The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, May 18, 2007

US resettlement offer divides Bhutanese refugees

US resettlement offer divides Bhutanese refugees
The Associated PressPublished: May 17, 2007

KATMANDU, Nepal: Bhutanese refugees at camps in Nepal are bitterly divided over a U.S. offer to resettle tens of thousands of them, with those wanting to hold out for a return to Bhutan threatening those who favor going to America, a rights group said Thursday.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalis — a Hindu minority in Bhutan for centuries — have been living as refugees in Nepal since the early 1990s, when they were forced out by Bhutanese authorities who wanted to maintain the country's dominant Buddhist culture.

While Bhutan, the world's last Buddhist kingdom, is slowly moving toward democracy, it refuses to allow the refugees to return, claiming most left voluntarily and renounced their citizenship.

The result has been a festering stalemate that Washington tried in part to resolve last year by offering to resettle 60,000 of the refugees.

But Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday the U.S. offer has divided the refugees, with those who see resettlement as a capitulation to Bhutanese authorities creating a "climate of fear and intimidation" to keep those who want to move to America from going.

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Trains cross divided Korean PeninsulaChina grapples with food contamination credibility crisisIn the new India, the old problem with electricityRefugees "are extremely reluctant to express an interest in the resettlement offer publicly," the New York-based group said in its report.

Bill Frelick, refugee policy director of Human Rights Watch, said some supporters of the U.S. offer have received death threats.

"There are many who have supported the plan but very few of them are willing to say so publicly because they are afraid," Frelick told reporters in Katmandu.

Frelick said it was impossible to say how many refugees wanted to go to the U.S. because they have not been able to express their feelings.

Those in favor of going say resettlement offers the best option for themselves and their children, according to the report. Those opposed to the U.S. offer argue the move could endanger ethnic Nepalis still in Bhutan.

Refugee leaders are also divided over the issue.

Tek Nath Rizal, Bhutan's most noted dissident who had served 10 years in prison in Bhutan, has opposed the resettlement plan.

"This is not a solution to the whole problem. If it had been we would have openly welcomed it. Resettlement is only one of the options and comes after repatriation to Bhutan and local integration in Nepal," Rizal said. "Our demand is that there should be progress in all three options at the same time."

Rizal also claimed that real refugee leaders have been kept out of the process.

But another prominent refugee leader, Ratan Gazmeher, said he supported the U.S. plan.

"No Bhutanese will ever forgo aspiration to return to Bhutan. But given the political situation and that we have been living as refugees for 16 years, it is impossible to see light at the end of the tunnel," Gazmeher said.

The refugees are living in seven U.N.-run camps in southeast Nepal, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) east of Nepal's capital, Katmandu.

Relations between Nepal and Bhutan have been strained by the refugee issue.

There have been several rounds of talks between ministers and top officials of the two nations but there has not been any significant progress.


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