It is an undeniable fact that most of the nations know that Bhutan is a country of immigrants, who entered into Bhutan through different time periods. However, the country itself is yet to admit this fact. Therefore, labeling citizens, whose entry into Bhutan dates back to not before the 17thcentury, as “illegal immigrants” of Bhutan is neither logical nor justifiable.
All the Bhutanese in exile, who have been dwelling in ramshackle huts in Nepal or elsewhere with hardship since two decades, are confidently ready to prove themselves to be bona-fide Bhutanese, be it in the presence of unbiased representatives from the international community. So, the question here is not how over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees prove their “Bhutanese identity”, but it should be, instead, is Bhutan prepared enough to accept them when these so-called “illegal immigrants” certify their status in the presence of international community?
Sense of cruelty: It is well agreed that Bhutan is a Buddhist nation with multi ethnicity and multiple religions. From the very beginning of the history of Bhutan, it has been continuously ruled by Buddhist rulers. However, the rulers seem to be far behind in concept of true philosophy of Buddhism, as a result of which they unleashed numerous chapters of “killing each other” mercilessly to hold supreme position. Although never mentioned in the history of Bhutan, even the re incarnations of Zhabdrung Ngawang the most famous spiritual leader of Bhutan, were assassinated from time to time to hold the power by the rulers.
The rulers, who also follow Buddhism, as commoners do, have been discriminating and suppressing other religions. A monk named Gomchen Karma from Tashigang, a follower of another sect of Buddhism Nyningmapa, was shot dead on October 27, 1997 by the district officer Lakpa Dorji and expelled many senior Buddhist monks of eastern Bhutan simply for attending a peaceful procession demanding equal rights to religions. After this incident, to appease this community and to avoid two front enmities, the regime promptly promoted Sharchop officers to the ranks of ministers. But all the ministers from other ethnic community are still under compulsion to dance to the tunes of the regime.
Crux of refugee crisis: Until late 70s, Bhutan remained as one of the poorest countries in the world. However, there existed very good relationship between the ruler and citizens. Such a relationship was, indeed, taken as an indicator of prosperity in the nation in the days to come. But that was not liked by the neighbor country which started creating melodrama, first in Sikkim and later in Darjeeling aiming at arousing Bhutan against the southern Bhutanese. In both the issues, the Indian citizens of Nepali ethnicity were projected in the front, ultimately Sikkim was annexed to India; people of Darjeeling had to be satisfied with old Hill Council and ethnic Nepali of those regions were blamed for swallowing Sikkim. Thus, the scaremonger easily motivated Bhutan to act against the southern Bhutanese of Nepali ethnicity.
The wiseacre rulers of Bhutan did not waste their time to hatch up conspiracies against the citizens of southern Bhutan, mostly Nepali-speaking people called Lhotsampas by the regime. The autocrat started executing discriminatory and suppressive policies upon the Lhotsampas targeting their culture, religion and livelihood. These people were left with no option but to request the ruler-turned-predator for institutionalizing human rights as enshrined in United Nations.
But the regime chose military crackdown on its citizens when many people were intimidated, arbitrarily arrested, tortured and murdered in jails. This is not enough. Many women were gang-raped, houses set ablaze, huge properties of the citizens destroyed and important documents were confiscated by the security forces to erase their “Bhutanese identity” permanently.
Refugee arrivals: Tragedies of Lhotsampas did not end there as the government started evicting them systematically on various pretexts. They had to enter India. Unluckily, those evicted Bhutanese were not given asylum in the first port of entry, India, rather the security forces of India motivated and even instigated them to enter Nepal. Thus Bhutanese never entered Nepal by their own will, but it was a Hobson’s choice (without options). Fortunately, Nepal was kind enough to take them on humanitarian ground and within very short time the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came to assist these people.
Bhutan and its advisors were thinking that those Bhutanese after their eviction from their homeland would be assimilated in Indian borders as Duars and Nepal because of their similar language and ethnicity but that could not take place as they realized they and their forefathers had sweated and bled for their motherland and have remained determined to return Bhutan in days to come. To keep the ball rolling in his desired track, Bhutan even attempted to convince the Nepali authority for not granting them asylum. Probably, Bhutan wrote some letters to the UNHCR to stop its aid basket for these people. But, both couldn’t happen as expected by the Bhutanese regime. Irked with such humanitarian supports from Nepal and the UNHCR, it instead started evicting citizens en masse.
Slim hope for repatriation: With efforts of constant negotiation from Nepali side due to the international pressure, Bhutan at least accepted the presence of some Bhutanese in the UN-monitored camps in Nepal. So, in very trickery manner it proposed to categorize its own citizens in 1994. Subsequently, Khudunabari camp was verified in 2003 after forming a Joint Verification Team (JVT) with Nepal. During verification the whole show was dominated by the team from Bhutan and the verification was conducted in very deceptive manner and according to the whim of Bhutanese team. The results were amazing. Two four-year-olds, Srijana Poudyel and Ramesh Poudel, both born in camp, were categorized as “criminals” of Bhutan. Can anybody in the world tolerate such open deception? The JVT declared 293 to be forcefully evicted from Bhutan, 347 to be having criminal records in Bhutan, 8595 voluntarily migrated from Bhutan and 2948 having no link to Bhutan, could be Bhutanese whose documents were confiscated or destroyed by the security forces during military crackdown before they were evicted.
In 2003, the Bhutanese refugees, except those having no link in Bhutan, as accused by the regime, were verified to be bona-fide Bhutanese whatever the category they have fallen in. So Bhutan must take these people back to Bhutan with safety and dignity if it prefers to call it as a true democratic country where citizens enjoy their rights. The so-called democratic ruler must be brave enough to accept its mistakes if they have real faith in Buddhism and Bhutan as the last Shangri-la.
Regime’s art of lying: Even after finding all facts, Bhutan is still persistently and shamelessly campaigning in international community saying that the people in the camps in Nepal are illegal immigrants who had entered Bhutan as laborers to work in country’s first installed Chhuka Hydroelectric Project (CHEP) in early seventies. Bhutan must remember that I was deputed to this project as medical officer by the government. And, I was a doctor to sign on the medical fitness forms of those laborers coming from India and Nepal, if we accept Bhutan’s allegation. Later, in mid 80s those laborers were thrown out of the project and Bhutan, after official agreement with India. Now, Bhutan is trying to confuse the international community about the eviction of those laborers of the CHEP with the eviction of Lhotsampas since early nineties. Such persistent attitude of regime is an indication of aftermath of eviction which still looms around the remaining Bhutanese of Nepalese ethnicity in Bhutan.
Bhutan often engages itself in telling the Bhutanese refugee stalemate is a humanitarian issue but never dared say who or what caused this issue. So far, Bhutan is very lucky as it is backed by a giant neighbour and its propaganda is sellable in the market. Why Bhutan does not dare sitting across the table with the refugees and prove them “illegal immigrants” if they really are as it claims? What the refugee community hopes is Bhutan will stop telling such lies to hide the stories of injustice to its citizens and violation of human right and will start following true philosophy of Buddhism. Telling lies upon lies is unforgivable crime in front of Lord Buddha and against the principle of Shangri-la, which the present Bhutan needs to learn.
(Dr. Rai is the chairperson of Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee. He can be reached at: [email protected])