Bhutanese Refugee Camps- Retrospection


  2015-09-07_13.37.32It was during the early days of 1991 majority of Bhutanese have no or very less  idea of the existence of an UN organization UNHCR, a humanitarian body of United Nations that takes care of the refugees. Even the educated personals in the struggle for Human right and Democracy in Bhutan were with fair information and little knowledge about UN bodies and were uncertain of its address and who to approach. On the other hand, local administrators and army deployed in the rural villages in the Southern districts were busy making more and more people to abandon home, hearth and leave their homeland, out of fear of persecution, rape, torture, arrest and death by the Royal Bhutan Army and Royal Bhutan Police, let lose by the Royal Govt. of Bhutan

Those evicted and the ones leaving Bhutan because of the fear of persecution were eking out their living by begging in the villages in Assam and West Bengal tea gardens. The areas were infested with malaria and people were suffering coupled by hunger, shelter and malnutrition. The situation was turning bad to worse as increasing number of people fleeing the country every day. Some student leaders and human rights defenders including I were concerned about the safety and security of the fellow countrymen. On the other hand, the Indian forces, police, CRPF and the BSF were hunting the leaders from Bhutanese Community. Albeit, we sought the protection from the local leaders and that was on humanitarian ground.

The worst fear of uncertainty came in when we received a letter addressed to Mr. S B Subba (I presume  the letter is with Mr. Subba) from the chief secretary of Assam government expressing inability to provide safety and security as a reply of the meeting with the then chief minister of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia. It was towards the end of April 1991 a delegation comprising S.B Subba Hari Prasad Adhikari, Tara Subedi, Narayan Timsina and I travelled to Guwahati to mobilize support for our cause. However, Narayan Timsina and I had to leave Guwahati on the 4th day to assist Bhagiman Magar and Ganga Ram Nepal helping villagers of Neoly and Samrang who fled the country to take shelter in Samrang and Bholajhar Assam. So, we did not know what transpired in the meeting. But I learned that the memorandum prepared in a Hotel in Paltan Bazzar Guwahati was submitted to the Chief Minister requesting safety and shelter in Assam. Next day news was aired in Assam Batari (State Radio News of Assam) of the Chief Minister’s solidarity and support to the human rights and democratic struggle of Bhutanese people and assured the protection and shelter to the Bhutanese in Assam.

Exiled Bhutanese  assembled at temporary shelter at Garganda, Assam India in 1990. Photo: Balaram Poudyel
Exiled Bhutanese assembled at temporary shelter at Garganda, Assam India in 1990.
Photo: Balaram Poudyel

We rejoiced. The local, regional and national leaders of All Assam Nepali Student Union, All Assam Gorkha Parishad, Village Defensive Parishad, All Assam Student Union appreciated the approach of Mr. S.B Subba and the delegating team. These leaders soon helped us develop plans to support the Bhutanese who fled to Assam and West Bengal. After the meeting and assurances from the Chief Minister of Assam, five shelter camps came into operation established with support from local level. All these camps were later dismantled by Assam/Indian forces. The Nagrijuli camp in Rangiya district, dismantled by CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) was right in front of the residence of standing Member of Legislative Assembly of Assam and ex-Minister Shree Padam Chauwan. Shree Chauwan became mere spectator when the commanding officer of the force told him that it was an order from union government. Member P.L. Gurung and T.R  Regmi of Bhangtar and Health professional Jagat Thapa had narrow escape from arrest. Narayan Timsina and I were in Bholajhar camp. The Bholajhar camp was a local primary school, turned into a temporary camp just couple weeks before. With the help of locals, Narayan and I managed to jump off the bus and made escape. Many Bhutanese were deported to Assam-Bhutan border and left in Barnadi Wildlife Reserve.  An adult with last name Gajurel was found hanging in a tree three days later, while a mother of Baniya kanchho died later from heart attack during deportation.  Mr. Gajurel left behind three kids and wife with unknown future. Today the widow of the Gajurel and those kids are currently in Texas USA.

 It was the joint effort of Shre Hari Prasadh Adhikari and S.B Subba to try and contact some influential people with international image and knowledge inside Bhutan who can really give guidance and steer the movement. Till then the movement was maverick without proper strategy, programs and plans. It was sort of a spontaneous reaction of people on inhuman atrocities perpetrate to the people. So, if I remember correctly, Mr S.B Subba and Hari Prasad Adhikari jointly wrote letter to late R. B Basnet and Bhim Subba from their base at Patgoan-Assam. Bhim and late R.B. Basnet were prominent figures of southern Bhutan in Thimphu.

 Suddenly on 2nd June 1991, the Radio Nepal aired the arrival of prominent people from southern Bhutan- R.B.Basnet (Director Post and Telegraph), Bhim Subba (Director General, Power), D.P Basnet (Joint Director, Trade and Industry) Mandhoj Tamang (Deputy Director Trade and Industry) Usha Tamang (Assistant Director, Royal Monetary Authority), Rakesh Chettri (Deputy Director, state trading corporation). They met, the then prime minister of Nepal,  Girija Prasad Koirala and sought asylum for themselves and other refugees fleeing the country out of fear or forcefully evicted. Thanks to Charka Bastola, then active leader of Nepali Congress, a high-level meeting was organized and other necessary help sought. The news was a great relief to the aggrieved populace scattered in Assam, Bengal and Nepal with some exceptions to few novice leaders who felt overshadowed. There was ray of hope that the movement would be given shape and properly guided under the leadership of able seniors. At least there was a sense of feeling that it was with their knowledge and some exposures we would be able to find shelter for the population forced to flee their homeland. Mr S.B Subba in the capacity of the acting chairman of the Peoples Forum for Human Rights played great role in saving the lives of these languished Bhutanese. Mr Subba and Hari Adhikari proactively called on the then Chief District Officer(CDO)and asked for help securing a place adjacent to Maidhar Temple for our people in the initial phase`. Thereafter, there was continuous flow of people to the banks of river Kankai Mai.

Immediately, the freshly arrived top officials approached the UNHCR office in Katmandu for humanitarian relief to the desperate refugees who started coming in hundreds and thousands. They also started highlighting the issues in International Forum through correspondence, radio interview, and other media in Nepal and building personal contacts. They wrote letters to the government of India requesting support and solidarity for human rights and democratic fight in Bhutan, besides providing safety, security and protection to those who fled.

 Hari  Prashad Adhikari  and S. B Subba from Patgaon Assam were called to Kathmandu. On August 8 1991, a meeting was held in Kathmandu to discuss in details about the ongoing movement, strategies, plan and programs and above all the crisis faced by the refugees. It was felt imperative by the seniors to consolidate the movement under one umbrella to achieve ultimate goal of human rights and democracy in Bhutan. It was also decided to re-name Peoples Forum for Human Rights formed by T.N.Rizal before his extradition to Bhutan in 1989 as Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB) keeping all the members and T.N.Rizal as the chairman.

On 11th August, formation of an umbrella organization, Bhutan Democratic Movement Coordinating Committee (BDMCC) was finalized. Operating exiled organizations and party- Bhutan Peoples Party, (BPP), Students Union of Bhutan (SUB), and Peoples Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) were invited. Considering the need of time and situation, the SUB and PFHR agreed to come under the umbrella led by seniors who were better knowledgeable of Bhutan government’s policy and international politics. Except S.K Pradhan, the BPP representative, other delegates of the meeting decided to advance the cause collectively and BDMCC incepted. Mr. R.B.Basnet was unanimously elected as chairman and Mr. Bhim Subba as vice Chairman.  BDMCC, then, started working for the advocacy and solidarity bring in UNHCR for humanitarian support and to establish the camps.

 By then the number of refugees in Maidhar reached 134, the number burgeoning each day as eviction drive in Bhutan was accelerating.  Late R.B. Basnet and Mr. Bhim Subba started exploring ways and means through their personal contacts in the UN and other International Organizations and diplomatic missions. Fortunate enough for all, Mr. Paul Mathew who knew Bhim and Basnet came in helping the refugees. For information to the readers, Mr. Mathew was head of UNDP in Bhutan and came in contact with Mr. Bhim Subba and R B Basnet after his term in Bhutan was over.

It was 10th December 1991, the day we were at Pulchowk (Kathmandu) to participate in an appeal program in front of UN building. S.K Pradhan was the coordinator of the program. The program was interfered by Nepal police, however, in a peaceful way. I with Tara Subedi, Narayan Timsina, Prem Subedi and L.B Basnet met R.B Basnet and Bhim Subba. In the course of interaction, late Basnet had told us that Bhim Subba was offered help by Mr. Paul Mathew at personal level to get UN service. But Bhim Subba chose to deny the offer on ground that he has left Bhutan in opposition to the discriminatory policies of the Bhutan Government, and would fight for justice in spite of the hardship and difficult life. Instead he requested Mr. Mathew to help to get UN involvement and save our people.

Perhaps, it was the luck of the refugees that a UN conference was held in Bangkok which Paul Mathew attended and the UNHCR country representative in Nepal, Terry Leki, also happened to attend. There, Mathew had briefed Terry Leki in details about the southern Bhutanese problems and government policy with profiles of Bhim Subba and R.B Basnet. On arrival in Kathmandu, Terry Leki immediately called Bhim Subba and requested a meeting in UNHCR office.  UNHCR was ready to give humanitarian support to him, his family and Basnet family as well. But they denied and requested that UNHCR should provide assistance to needy refugees who are dying of hunger in Jhapa. Meantime, Mr. Bhim Subba and Mr. R.B. Basnet also wrote appeal to UNHCR Geneva as a follow up.

Needless to say that the mass eviction ensued after the circular issued to district head of six southern districts by the then Deputy home minister Dago Tshering. Lhotsampas became the victims of ethnic cleansing and were made destitute and stateless. HUROB, launched in September 7,1991, shouldered the responsibility of campaigning, advocacy and rehabilitation of refugees on the bank of river Kankai Mai. The initial number of 134 increased exponentially and the incoming refugees had to be located in upstream Kankai, a forested place called Domukha, while the forest edge on either side of road also occupied till fringes of Surunga bazar. Food and medicines went all scarce.  We used to go to the villages in Jhapa begging alms and carry on our shoulder whatever we could get and sympathetic people of Nepal could offer and divide among the refugees measured by a tobacco container.

 There were dozens of infant death every day and the calamity reach to record of 48 on a particular day. Mostly dying were children because of malnutrition, cholera, pneumonia and malarial fever. Dr. Bhampa Rai’s single handed effort in absence of medical supplies was just like drizzles in desert. Under the leadership of S B Subba, HUROB did a commendable job by disseminating refugee data of death, human rights violations and testimonies of the victims to regional, international and other human rights organizations for action and help. Refugee leaders attended conferences, seminars and meetings in Kathmandu and Delhi and taken victims of violence for their testimonies. Media attention was sought.

In those days communication was not easy. There was no telephone and least to talk about mobile and internet. There was one ISD telephone set at Birtamod was charging NRs 25 per minute to call Kathmandu. So dissemination of information was herculean task, the alternative being postal service that was time taking. The seniors in Kathmandu, particularly Bhim Subba, were active lobbying to UNHCR, other International community and diplomatic missions. He was in constant touch with Paul Mathew urging him to raise the issue in UN and request UNHCR step in. At the local level, HUROB constantly was in touch with CDO, police, local people and leaders. Finally Nepal government agreed and allowed UNHCR to provide humanitarian assistance to Bhutanese refugees.  A high level officer, Peter D. Souza, came to Nepal and met Bhim and Basnet.  D. Souza visited Maidhar and took firsthand information of the people and prevailing ground reality. He was convinced of immediate intervention of UNHCR to provide humanitarian assistance. It was sometimes in February 1992, one UNHCR official in Kathmandu, N.B. Chettri, flew to Jhapa. Soon the humanitarian assistance started arriving on emergency basis. By that time number reached almost ten thousand and the death toll was around 800 (I believe these records are available at HUROB office).  Bhim Subba and late Basnet’s timely response brought changes differently to rescue refugees from epidemic. HUROB shouldered the camp administration and helped UNHCR in camp management till February 1993 and handed over fully to UNHCR thereafter.


Despite woeful situation in the camps with sufferings, death and hunger, it was the determination of S.B Subba and HUROB, together with some student activists that our brothers, sisters and children could continue the school education in the refugee camps. Bhim Subba’s desire was that children should not lack good education and when we go back to Bhutan, they should go with a good education. With this ambition, HUROB started establishing schools on the bank of the Maidhar together with Student Union of Bhutan. HUROB, through Mr. Bhim Subba approached the German Embassy in Kathmandu and arranged DAFI scholarships for higher studies in India and Nepal. So, most of our brothers and sisters who had to leave their studies incomplete, could complete their degrees, some in professionals like Agriculture, medicine, law and computer science.

Mrs. Manikala Gurung-Basnet played a great role in bringing CARITAS for supporting the education of refugee children. One of the well-wishers and person of relation in Kathmandu met Manikala Gurung-Basnet, Joshna Gurung and Usha Tamang who introduced them to Ashis Gurung, the executive Director of CARITAS Nepal. Hearing the plight of refugee situation, Ashis Gurung visited the refugee camp in Kankai. Relocating the camp to better locations in Beldangi and Goldhap had begun, while Timai and Pathri camps were being filled with more evictees.  After the visit and getting firsthand information on ground realities and urgent need of education to thousands of children, CARITAS agreed to facilitate education at the camp level and serve as implementing partner to DAFI scholarships or any higher education on availability of funds. In this way CARITAS engaged in camp education and made education a reality to thousands of our children making easier for resettlement and adaptation today.

Note: The author is one of the freelance columnists. The views expressed are solely of the author and doesn’t represent that of BNS.  -Editors