The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bhutani refugees

Editorial in Samaya, 30 June

World Refugee Day came and went this week, and it was just a formality. For the 100,000 plus Bhutani refugees who have been living in camps for the past 14 years in Jhapa and Morang there is no hope of any positive developments this year.

The UNHCR which has been trying to get the refugees repatriated to Bhutan or assimilated in the host country Nepal is now also working on third country resettlement. For the refugees, this can be a good option but not the best one. The UNHCR blames mainly Nepal for opposing resettlement in third countries. Nepal's position is that Bhutan needs to take back some of its people as per the bilateral agreement. The Bhutani refugee leadership agrees with this.

Obviously, the issue of refugees is closely linked to the protection of human rights and democracy in Bhutan. A royal dictatorship can perhaps heap injustices on a minority for some time. But ultimately the people will be victorious, and this has been proven by the recent events in the refugees' host country. Unfortunately, the lack of an organised pro-democracy movement has bolstered the harsh crackdowns by the Bhutani regime. Neighbouring democratic country India and the UN have been indirectly helping the anti-human rights and anti-democratic crackdowns by the Bhutani king against his own minority peoples.

It may appear to be in the short-term interest of some of the refugees, especially women and children, to be resettled in third countries. But to be forever torn apart from their country, community, culture and families can only be a last resort. It is important to restart the bilateral ministerial-level talks between Nepal and Bhutan to resolve the issue. Nepal must also remind New Delhi that its neutrality has helped the Bhutan king to continue with his activities against the refugees. Such repressive behaviour will be a challenge in efforts to fight terrorism in South Asia. It is also a test for King Jigme who seems to want to devolve his power and usher in democracy. He must remember that democracy isn't possible by violating the basic human rights of his minority population. That will just set back democracy.

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