Shedding Light on the Last Shangri La

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Clutching his application to resettle in the United States, Thakur Prasad Mishra hesitated at the door of the UN field office in southeastern Nepal.

The fight to uncensor Bhutan’s media had left Mishra – founder of the first newspaper dedicated to the 108,000 displaced Lhotshampas, Nepali-speakers from Bhutan – torn between his growing audience of refugees in Nepal and the security and opportunity for a normal life in the United States. But with communist militias fracturing civility in the refugees’ community, he realized resettlement was his only option.

And, even if America’s streets weren’t paved in gold, at least they weren’t lined with trash and untethered animals. At least the neighbors in New York couldn’t see through the walls. At least resettlement would allow the refugees to leave their life in limbo between the kingdom that kicked them out and the country that kept them in squalor.

For 19 years, rain had showered down through the holes in the cheap plastic roofing of their makeshift shack in the camp. Sweltering summer sun baked the inside of the flimsy structure. To make matters worse, the closest neighbors and all of their garbage, animals, family talks, and disease-spreading coughs lived inches away in identically constructed huts. Privacy, Mishra says, did not exist.

“I feel like I lived in such a house where a normal human being would never live,” he says of the ramshackle shelter he lived in for nearly two decades. “It was horrible. It was so horrible.”

Nestled high in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan is a cultural time capsule. Even in its cities, Buddhist prayer bells ring louder than car horns. Businesspeople have yet to trade their traditional, orange-and-red-hued robes for gray suits and ties. TVs stay tuned to state-sponsored news stations. Rural folks still travel by ox. In an effort to preserve their unique, seemingly peaceful society, rulers have cherry-picked nearly every aspect of Bhutanese life, including who gets to live in the “Dragon Kingdom.”

Shedding light. Photo/Gauge Magazine

That’s why, in 1990, authorities arrested, tortured and forced Mishra’s father to sign a contract promising to leave Bhutan when Mishra was just six years old. As Nepali-speaking Hindus, the Mishras simply didn’t fit the mold.

Now, 27-year-old Mishra, a journalist and free press advocate, runs the multimedia Bhutan News Service from his new home in North Carolina.

Back in October 2004, Mishra, who had enrolled in nearby Katmandu’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication with his brother’s financial backing, started publishing The Bhutan Reporter, an English-language newspaper distributed throughout the camps once a month.

Thousands of refugees knew his name. Beneath his bylines they learned whether the UN would continue to provide them aid, when the United States would resettle applicants trickling into the international aid offices, and if their homeland would consider letting them return.

“The goal was to keep the refugee community informed about what was going on,” he says.

But publishing in English limited his audience to the 10,000 or so refugees literate in the language. So, in 2006, Mishra booked time in a Katmandu radio station, where he broadcast a Nepali-language program into the camps.

“Radio was really the best medium to reach most people,” he says. “People were like, ‘Hey, this is in our language, I understand this.'”

When word came from Washington that the US government would take in 60,000 Lhotshampas, Mishra was skeptical. He says he dreamed of returning to Bhutan and injecting the country’s news outlets with the editorial independence necessary to form a healthy democracy. But the government refused to grant him citizenship, and he’d already spent most of his life languishing in the Nepalese camps. Something had to change, he thought.

Mishra began advocating for resettlement on air and in Bhutan Reporter articles, not realizing the Bhutan Tiger Force, an armed sect of the communist Bhutan People’s Party in the camps, were keen to fight a guerrilla war against the Bhutanese. Knowing they had power in numbers, the militants were adamantly opposed to anyone leaving the camps.

When threats from communist thugs started flooding his Hotmail inbox, Mishra knew it was time to leave Nepal.

“They said, ‘if you want your family to be safe, you will stop saying anything about resettlement,'” he says. “They accused me of being a writer paid by the UN and US government.”

Even after he turned in his application, he debated whether to stay or go to the US for weeks. The aid workers in the US government field offices, called Overseas Processing Entities (OPE), interviewed him, screened his background, evaluated his health and finally deemed him eligible for resettlement. The prospect of moving on from the stagnant, seemingly futureless life in the camps became more and more appealing. Two days before the next flight to New Jersey’s Newark International Airport, he made up his mind to leave Nepal.

“I kept it a secret; I did not tell anyone I had applied until two days before I was going on the plane,” he says of the 17-hour flight.

Meanwhile, the communists exploded three bombs near Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, and countless others in the offices of international aid groups and the UN.

According to a US State Department official, bomb threats caused a number of administrative field offices, where refugees applied for resettlement, to temporarily close in 2008.

“The whole program had to be shut down a few times because security was such an issue,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to comment, says in a telephone interview. “You can’t ask people to run an OPE if they’re in danger.”

However, barring a few hiccups around that time, the OPEs continue to process refugees. The US embassy in Nepal reported 30,000 Lhotshampas were resettled in the US as of September 1.

The official, who last traveled to Bhutan ten years ago, says there is little hope for returning to Bhutan.

“I think it’d be more difficult for them to go back,” she says. “I’m not sure how they’d be treated by their countrymen.”

But, more than anything, Mishra says he wants to return to Bhutan. His work as a media liaison – connecting reporters from New York to Amsterdam with sources in Nepal – limits his ability to change Bhutan the way he wants to.

If he returns to Bhutan as a US citizen, Mishra says he plans to venture out to the country and report on life in the remote corners of the kingdom. If he returns to his country as a Bhutanese citizen, he says he’ll register the Bhutan News Service and train the Bhutan’s journalists to be aggressive watchdogs and gatekeepers, to emulate the Western model of the Fourth Estate.

“Bhutan needs to Westernize in a complete way,” he says. “It might take another 20, 30 years, but I will return to Bhutan someday.”

Source: Gauge Magazine

The article has been reproduced with permission from the Magazine.