[This is a reflection after reading the section “Southern Bhutan and its politics” from the book “Bhutan: the roar of thunder dragon,” by *Lyonpo Om Pradhan]
Author Om Pradhan was nine years old when news of the birth of Prince Jigme Singye Wangchuck reached his village Neoly in south- eastern Bhutan. Their destiny brought them together for the rest of their lives, in ups and downs. The two ruled the country with a king- minister relationship, as Akbar and Birbal of Bhutan. *Lyonpo Om Pradhan began to serve the royal government in 1969. He was awarded the red (minister level) scarf in 1977. He served as ambassador and deputy minister, too. From 1985 – 1998, he was the *Lyonpo (Minister) for Trade and Commerce of Bhutan. During 1990s, when dissident movement rose from southern Bhutan, he was the only Southern Bhutanese Minister in the cabinet. He was accused for his dead –silence when the southern Bhutanese were terrorized and evicted en-mass. In this book published 22 years after the mass eviction *Lyonpo Om Pradhan attempts to integrate the Southern Bhutanese dissident movement into the mainstream history of Bhutan. This book is a confluence of three major aspects: first, it is a history of modern Bhutan; second, it attempts to glorify the contribution of the kings; and third, it’s an autobiography of a minister who served the other two. Here, an attempt is made to extract the notion related to the dissident movement only, which is a significant section of the book.
Om’s Father J.B Pradhan was a commissioner deputed by the kings and prime ministers to settle Nepali people in southern Bhutan. The reasons were few and clear: to create a buffer population between British India and Drukpas, to protect the southern border, to clear the forest and cultivate the land, and most importantly, to pay cash tax to the government. The Nepali subject of southern Bhutan and Nepali populations in the region were supportive of Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence. Because of these sentiments and their close association with Dorji family of Kalimpong, Nepali settlers were preferred choice for Southern Bhutan. Throughout the book, there is a continuous emphasis to prove how much loyalist and royalist the southern Bhutanese were and are. The terms ‘Southern Bhutanese’, ‘ethnic Nepalis’ or ‘Lhotsampas’ are interchangeably used however, the author seems more settled with the first term. “What Bhutan is today, is due to the wisdom of the kings” is the take home message of the book. To find “What Bhutan is today” readers have to look outside the book.
The author walks on a tight rope balancing between his positions as a minister intimate to Royal family and a representative of southern Bhutanese who are generally perceived to be the dissidents. He has successfully kept himself as the most neutral force, a sincere witness and a diplomatic writer. He writes putting himself on the shoes of the representative of the southern Bhutanese, both in the country and in exile. He doesn’t hide the mistakes and the excessive handlings. He doesn’t endorse the ill-intentioned words such as Ngolops, terrorists or anti-nationals used by his fellow ministers responsible for creating and (mis) handling the “dissidents”, the term he prefers. The blame of the dissident movement of 1990s is rather directly pointed towards the real cause, the government officials, and dissident leaders.
The causes were real, giving and revoking of citizenships was intentionally mishandled by inappropriately assigned officers. One, Chief of Chirang district coerced eviction and registered the land properties into his asset. Second, a mother was shouting “Please don’t shoot. We will leave the country” (p. 178). ‘Green belt policy’ to grow trees one kilometer from the border, where the people resided most was found enthusiastically enforced. The author led the investigation. He mentions that green belt policy was an ill –conceived attempt that could potentially lead to an international uproar, even if the local dissent could be contained. The cadastral survey and census was carried out together. Without consideration of illiteracy of the people, the poor housing conditions, fragile tax receipt papers, and no proper documents, people were asked to produce in 1988 the documents of 1958 to be counted in the census and retain their citizenships. The southern Bhutanese officials in the government had to intervene and report to the King.
The author was invited to one of the meetings of southern Bhutanese officers that decided to appeal to the king on the issue of the southern Bhutan. The appeal that two royal counselors TN Rizal and BP Bhandary made to the king is included in the annex as ‘Patriotic Appeal of Southern Bhutanese to the King’. He reported to the king and left for china to lead delegation on border issues. On his return, the things had changed, dissents were open.
During the dissident movement, there was no reliable medium for the flow of information. There was no official briefing in national assembly to avoid ethnic hostilities and discrimination in their presentation. The hatred against southern Bhutanese entered the national assembly that went unchecked. Division and discrimination based on ethnicity and region was institutionalized. The speaker or others made no effort to prevent such divisive talks (p. 180).
There are sincere attempts in the book to clarify some of the propagandas that were used from both the government and the dissident sides. King’s sincere attempt to have a unique identity for southern Bhutanese, different from the Gurkhas and Nepalis was criticized on line with ethnic cleansing by the dissidents and the Nepal’s media. King had no intention of imposing a national dress; he wanted a consensus on the matter. The southern Bhutanese officials chose gho and kira instead of any unique dress they were asked to design for themselves. But on the strict imposition that followed, the author talks through a representative royal family member in an anecdote. “How would a prominent lama feel if he was suddenly asked to change into daura –suruwal?” And the royal family member answers “The old persons and bahuns from southern Bhutan must find themselves in the most awkward situation” (P. 195). The unpopular bureaucratic means of implementing well intentioned policies, made all the mistakes.
Author explains that Sikkim fear and greater Nepal threat were used to provoke sentiments against southern Bhutanese. Both propagandas had no basis and relevance to the dissident movement. The book further says Rongthong Kunley Dorji, the dissident leader from the east had little to do with the southern Bhutan. Genuine grievances were included in the petition that two royal counselors from South TN Rizal and BP Bhandari submitted to the king. The culprits were home ministry recruited unprofessional and mostly fresh census officials, who were unreasonable, harsh and humiliating.
There are ample mentions of the dissident leaders and extremist whom he calls Goongdas, but doesn’t name the latter. Author mentions that among the dissident leaders who the king missed the most was Bhim Subba. King had a high regard and great expectations from him. The day king promoted him to director general; Subba had decided to leave the country to join the dissidents. Earlier, when king knew that Subba’s brother had left the country to join the dissidents, he relayed two options through the author: either to convince him to return to the country, or if he insists ask him to join the non-criminal group of dissidents. Author also takes a subtle observation of learning Dzongkha. Southern Bhutanese officials seriously tried to learn Dzongkha. RB Basnet was ahead of Subba and Rizal. The latter two found the ethnic issue easier. Subba was influenced more by his in-laws than the king.
*Lyonpo Pradhan quotes Hari Adhikari, another national assembly member turned dissident: “the greatest loser among all the southern Bhutanese as a result of the strains between the government and the southern Bhutan, in terms of position, privilege, power and properties was *Lyonpo Om Pradhan”. He briefly mentions about other officials turned dissident leaders like DNS Dhakal and Thinley Penjore.
The author seems poorly informed about the situation in the refugee camps. He refers to phrases from the newspapers of those times. He sticks to the government’s verification of 15 to 20 % in the camp and takes for granted the verification went well as reported in the news. Readers from exile will be surprised to find him convinced that there were people in the camps who were not evicted from Bhutan. His limited knowledge of the people and activities in the exile prove his difficulties to reach them.
The book mentions that in August 2006 the US congressional delegation led by Mr Brain Baird to Thimphu negotiated to resettle the Bhutanese Refugees in United States and other western countries on humanitarian ground. It further mentions “the dissident leaders have settled in the west and have abandoned their cause” (p. 184). The citizenship of southern Bhutanese is not clear and many are under dispute. The citizenship of many southern Bhutanese in the country is still in limbo. Their former citizenship cards have not been changed. They are deprived of the privileges, rights, and duties associated with citizenship. It is resulting in a new generation of stateless residents in the country with divided loyalty and a feeling of discrimination (p. 196). Author projects southern population to be 15 to 25% of the total after relying on the government’s attitude towards accepting of southern population (P.185). The new generation of Lhotsampas and children of intermarried couples has grown up with the familiarity of Bhutanese language and culture. He suggests it is now time to once again pursue an inclusive policy to bring the southern Bhutanese into the national fold.
Overall, the author has successfully kept himself as the most neutral force, a sincere witness and a diplomatic writer. He writes putting himself on the roles of the representative of the southern Bhutanese people, both in the country and in exile. It must be the first history book about Bhutan ever written by a Bhutanese minister and one of the rare documents that corroborates the Southern Bhutanese movement as the mainstream politics of the state. The book is edited by Tashi P Wangdi. The expression and flow is consistently well maintained.
*Editor’s note: The designatory words used in the write-up have been retained based upon the insistence of the author unlike what BNS has been practicing.
[ Govinda Rizal, originally from Lodrai, Gayglegphug is one of the Contributing Editors of the Bhutan News Service. He writes about the Bhutanese people in the country and in exile, and about Bhutan’s international border. He blogs at: http://redroom.com/member/govinda-rizal ]