The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, November 16, 2007

Lost in no-man's-land

For two decades they have been ignored by the world: 100,000 people ethnically cleansed from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Now, as diplomacy founders and militants fan the flames of insurgency, it's the refugees who are once again caught in the crossfire.
ON A sandbank in the middle of the river, Bubbha Lapha shelters from the baking sun under a battered tartan umbrella. The 70-year-old squats down, lifts a small rock hammer and brings it down to smash a pebble into fragments. She gathers the pieces of broken stone and throws them on to a pile the size of a small cairn. It's close to midday and Bubbha and her friends, Shati and Kanti, have already been working for six hours. "Clack... clack... clack..." Like convicts in a chain gang, the trio raise their hammers then smash them down to break stones, over and over again.
"Clack... clack... clack..." The chipping noise of metal on stone drifts away from the women, almost drowned out by the rush of the River Ratwa that runs past them. Bubbha says something in Nepalese to Kanti, 40, and Shati, 65, who giggle like a couple of schoolgirls.
For a lifetime these three women have laughed, cried and survived in each other's company. It's been a precarious existence, not least as forgotten victims of one of the world's most intractable refugee situations. They are among 106,000 Bhutanese refugees who have languished in the forests of eastern Nepal for the past 17 years after being 'ethnically cleansed' from the remote kingdom of Bhutan. Ignored by the world and completely reliant on international aid for food and shelter, the refugees have waited and waited, and slowly lost hope. Until now, that is - thanks to a compassionate offer from the United States to resettle 60,000 of them, as well as provisional interest from Australia, Canada and Norway to accept smaller numbers of refugees.
But while help has finally been offered by the international community, the injection of fresh hope has caused uproar in the camps and sparked discord among the Bhutanese. While many long to be resettled and begin a new life, others insist that repatriation to Bhutan should be the only option considered. They fear that anything less will endanger the status of 80,000 of their people still in southern Bhutan and legitimise the regime's policy of ethnic cleansing.
Many of the young people, frustrated and angry at the world's ignorance of their plight, have turned to the Communist Party of Bhutan, which is urging refugees to fight for their right to return and to ultimately overthrow the Bhutanese monarchy.
Violence erupted in May when thousands of refugees tried to cross into the Indian state of West Bengal and march back to Bhutan. One man was killed and more than 20 were injured when Indian police opened fire as they tried to cross the border. There was also chaos inside the camps as supporters of the third-country settlement plan were attacked. Two people died when armed Nepalese police were called to restore order.
With the process of resettlement to the US about to begin in earnest, coupled with fears of a Maoist insurgency in the camps and the beginnings of a wider armed struggle, the crisis has reached boiling point.
"Clack... clack... clack..." Bubbha, Shati and Kanti look weary. For 17 years they have survived against the odds, but now life may become even tougher. Bubbha raises her arm and wipes the sweat from her brow. "This is no way to live," the old woman says.
THE TINY KINGDOM of Bhutan, sandwiched between India, China and Chinese-controlled Tibet, is one of the most isolated and least developed nations in the world. Known locally as Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon, it is landlocked in the Himalayan mountains, a diverse landscape of subtropical plains in the south, stretching up to 7,000m-high peaks in the north. Mahayan Buddhism is the state religion and foreign influences and tourism are strictly rationed to preserve the country's traditional culture and identity. The government answers to 27-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the world's youngest head of state and the fifth Dragon King of Bhutan, who wields absolute power.
The population of Bhutan is 750,000, including the 135,000 refugees in Nepal and India, and consists of three main ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, the Ngalongs, the Sarchops and the Nepalese-speaking Lhotshampas in the south.
After war with British-India in 1864, Bhutan lost about a third of its fertile territory in the south, so for economic reasons migration was encouraged from Nepal to the country's southern foothills. A steady increase in settlements of the Nepalese resulted in a separate administration for the south, leaving the population cut off from the mainstream of Bhutanese society.
But during the 1980s, the Dzongkha-speaking Ngalongs who rule Bhutan began to fear the growing influence of the Nepali-speaking Hindus in the south. The government tightened citizenship laws and combined new legislation with arrests, torture and threats to force more than 100,000 ethnic Nepali Bhutanese citizens from their land. It was a dark period and the country was strongly criticised at the time for human-rights abuses by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Two decades on and 17 rounds of negotiations between the governments of Bhutan (which refuses to take the refugees back) and Nepal (which refuses to integrate them) have come to nothing. India, the largest power in the region, has close ties with Bhutan and won't support repatriation, while other political players such as the US have declined to interfere. Hence, the despair of prolonged statelessness has continued.
"Shanti, Kanti and I escaped to Nepal together from our village of Dahding in 1992, after some of the women were raped by soldiers. We left in the middle of the night and walked for three days. We ended up in the camps, and we've been here ever since," Bubbha says.
A RECENT REPORT BY Human Rights Watch documented the deteriorating conditions inside the seven camps that are home to the 106,000 refugees. Frustration is beginning to manifest itself in ugly forms, with domestic violence on the rise, women turning to prostitution to feed their children, and increased political agitation with the potential to create an armed uprising. HRW's report also gave a rare glimpse into the continuing abuses of human rights in Bhutan itself, where Nepalese-speaking citizens cannot get a government job, buy or sell land, or open a business without a police-issued card attesting that the bearer is not 'anti-national'.
For the thousands of young refugees who were born in the camps, their 'homeland', Bhutan, is just a pipe dream, and a place they know only through stories passed down by their elders. The camps are close to the dusty frontier town of Damak in eastern Nepal, about 500 miles from the capital Kathmandu. It's a subtropical land of paddy fields and bamboo, dotted with coconut trees, buffalo cooling off in pools of water and colourful Hindu temples.
The camps are clean and well organised, with schools for the children and narrow rows of bamboo huts for the refugees to live in. But the people are not permitted to work anywhere in Nepal, so there is a real sense of despair among the older refugee population who have spent the best part of 20 years sitting doing nothing. Bubbha, Shanti and Kanti are working illegally breaking stones for the construction industry and, if caught, face losing their weekly ration of rice and lentils. There is a black market for goods but most people here have little to do.
In Beldang 1 camp, 55-year-old Kalibahadur Darjee invites us into his hut. He has bloodshot eyes and looks drawn and ill. "I lived in Nauli village in the Samdung Khar district of Bhutan but left in 1993," he says. "The army came and attacked the men and raped the women, so we had no choice but to go."
Darjee used to be a tailor and on a table sits a sewing machine he uses to mend clothes. Most people have nothing more than one shirt and pair of trousers, as only food is provided by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the Lutheran World Federation who run the camps. Rations, paid for by international donors, are distributed every 12 days. Each person receives 5.6kg of rice, 0.56kg of lentils and 0.28kg of chickpeas, with a choice of pumpkin, cabbage or banana once a week.
A few huts up from Darjee is Bhagirath Sapkdta, who came from the same village as his neighbour. The thin 70-year-old lives here with his wife, Tulasa, and five members of their family. The food rations, they say, are not enough.
Do they want to return to Bhutan or move to a new life in America? They give the same reply as Darjee: they want to return to their homeland. In fact, for the next few hours as we tour the camps, every refugee we meet dismisses the notion of a move to the States. Every single person says they want to return to Bhutan.
At a secondary school in Beldang 2 camp, I put the same question to a class of 30 teenagers, most of whom were born in the camps, none of whom could have any first-hand knowledge of Bhutan. "Who would like to move to America?" Silence. Not one hand goes up and eyes dart nervously from side to side. When I ask who would like repatriation, arms shoot up en masse and heads turn quickly to look around.
Outside, I ask camp secretary Dev Raj Pradhana why no one wants to move to the US. "Many people do," he replies. "They're just too scared to say so."
"If you speak of resettlement, your head will be in a bag and your body will be at the side of the river," was the message delivered to Manoyath Khanal. He sits, hunched and swollen-faced, in a dimly lit room with his wife, parents and two children. He left hospital the day before and complains of headaches and severe pain in his ribs.
The family are in hiding in a safe house in Damak, after fleeing Beldang 3 refugee camp two weeks ago. As camp secretary of Beldang 3, a position Khanal was elected to by his fellow refugees, he publicly backed the option of resettlement to a third country. It was a decision that nearly cost him his life. On August 12, a mob beat him unconscious, then destroyed the family hut.
"We are desperate for a solution and 80% of the refugees favour resettlement," he says. "We are not against repatriation but we think that all options should be considered. People should have the right to choose and not be bullied. But the radicals, the Maoists, attack anyone who supports moving to the US."
Khanal blames the violence on radicals from the Communist Party of Bhutan and the Bhutan Tigers. He says these extremist groups have been active in the camps since 2003, supported ideologically by Nepal's own Maoists - the surrounding district is said to be a hotbed of communist activity.
The next morning we see him again, this time at a meeting of the Durable Solution Support Group at a secret location in Damak. This group advocates resettlement but the 16 members have been forced from the camps because of their views. They live on charity and have no access to rations. It is a desperate situation. "Our children have no food. We are refugees twice over now," Khanal says.
He hands me a list with the names of six men. Five are in police custody charged with his attack. He points to the name at the top, Subash Acharya, a man he claims to be linked with the Maoists and responsible for the violence.
The sixth name is Tek Nath Rizal, a legendary figure in Bhutan. Rizal is the exiled Bhutanese leader now based in Kathmandu. He was an advisor to the King of Bhutan before falling out of favour and being imprisoned at the start of the troubles. Rizal gained almost mythic status while in prison and became the de facto spokesman for the Bhutanese movement when he was released a decade later in 1999. "Acharya organises the violence in the camps, but Rizal is behind everything," Khanal claims.
AFTERWARDS we drive to Damak police station and ask to speak to Acharya. The prisoner is brought up from the cells. I put Khanal's allegations to him but Acharya, a former refugee camp secretary himself, denies having anything to do with recent violence, or being linked to any insurgents. "I was out of the camp the day Khanal was attacked and afterwards I made a call for peace," he says.
On the issue of resettlement, Acharya says he favours repatriation and that "all the refugees" wish to return to Bhutan. "The people in favour of moving to a third country should go. But what will their lives be like? We ask that the international community pressurise the Bhutanese government in allowing us to return. Only then should other options be considered," he says.
Finally, I ask about his relationship with Rizal. "I know him very well. I was his personal assistant for a year," he says.
WE MET Tek Nath Rizal in Kathmandu. A slim, thoughtful man, born in southern Bhutan, he was an advisor to the king until the regime began its systematic persecution of his people in 1989. He fled to Nepal and petitioned the King, asking him to stop discriminating against his people. But after nine months, Rizal was abducted and taken back to Bhutan, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. He was released in 1999 after pressure from the international community.
"I was tortured in prison," he says. "My mother had boiling water thrown on her face and was told to leave her village. My brother-in-law was killed. In jail, I knew of a monk who was murdered and at least four other prisoners who were tortured to death."
Rizal says he represents not only the refugees, but also the movement for democracy in Bhutan. Until recently, he advocated repatriation as the only solution, despite there being next to no chance of this happening anytime soon. But his stance seems to have softened and he stresses he is not opposed to resettlement. "People should be allowed back to their own soil then given the option of resettlement," he says. "If we opt for resettlement first, what will happen to the thousands of our people still in Bhutan? Many refugees have family there and friends and relatives in jail."
Is he behind the violence? He strongly denies this, adding that claims of a Maoist insurgency are a smear by the Bhutanese government who want to label his people terrorists. "We have always followed peaceful means. We would not support violence... but other groups might take up arms," he says.
Does he completely and utterly renounce violence as an option? "We cannot rule out violence," Rizal replies.
NO ONE knows how many refugees want to move to the US or how many want to return to Bhutan. All that is clear is that people have died recently and that violence is likely to erupt again when the resettlement process begins. Abraham Abraham, the UN's High Commissioner in Kathmandu, says there are serious concerns about militants operating in the camps who are determined to start an armed struggle. "Idleness has led to extremism," he says.
The UN is in the process of building permanent police posts in the camps for the first time. The plan is to have new barracks in the seven camps by the end of this month, each with 30 armed officers. "Only when this is all in place will the UN begin the resettlement process," Abraham says.
"SOME people want to go to Bhutan, some want to go to the US, but everyone is fed up. I'd like to go to America," Bubbha says quietly, when we are alone.
"Clack... clack... clack." The women raise their arms to smash stones. They are not interested in politics. All they want is a normal life.
"Clack... clack... clack." It's like a clock endlessly ticking away the days of a life sentence for the Bhutanese.
How can scotland help?
SCOTLAND has a strong record of welcoming refugees from conflicts around the world, but the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) wants more local authorities to take part in its Gateway Programme. It cares for more than 33 million people worldwide, and every year resettles refugees to 20 countries, including Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK.
The UK's Gateway programme, under which 500 vulnerable refugees and their families identified by UNHCR are aimed to be resettled each year, was founded in 2004. Sheffield and Bolton were the first to accept refugees, followed by Brighton, Rochdale, Hull, Norwich and Bury. Earlier this year, North Lanarkshire became the first Scottish local authority to participate, when 20 families who'd fled the Democratic Republic of Congo were resettled in Motherwell.
"Even once they cross a border, some refugees are still not safe," says Peter Kessler, UNHCR's senior external affairs officer. "For those who can neither return home or integrate locally, 'resettlement' to a third country can help them restart their lives in safety. To date, nearly 900 people have found safety in the UK under the Gateway Protection Programme thanks to the generosity of local communities. Scottish local authorities and the public are asked to approach the Home Office to seek more information about joining the Gateway programme."

If you would like to help people fleeing persecution and war, visit For more information about the UN Refugee Agency's humanitarian mission, contact
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Last updated: 04-Nov-07 00:14 GMT

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