Bhutanese refugees must not ‘blunder’ into Non-Residential Nepali status

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Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) versus Non-Resident Bhutanese (NRB) status has been trending on social media recently after a group of resettled Bhutanese American entrepreneurs proposed that the Government of Nepal designate NRN status to the resettled Bhutanese diaspora.

As an economist, public policy analyst, and a political leader, I have been traveling the world and working on the human rights and political issues faced by those of southern Bhutanese origin, and I have learned a few things from my experience. With respect to fellow community leaders and entrepreneur’s efforts, I take this opportunity to share some critical information.

As former Bhutanese refugees, I feel we must advocate for NRB and not NRN status, and here is why.

In 2009 I met Rudra Nepal, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I inquired about Nepal’s official position on the issue of resettled Bhutanese taking membership of the NRN organization. His official response was that Nepal cannot grant NRN status to the Lhotsampa community because the basis of their third country resettlement is on nationality. The passport of resettled Bhutanese records Bhutan as the country of origin, connoting that their root is in Bhutan.

Subsequently, I met Late Ronthong Kuenley Dorji, the President of the exile-based Druk National Congress (DNC). We discussed the creation of the NRB platform in which the resettled Bhutanese, and Bhutanese passport holders working from inside the country, could take membership. He supported the idea.

To advance the NRB agenda, in 2012, I met Nepal’s foreign policy experts Hiranya Lal Shrestha, Dr Prakash Chandra Lohani, Gangalal Tuladhar and others, and provided a high-level overview of the NRB identity. The take-away was that it was a good idea to pursue NRB status for the resettled Bhutanese community but whether or not Bhutan recognizes it depended upon unfolding political events.

Bhutan’s recognition of the NRB platform is tied to the resolution of the Bhutanese refugee problem. We need to constitute it, build it as an organization, and continue pressing Bhutan for its acceptance in the context of the broader Bhutanese diaspora. The NRB’s role is that of a bridge builder, establishing communication and dialogue between the exiled activist groups and the government of Bhutan. Its constitutional mandate needs to have that kind of orientation, serving as an informal embassy of Bhutan in the long-run.

The platform can operate in exile, it can lobby the Nepal government to extend facilities to NRB as given to NRN until Bhutan officially recognizes the former in its constitution, and it can continue to undertake diverse activities that could be mutually beneficial to Bhutan and the resettled Bhutanese. To achieve this, NRB can facilitate cultural programs involving the artists inside the country and those in resettled countries. It can invite prominent singers and cultural groups from Bhutan for cultural programs in the United States, Canada or Australia and involve the residential Bhutanese mission and local community in organizing such events.

NRB can also help the regional groups organize such activities, for example in Jaigoan, where the artists from India, Bhutan, Nepal and NRB can participate in the promotion of regional bonding and solidarity.

The presence of NRB will be felt through our positive contribution. A back of the envelope calculation estimates that our collective productivity is worth more than  USD 3 billion, if we assume our average per capita income of USD 30,000. That is more than ten times the GDP of Bhutan at a per capita income of USD 3,000. In addition to our economic strength, we are slowly building soft power through our participation in politics and our efforts to succeed in education, business and finance.

Having said that, Bhutan is unlikely to take the dispersed population in its fold without testing the water. Once it decides, it will have to face the national debate, amend the 2008 constitution with due political process, and give NRB a place in Bhutanese society as Nepal has done to its NRN. This is possible only through a political process, a national reconciliation, and an elevated level of engagement with people inside the country.

Those of us who want to abandon our connection with Bhutan and seek entry into NRN membership will face a steep struggle because that requires the amendment of the Nepalese constitution. While the political lobbying in Kathmandu may give some publicity and bleed resources of the resettled Bhutanese, it is unlikely to deliver any concrete results because Nepal will have to address the concern of the entire Nepali diaspora who are citizens of India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand. Nepal is unlikely to take that risk for the sake of resettled Bhutanese.

Although NRB is essential for the resettled Bhutanese, it does have many challenges before we actually get there. It is definitely a long, thorny and rough road, but if we stop and quit, we fail. If you look at the history of how other groups have regained their identities and learn from their resiliency and hope, we will certainly get what we want but we must keep on walking.

Once Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward”. We just need to have a purpose, plan, and vision to attain any mission. But this does not happen in a vacuum. We need a larger team to represent a larger voice in order to be heard.

Some mini steps are being taken. Since 2012, a small group of us has been maintaining the NRB website to keep the issue alive. This agenda needs to have visionary youthful leadership for its establishment and continuous advocacy. Depending on which state the organization is registered in, the constitutional process needs to be democratic and follow international practice, for which it requires building up a critical mass for its support.

As a resettled Bhutanese community, we are seeking visibility; for that we are talking through different forums such as the Bhutan News Service, Bhutan News Network, Global Bhutanese Literature Organization, and so on. The time has come for us to form one platform which includes Bhutanese living and working overseas, whether they are from inside or resettled.

The NRB leadership should come from the resettled community since we make up almost one-sixth of Bhutan’s population. The generally accepted nomenclature would be NRB platform, as is the case in Nepal with NRN and in India with Non-Resident Indian (NRI). We need to study their constitution, the process of creating the platform, and the goal and objective we aspire to achieve. Let us begin the process in 2022.

At the very least, it would be a blunder on the part of the former Bhutanese refugees to seek NRN status with the Nepalese government.

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Dr. DNS Dhakal is a senior fellow with Duke University. He holds MPA from Harvard University and PhD from University of Colorado Boulder. The author is one among the few who initiated the concept of NRB in 2009.