The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, October 27, 2006


Interview with Tek Nath Rizal

The one-and-half-decade-long Bhutanese refugee crisis seemed to have reached a turning point with the recent US proposal to resettle up to 60,000 refugees in the United States. While a majority of refugees have hailed the proposal, the proposal itself has caused a major rift to develop between the refugee leaders. Tek Nath Rizal, a Bhutanese refugee leader and humanitarian who has been continuously fighting for a dignified repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees for the last 15 years, talks to ekantipur's Sanjeev Satgainya on the US proposal, bilateral talks between Nepal-Bhutan government and his views on how the situation can be solved. Excerpts:

Q: Today (October 19), Ellen Sauerbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, who had put forward the proposal of resettlement, has through an article in The Kathmandu Post (and Kantipur Daily) made her viewpoint clear insisting on resettlement. Your comments…

Tek Nath Rizal: In the last 16 years what the United States has done for us Bhutanese refugees is undoubtedly commendable. We sincerely want to extend our thanks to the government of the United States. The Bhutanese refugees, who have been living a subhuman life, have been getting so much help, all thanks to the US government. On humanitarian grounds, what the US government has offered to the Bhutanese refugees definitely seems to be winning the hearts of many refugees in several camps in eastern Nepal. And this is for sure a praiseworthy proposal by the US government. But this is not the solution or the only option to resolve the one-and-half-decade-long crisis.

Q: But you seem to have mellowed down on your comments after going through today's piece by Sauerbrey. There were some aggressive statements by you immediately after the proposal.

Rizal: I told you that I appreciate the US proposal wholeheartedly on humanitarian grounds only...

Q: But that's what the intention of the United States is behind the resettlement proposal, as says Sauerbrey.

Rizal: That's why I appreciate it. And we should not be discourteous to anybody or any government who has in the past offered so much help. But the point I am trying to raise is at a time when the repatriation process should have been initiated the international community, including the United States, should have put more pressure to repatriate the Bhutanese to their homeland. Such options do nothing but create a rift among the refugees and allow unwanted players to create chaos.

Q: Who are you trying to indicate?

Rizal: No particular group or individual. But you have seen that since the proposal, some problems have been raised by the refugees.

Q: But what if the refugees accept the idea of third country resettlement, which will definitely help better their lives.

Rizal: The ultimate fight will end when we fulfil all our aspirations. We have been fighting for our rights, for a dignified repatriation in order to go back to our homeland and spend the rest of our lives there with respect. We need our property back that has been seized by the Bhutanese king. We have our relatives there and we want to live the rest of our lives with them in our homeland. The third country resettlement is not going to provide us that.

Q: Let's come to another issue. Several rounds of bilateral talks between the government of Nepal and Bhutan have failed to yield any result. What do you think is the major cause behind the failure? Another round of talks is in the offing, are you hopeful about this round of talks yielding any results?

Rizal: The foremost thing, which I have repeatedly put forward, is all the bilateral talks that have so far been held between the government of Nepal and Bhutan hardly bear any value, at least in terms of resolving the refugee crisis. I don't mind dubbing these talks as dramas organised just to dodge us. I have time and again emphasised on the representation of Bhutanese refugees in the talks. Unless and until representatives from the refugees sit in the talks, we are not going to obtain any concrete solutions on behalf of the refugees. I know the problem better than anyone else because I have suffered, I had to leave my homeland, I know the plight of the refugees and what they aspire to. We have been thrown out of our country just because we speak Nepali. I have been standing against the Bhutanese king's oligarchy and to instate democracy in Bhutan. And instead of the international community playing a major role to put pressure on the Bhutanese king to restore democracy in Bhutan, they are simply trying to blow a different tune. Therefore, no matter how many rounds of talks between the government of Nepal and Bhutan are held, it's useless.

Q: You have also said that India should play a role in resolving the crisis…

Rizal: Definitely. The refugee crisis is never going to end without India's involvement. Time and again even Indian leaders have been vociferous on this issue, but to no avail. The government of Nepal seems to have turned a deaf ear towards our demand that India's role is a must in resolving the crisis.

Q: But why do you think this (Nepal govt not asking the Indian govt for any sort of assistance) is happening?

Rizal: This is a million dollar question indeed. I believe there must be something behind the curtains which restrains the Nepal government and leaders here from talking to India and putting forward a clear view.

Q: What is your assessment about India's part? Do you think India itself does not want this crisis to be resolved?

Rizal: I am not sure and I don't blame the Indian government per se. But I do believe certain segments in India are playing dirty politics.

Q: Can you name them?

Rizal: It's too difficult to properly identify those segments…

Q: But even then, with what you are saying, there must be something on your mind…

Rizal: Maybe some from the bureaucracy…

Q: One major issue that has come about with the US resettlement plan: How is it going to affect the democratic movement in Bhutan? What was the issue of secretaries in refugee camps?

Rizal: I have been repeatedly saying I cannot object to the US proposal. The resettlement proposal has disillusioned some of the refugees. What is the future of the rest of the refugees? Does anyone have the answer? The US proposal has brought about confusion in the refugee camps. Another main issue is a country like the United States which has the power to do something for the refugees has come with such a proposal which is not in a favour of those refugees who have been for the last 15 years fighting for a dignified repatriation. The international community including the United States has the ability to create an atmosphere so that the refugees and the Bhutanese king can hold talks. But this is not happening.
The democracy that is in the offing, as has been purported, will be more degraded. Had the Bhutanese king been a pro-democratic individual, he would not have let all this happen.

Q: What is the issue behind camp secretaries?

Rizal: The UNHCR has selected some people with the purpose to ease the distribution process in the refugee camps. Those people were meant to take care of the distribution process. But in recent days I have seen these people getting involved in politics and blaming me – who has incessantly endeavoured to help make their lives better with dignified repatriation – of playing a negative role. Does this sound fair? Even I was threatened by some. There was not other option in the end but to move ahead by dismissing them. When I visited the camps recently I seized some documents as well which were prepared with the aim of getting those positions filled by those who were willing to resettle.

Q: Now, what are your future plans?

Rizal: There is nothing we can do except put more pressure to install democracy in Bhutan. We want dignified repatriation. The refugees should not be put into a dilemma by floating such proposals (like the US) though I respect their intentions. If things are not resolved in the near future, Nepal is bound to suffer more refugees. There are thousands of Bhutanese refugees – an estimate says around 30,000 – in North Bengal (India).
The crisis has stretched on for too long. I do have one proposal -- dual citizenship should be offered to the refugees.

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