The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, November 7, 2006

BHUTAN: Sixteenth Ministerial Talks- Break through unlikely

BHUTAN: Sixteenth Ministerial Talks- Break through unlikely- Update No 58
By Dr.S.Chandrasekharan.

It looks that the sixteenth ministerial talks between Nepal and Bhutan to be held at Thimpu on November 21-21 are likely to end in failure and what is more it will end in further deterioration of relations between the two countries. This much was evident from the statement of Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister K.P.Oli made recently at an interactive session conducted by the Centre for Alternate Media (CAM) recently on November 3.

Oli reiterated the stand of the Tek Nath Rijal that the only durable solution is “dignified repatriation” and that Bhutan should hold talks with the refugee leaders. He added that it is Bhutan’s problem and not that of Nepal and that repatriation, democracy and human rights are inter linked.

Oli also indicated that the next round of talks will be final and that Nepal would think of other options in case Bhutan does not agree to total repatriation.

Bhutan is said to have expressed surprise at Oli’s remarks that the problem is that of Bhutan and not that of Nepal. In one sense Oli is right- Nepal did not invite the evicted families from Bhutan to settle in eastern Nepal and it was the Indian authorities who brought them in truck loads to deposit them at the Nepal border.

Indications are that Bhutan would continue to stick to the verification of the refugees in the four categories of 1. Citizens 2. Those refugees who had voluntarily given up their citizenship before leaving Bhutan 3. Those who are not citizens of Bhutan and 4. Those who have been involved in criminal activities within Bhutan. Bhutan would continue to maintain that they would take back categories 1 and 4 who at any rate are not many in number. The bulk of the refugees would come under category 2 but it is doubtful whether they would go back with all the stringent restrictions that have been put forward by the Bhutanese authorities.

Bhutan’s position continues to be inflexible. It would continue to insist on verification, harmonisation and classification into four categories that would take many years. The Nepalese authorities on the other hand are unlikely to agree to any further verification.

Bhutan in turn will also not accept participation of the refugee leaders in any talks for finding a solution. It looks that Bhutan may not even accept the term “refugees” though it is unfair to those citizens and the families who have been forcibly evicted from Bhutan sixteen years ago.

Thus there appears to be no meeting ground between the two countries on the refugee issue and nothing will be gained by the meeting that is supposed to be the last.

Protests Continue:

The refugees have started an indefinite strike in front of the UN House in Kathmandu demanding an immediate but a durable solution to the protracted refugee crisis. Incidents of groups of refugees sponsored by the HUROB ( Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan) and the BGNLF ( Bhutan Gorkha National Liberation Front ) surreptiously entering Bhutan and getting arrested after demonstrations, continue.

The US Offer:

Both Tek Nath Rijal and HUROB are totally opposed to the US offer of taking 50 to 60 thousand refugees for settlement. It is their view and in line with the position of Nepal Government that it is just not just a humanitarian issue but one that is intertwined with human rights and democracy.

Rijal’s position as is known is-

1. The offer of United States is not the only option to resolve the one and half decade old crisis. (Is there any other realistic option left now?)

2. Instead the US should have put more pressure on Bhutan to take back the refugees to their home land.

3. Third country settlement will not provide a. dignified return to their homeland for those who wish to spend their lives with respect. b. They would rather get their seized properties back and live peacefully with their relatives thereafter in their country- Bhutan. (Here he talks of the older people who long to go back to their native land but their numbers are diminishing. Younger elements who are getting frustrated with no opportunities and nothing else to do will see it differently)

4. Indian Role is a must but India is reluctant to get involved. It is some sections particularly within the Indian bureaucracy who are opposed to the repatriation. (India continues to maintain that it is a bilateral affair though in actual fact, it is a tripartite affair)

5. There is no future for those refugees left out after the resettlement. The US proposal has only brought in confusion among the refugees. ( Here we are talking about genuine citizens who are refugees now. Over 75 percent of refugees would come under categories 1 & 2. Those who in the beginning had no claims for Bhutanese citizenship cannot now claim for third country settlement)

6. He has just one proposal of providing “dual citizenship.” ( This point is not clear- when the refugees are still battling to get their citizenship restored, the question of another citizenship does not arise!)

The HUROB has added certain additional points in opposing third country settlement. These are-

7. The offer of US would encourage Bhutan to evict more southern Bhutanese who have been categorised into groups F5 to F7 in the recent census. The US offer would thus create more refugees and burden to Nepal.

8. The offer would have been more appropriate if done after consultation with refugee leaders and proper studies of the impact on other remaining 40,000 plus refugees and the southern Bhutanese living in Bhutan.

9. There appears to be no concern for the Southern Bhutanese living in Bhutan who are being treated as second class citizens and who are deprived from all government facilities and opportunities.

The HUROB was good enough to concede that it is up to the refugees to decide their fate and destiny. This is precisely what we have been saying that the politicals should not interfere and prevent those who wish to go and who wish their children to have a bright future.

The US may take in about 60,000 refugees over a period of time and countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and other EU countries are also interested in taking some of the refugees for resettlement. This would cover almost all those who wish to go for third country settlement.

The issue of Southern Bhutanese still living in Bhutan has never been brought up and has never been thought of all these years when ‘repatriation with dignity’ was the objective of almost all the refugees. Bringing them in on this issue now will only further complicate matters and place their lives and properties in jeopardy.

It is sixteen years now since the refugee camps were established and we repeat not a single individual has so far been repatriated. Of the 106000 refugees in the camps, over 20 thousand young ones may not even remember their native places where their parents led a prosperous life. The only chance they have now is to go to places where they are welcome and where there have opportunities to have better education and better life. The parents of those having children 20 years and below would rather sacrifice their personal interests and go to such places where their children have a future and not wait indefinitely for return to Bhutan with dignity.

One can understand Rijal’s anger. But his statements and anguish should not complicate the lives of those inside Bhutan and those outside who are willing to take the chance for resettlement. It is understood that roughly 60 percent of those in the camps are for third country settlement. They should be allowed to go no matter what Rijal or the HUROB may think of the adverse consequences. Rather, both should work towards a peaceful settlement and repatriation of the rest of those eligible and are willing to return.

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