A few years ago 60 Minutes profiled the Kingdom of Bhutan’s policy of keeping a high wall between it and the rest of the world. In keeping with this Bhutan regulates tourism and extracts a high price from those who wish to visit. Take a look at health conditions in this “authentic” Buddhist nation. Because of its “go slow” approach to modern amenities the Land of the Thunder Dragon can still be termed a “living eden”.
But all is not well in paradise. Attached is an article on the plight of refugees expelled from Bhutan. My general point-the destruction wrought by modernity on organically developed indigenous cultures is quite often a good thing.
Just another forgotten cause
MANGALA SHARMA is among the lucky ones, considering. Although her family had been living in the small kingdom of Bhutan for generations, she fled her native country in 1992, fearing for her life, and spent the next eight years in a refugee camp in Nepal. She has now found political asylum in the United States. But her grandmother, who had never left her village before being walked into exile, died in the camp still dreaming of going back. Most of her family is still stranded in Nepal, together with another 100,000 refugees, largely forgotten by the rest of the world for the past 13 years. And this week’s agreement between the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments—following a decade of bilateral negotiations—is unlikely to reassure them.
The refugees are of ethnic Nepali origin, some of whom have been in southern Bhutan for generations. Others migrated in the 1960s, attracted by the prospect of a better life (Bhutan has sound economic policies and one of South Asia’s highest GDPs per head). In the late 1980s, the government, worried by what it considered a dilution of Bhutanese traditions, tightened citizenship rules and launched a cultural offensive. Southerners had to produce obscure documentation—such as land-tax receipts from 1958—to retain their nationality and were forced to wear traditional northern Bhutanese dress. Those who protested against the brutal census were jailed. Expulsion orders were issued to some, while others were harassed out of Bhutan.
Today, an estimated one in seven Bhutanese is a refugee. More than 100,000 people are languishing in camps in Nepal, while another 20,000 are thought to be in India. Two years ago, the Nepalese and Bhutanese authorities agreed on a joint screening system to determine who would eventually be allowed to go back. So far, only 12,000 refugees or so have been processed, and fewer than 3% of them are considered bona fide Bhutanese who were forced to leave. Those deemed to have left of their own accord will have to re-apply for Bhutanese citizenship or, if they choose to stay, may become Nepalese. Refugees categorised as “criminals”—reportedly including some children—will go through Bhutanese courts, while those considered non-Bhutanese will not be allowed to return. The first returnees are supposed to go by February. Refugee and human-rights groups are incensed by what they consider a thoroughly flawed verification process.
Refugees insist they want to go back to Bhutan. But they want to go back to their own land and houses, and with some assurance of safety. They would like the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with that of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to be involved. “We’re not asking for the sky,” says Ratan Gazmere of the Association of Human Rights Activists, based in Nepal.
These conditions are unlikely to be met, however. A study conducted by the Habitat International Coalition in 2001 found that the Bhutanese government had been resettling northerners on the refugees’ property. According to the study, some of the land has been given to army and police officers or their relatives. The UN refugee agency has been left out of the bilateral talks and the verification process. It is running the refugee camps in Nepal, but is not allowed in Bhutan.
At the end of September, a frustrated Ruud Lubbers, the head of UNHCR, announced that since the agency cannot monitor the return of refugees, it would not promote repatriation but help refugees settle in Nepal or in other countries, while gradually phasing out its direct involvement in the camps. This announcement shocked the refugees, and the policy change has been criticised by humanitarian and human rights organisations. A UNHCR spokesman says it was meant as a wake-up call. Repatriation, he adds, is the preferred option, but not if refugees cannot be guaranteed to return in dignity and safety.
Refugees have been repeatedly calling for the outside world to do more. Earlier this month, several refugee and human-rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, urged donors to put pressure on Bhutan. But the key probably lies with India, whose attitude they describe as “unhelpful”. Besides overseeing Bhutan’s foreign policy and supporting its army, India is the kingdom’s largest financial benefactor.