The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

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

Nepalese Minority Skeptical of Bhutan’s Democracy

Monday, 26 May 2008, 11:31 am
Column: Adam C Castillo

Bhutan’s Nepalese Minority Skeptical of Country’s Democracy

By Adam C. Castillo
21 May 2008: Bhutan, the last Shangri-La, and until recently a bastion of monarchical fidelity, to everyone’s surprise held the nations first elections earlier this year ushering in a new era of democracy. This development comes as a shock because it was not the will of the people that agitated such a change but a royal edict made by the King himself. The Bhutanese, who hold their royalty in enlightened esteem, have in fact been skeptical of this whole process of democratization. The election’s 80% turnout may be attributed not to the people’s enthusiasm for change but rather to their filial obedience to royal dictates, which ironically in this case has effectually, if only superficially, limited the power of the crown in which they trust so much.

It was in 2005 that then King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that he would abdicate the throne to his son, the crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and that popular elections to select members of a new bicameral legislative body would take place in 2008. The elections for the National Council (upper house) and National Assembly (lower house) were held on December 31-January 1 and March 24, 2008 respectively. Despite the region’s bloody struggles for democracy as seen in Pakistan, Nepal, and Myanmar, Bhutan’s transition went quite smoothly, however not without incident.

On January 20, bomb blasts went off in the capital city of Thimphu and three other locations around the country. The United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, a Maoist guerilla group based in southern Bhutan with ties to similar groups in Nepal claimed responsibility for the bombings. Though no lives were lost in any of the four incidents, the URFB hoped to send a clear message that the new democratic process in Bhutan is in fact tainted and anything but inclusionary.

An estimated 82,000 people, or around 12% of the population, most of whom ethnic Nepalis, were excluded from the 2008 elections due to their status as “non-nationals” according a 2005 national census. An even greater number, over 100,000 Lhotshampas, the Nepalese minority living mainly in Bhutan’s south, were physically expelled or forced to flee the country in the early 1990’s and live today as stateless refugees in seven UNHCR-sponsored camps in eastern Nepal. These factors along with the barring of a third party from participating in the recent elections have brought into question the viability of Bhutan’s commitment to pluralism, an integral part of any inclusionary democratic system.

Bhutan is split into two distinct regions both geographically and culturally. The north is the traditional Buddhist kingdom of our imaginations tucked into the glacial wilderness of the Himalayas. In the south are subtropical lowlands once thought to be uninhabitable due to the region’s vulnerability to choleric and malarial outbreaks. Eventually migrants from neighboring, largely Hindu countries, including a large number from Nepal, came to populate this southern portion of Bhutan.

For hundreds of years the country’s Lhotshampa population coexisted in relative peace with Bhutan’s dominant Drukpa population and remained largely autonomous. The Lhotshampas managed to retain their strikingly different Nepalese culture, language, and religious traditions.

Despite being in a region clamoring for democracy in the wake of India’s political evolution, Bhutan’s monarchy remained intact and unthreatened by outside influences. It was not until the 1970’s that the growing Lhotshampa population became an immediate concern to Bhutan’s ruling elite. They hoped to avoid the fate of neighboring Sikkim, whose monarch was ousted in 1975 by a Nepalese majority in a plebiscite, which made Sikkim an Indian state. By 1980, the number of Lhotshampa in Bhutan was estimated at near 30% of the country’s total population. Revolutionary rhetoric was rife in the region at the time and the Bhutanese government feared an influx of dissonant ideals pertaining to political restructuring, ideals gaining popularity amongst Nepalese populations in the region.

This outside influence began to show itself in the form of demonstrations organized by Lhotshampas calling for democracy in Bhutan. To counter this threat and to bolster Bhutanese cultural solidarity, legislation was passed in 1985 that called for a “one nation, one people” campaign which aimed to standardize the structure of society and cleanse it of any foreign interference. Mandates were made enforcing a strict national dress code of traditional Drukpa garb. Nepali language was banned in schools and public areas and Lhotshampas, traditionally Hindu, were ordered to adopt the official state religion of Vajrayana Buddhism. Television was banned, internal travel was regulated and the little foreign trade that existed at the time was curtailed.

In 1989, new criteria for citizenship was enforced which excluded anyone who could not prove their being a resident of Bhutan prior to 1958, a stipulation made almost impossible considering the pervasive illiteracy among Lhotshampa populations and that few had thought to register their residency with government agencies. The new laws stripped nearly one-sixth of Bhutan’s population of its citizenship. Massive protests and violent clashes between Lhotshampas and Drukpas ensued.

The government’s crackdown was swift and severe. Bhutanese security forces began the process of expelling non-citizens, making them first renounce their homes and homeland and systematically escorting them across Bhutan’s borders. Those who were not forcibly expelled were pressured to flee under threats of arrest and further harassment. The exodus into Nepal continued until the mid nineties.

Per-capita, it remains the world’s largest refugee displacement. After 16 years and 15 rounds of bilateral talks between Bhutan and Nepal not one refugee has had their citizenship reinstated or been let to reenter the country. The United States has recently offered to resettle 60,000 of the refugees in the coming years. Those willing to accept such a compromise face harassment and intimidation from other refugees in the camps who demand nothing less than a plan for comprehensive repatriation back to their homes in Bhutan. The recent elections, having propelled the country into a new era of democracy without the participation of a, what once was, sizable portion of the population speaks volumes about the state of limbo in which these refugees exist and to the bleakness of their prospects to ever get back to their homes where so much has changed without them.

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