The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Saturday, January 6, 2007

Bhutanese Refugees Need A Break

Bhutanese Refugees Need A Break

The painfully delayed and highly discussed issue of the Bhutanese refugees in the Khudunabari camps of Nepal hit a new problem recently, after the Bhutanese foreign minister, Khandu Wangchuk, claimed that the refugees were "infiltrated by the ready made political parties and terrorists."

The Minister also claimed that the refugees were "infiltrated by the Maoists" of Nepal, as his other colleagues who addressed the parliament remarked similarly, terming the refugees as "a threat to Bhutan's security."

For fifteen years, about 106,000 Bhutanese refugees have been living in the makeshift camps in the southeastern part of Nepal, most of which are sponsored by the UNHCR.

The refugees are the large chunk of southern Bhutanese citizens of Nepali ethnicity (also known as the Lhotsampas), who were forcefully evicted by the Bhutanese authority as per the controversial policy of "ethnic cleansing" perpetuated by the Bhutanese King.

As a number of negotiation attempts between the Bhutanese and the Nepalese authority failed in the past, no concrete attempts to resume the bilateral talks have yet been initiated, and both countries are still not showing utmost interest in solving this lengthy crisis that is condemning about 1/6th of the Bhutanese population to live in the Nepali territory in a dilapidated condition.

With utterly low basic resources, economic prospects, and facilities, the refugees are living in a vulnerable condition, which has also sabotaged their plans of sustaining their lives in the future.

While the refugees are themselves suffering in the absence of any adequate physical and commercial benefits, their presence has also aroused dissatisfaction among the other local Nepalis living in the region, who have been claiming that the refugees are spoiling the environment, contributing to social instability around the camps, and impairing the local wages.

Besides other troubles, the Bhutanese refugees are now obliged to suffer the currently prevailing cold weather in Nepal, as reports suggest that, more than others, the children and elderly are severely affected due to the shortage of warm coverings. According to reports this is because the U.N. didn't provided the refugees with the warm clothes, as it has stopped to do so for the past few years.

The perceived "infiltration" as claimed by some of the prominent head of Bhutan's authority has provoked disgust among the refugee leaders, the Human rights activists, and other well-wishers who have been wanting the refugees to be able to return to their homeland with adequate privilege. The Bhutanese rights activist Tek Nath Rizal, who was jailed for 10 years and tortured by the Bhutanese authority in the past, claimed that the accusation was "wild" and a "ploy" of Bhutan to avert the highly demanded repatriation process.

Not only Rizal, but many analysts view the recent stance from the Bhutanese heads as a ploy to wreck the highly proposed repatriation process, as there is no concrete evidence yet that there is such an "infiltration." It's true that the refugees are those people who refuted Bhutan's dictatorial policy and they are those who stood for their rights. Since their eviction from Bhutan, they have been demanding for the democratic rights to prevail among the citizens rather than the king, and urged for a peaceful and fair repatriation. But, no heed is whatsoever shown by the Bhutanese authority to their desire.

It has been suggested by some recent reports that some of the Bhutanese refugees had threatened to instigate an armed struggle against the dictatorship of the DRUK regime. The possibility of such a rebellion cannot be fully deserted, concerning the elevating tension and surfacing intolerance among the refugees due to their bad living conditions and their unfulfilled and desperate ambition to live with full advantage after being recognized as the bona fide citizens of their country. However, right now, claiming that these right seekers are the "terrorists" can't be justified on logical grounds.

Calling the refugees "terrorists" seems only to reflect an ideological fallacy and it has further emphasized the unwillingness of Bhutan's authority to solve the refugee problem with its full heart, rather than putting the burden of solving this crisis solely on Nepal, and it seems like an attempt to hoodwink the international onlookers, ultimately to avoid any enforcement of fair undertaking from the international fronts to solve this crisis. The stance of the Bhutanese king has also helped to serve Bhutan's prevailing indifference towards the refugee crisis and it has also ignored the cumulating voice raised for the repatriation of the refugees.

Besides Nepal, it's also highly perceived that India could be the other significant actor to push-forward an effective solution to this refugee crisis, as India is the first country of sanctuary for these refugees, because Nepal and Bhutan do not share common borders. As India, so far, has been reluctant to play an active role to solve the Bhutanese refugee crisis by persuading the DRUK regime to give up its resoluteness, critics say that this could be the consequence of the Indian vision of its strategic interest with Bhutan.

Third country repatriation, one such example being the offer from the U.S. to accept 60,000 of the refugees to live there, could be a sort of relief, but for only a limited number of refugees. Repatriation in the U.S. would definitely salvage the lives of some of the refugees, but it's equally important that this offer don't absolve the Bhutanese obdurate stance of not complying with the repatriation of the refugees to their homeland, Bhutan.

The third country repatriation could be preserved as a last resort, in the worst case that if every diplomacy fails, or only to those who ultimately fail to be recognized by Bhutan as its citizens, though after any elaborate investigation. After all, we can't even ignore the visible and fundamental attitude of a number of refugees who, patriotically, would never be happy to resettle in a third country, and would rather live in their own.

Bhutan has absolutely remained inflexible and Nepal has been lackadaisical. It's already clear that there is unlikely to be a negotiated way-out if only these two countries are involved. To protect the Bhutanese refugees from this plight and to normalize their lives to some extent, a fair and long-lasting solution is needed. For this, a fair international intervention is indispensable. As Bhutan has claimed most of the refugees as its "non-nationals," only an extensively fair evaluation from trusted international entities would ensure the democratic rights of the refugees of true Bhutanese identity, to gain their Bhutanese citizenship, which would ultimately persuade the DRUK regime to comply with the repatriation process.

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