding the security and well-being of the country." The king also applauded the plan to give land to the militia.

Foreign minister Tsering concluded: "If His Majesty's far-sighted policies on the anti-national problem were given unstinted support by the people, a permanent solution was possible." Then, despite the pleas of assemblymen, the king made his astounding vow to abdicate. Before long, the news had spread to towns throughout Bhutan -- and the exodus began.

There was never any official decision to target all southerners; nor to let the public evict them. Yet not once during the discussions did the king question either idea. Then in January of 1992, two months after his vow to abdicate, he made his intentions clear, decreeing it a punishable offense "for any administrative or security official to force any Bhutanese national to leave the country under duress." By then an Amnesty International team was on the ground to find out why 10,000 people were pouring into Nepal each month.

Later that month, the king sent an investigative team south to look into the mounting charges that authorities had forcibly evicted southern Bhutanese. According to Kuensel, Bhutan's government-owned weekly, "the team discovered that two families had already left under such intimidation." Included in the team was a certain high court judge of Nepalese descent, Dasho Katwal, the very man who later assured me "not one case" had been brought to court.

The case Katwal chose to forget made it to the high court in 1992, and he was one of the magistrates presiding. It concerned Bachala Maya Acharya, a woman allegedly evicted illegally from her land by a local judge. As the case ground along, once again the king addressed the Assembly. "Far from forcefully evicting people from southern Bhutan as alleged by anti-nationals," said the king, "the government had been doing everything possible to change the minds of the Southerners who applied to emigrate. Not a single anti-national had been forced to leave the country."

One month later the court handed down its ruling. According to Kuensel, "a team of officials had visited Bachala Maya Acharya's house to investigate her property. This was interpreted as a move to force her to leave. The judiciary pronounced this procedure was wrong. But if the motive for the summons was to evict Bachala Maya Acharya, the High Court found no evidence for this. Bachala Maya Acharya had applied to emigrate." Two minor officials earned slaps on the wrist. Today they work for the state; Bachala Maya lives in a camp.

She has a rather different version of events. It goes like this: Police and militia would arrive at her house perhaps 10 times a month and ask, "When are you leaving Bhutan?" One day two trucks carrying soldiers and a civil servant pulled up. They took inventory of every chair, blanket and bag of rice in her home, shop and rice mill. The next day the army loaded up all her possessions and drove away.

It was a cold day in January that she sat in the empty shell of her home with a few broken pots and rags. It was at this point that members of the investigation team arrived from the capital. Bachala Maya recalls giving them an earful. "I saw the home minister and told him what they had done. I told him I didn't want to leave. He told me I should stay. But when I asked for a letter to show the police, he refused. He said I could stay, but he did nothing to stop the police."

Bachala Maya says things got especially ugly on her last night in Bhutan. After hours of threats and taunts, she claims the police hauled her outdoors, put a gun to her head and asked: "Are you going to leave or do we have to shoot you?" She and her family left the next day. "If the house is on fire you can put it out. If a flood is rising you can run. But when the king comes after you, where are you going to hide?"

Five years later Bachala Maya is waiting to go home. There is little reason to believe that will happen any time soon. Both sides remain publicly entrenched. Both continue to portray themselves as innocent victims. Some refugees demand political reform as a pre-condition of their return, hardening the government view that this was the motive for the exodus in the first place. Some officials still favor a "demographic balance" -- that is, keeping the Nepalese a minority at 20% of the population.

In private, however, both sides act more accommodating. Consider the words of a senior Bhutan official. "Some members of the security forces probably did engage in over zealous actions that frightened some citizens into leaving the country. But it was never government policy. And I cannot publicly criticize the security forces." Now consider the remarks of an exiled leader. "If the government is willing to admit officials might have illegally frightened people to leave, why should it be hard for us to admit that some people, raised in the camps, might without the intention of the dissident leaders be returning to Bhutan to vent rage and perhaps engage in common criminal activity? And sure, some young boys in 1990 might have played out Rambo fantasies. But it was never organized."

If left to fester, refugee camps breed terrorists. As it is, the government claims militants trained in Nepal have attacked Bhutan; it publishes putative photos of them on the front page of Kuensel. Though the dissident leaders say such actions are beyond their control, all a conflagration requires is one spark. Now is the time for dialogue -- and if the private comments of each side are anything to go by, there is a willingness to compromise, however grudging, and to admit that the issue is not black and white. Yet for the most part the world sits idly by. Without serious diplomatic pressure by India, the U.S. and Europe, the current stalemate will continue -- or turn ugly. Until then, Bachala Maya Acharya and thousands of fellow refugees -- many of them innocent farmers -- will sit and wait.

-- Thomas Laird is a Kathmandu-based Asiaweek contributor

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