Good evening ladies and gentlemen,
It’s my pleasure to stand in front of you all this evening to share a story, a true story, in which I am one of the characters. This story has always given me pain, aggressiveness and a choke in my throat – no matter whether I have shared this with my dear and loving ones or strangers. I hope you’ll not misunderstand to visualize the content of my speech, even though most of you know my background and therefore you can make a guess as to what I am going to speak today.
Before jumping into the subject, I express my heartfelt and sincere gratitude to “Welcome to America Project” for this great opportunity to share our stories. I am; indeed, out of words for those American hearts who have strong attachment with our hearts and understand the sufferings of thousands of Bhutanese refugees and refugees from around the globe. The events in this story may not necessarily say that, but that’s how I felt the story would be complete and meaningful. This character, who was born in Bhutan, grown up in refugee camp in Nepal and now struggling for her future in America, is the most deprived one in the story. And, to make it clear, this story is about atrocities of the Bhutanese regime on its citizens and is a part of thousands of untold stories, which refugees like me carry in their hearts around the world.
Bhutan – a country sandwiched between two Asian giants India and China- is regarded as the last Shangri-La and equally well known for the state-promoted concept of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan remained almost unknown to the international community until Bhutan formally decided to join the United Nations Organizations in 1971.
There are many unique geo-politics and socio-cultural features that make Bhutan a unique country in the world. And, as a Bhutanese I am proud of it. Until 2008, Bhutan’s area was around 47,000 square kilometer, but sadly it was squeezed to 38,000 square kilometer as Bhutan lost its northern border in the same year I landed in America; after spending successive 16 years in the UN-administered refugee camp in Nepal.
Bhutan is a multilingual and multicultural country. Some analysts compare it with America in the sense that it is a land of immigrants. As a matter of fact, even those who are in power for over centuries, migrated there from outside. I am an ethnic Nepali-speaking Bhutanese whose official population is above 20 percent of the total. If we consider what history has depicted is correct, it dates back to 1624 when the first group of Nepali-speaking people were accepted into Bhutan for construction of administrative buildings with a provision that they would enjoy equal rights as enjoyed by the ruling elites.
By culture, my forefathers were productive, hardworking, and sincere and dedicated to the land, law and the king. It is an undeniable fact that there was a time when all Bhutanese enjoyed harmony, cooperation, peace and everything as required by all beings for survival with dignity and honor. Importantly, when Nepali-speaking people entered into Bhutan, it was all covered by dense forest. There were no roads. The country lacked other infrastructural developments. So, my forefathers contributed selflessly and even sacrificed lives to make the present Bhutan. By law, Bhutan uses forced labor and these laws apply to Nepali-speaking southern-Bhutanese only.
Gradually, looking at the progress and success of my forefathers, the regime started becoming jealous, modified the existing laws to threaten, paralyze and victimize Nepali-speaking citizens and made many things unacceptable to southern Bhutanese, mandatory by law in an arbitrary manner.
When every government’s move crossed the limit, southern Bhutanese started demanding rights, justice and equality. But, this instead added fuel into the fire and the regime became more cruel and inhuman, which I can’t explain in detail. The unprecedented suppression includes but not limited to are the denial of the right to: language, religion, education, job and even personal matters.
The Bhutanese regime applied various unacceptable and arbitrary policies, revised the citizenship act to bar citizens from getting legal status, decided to implement green-belt policy in southern-Bhutan to uproot the settlement and made the dress code compulsory. Not only this, all schools, where children were studying, got converted into military barracks to torture innocent and illiterate people. Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were unlawfully and without any compensation terminated from the civil service. Rape, arrest, kidnappings, killing and torture became rampant in all villages. Martial law was applied to create state-sponsored terrorism among the citizens. All documents and properties in possession were seized, citizenship declared invalid, houses were burnt down and people forced to leave the country.
When all attempts to living and survival in the country failed, our parents and grandparents were finally made to agree that they would leave the country. It was not their choice, but a decision at gun-point where they were made to smile and all those actions had been digitalized for the regime’s proof.
The initial days in Nepal were without any hope of survival. There was no food to eat, no shelter, no education, no health care services and everything was a distant dream for me and all. But, there were people speaking the same language and having cultural ties with us who shared the survival kits. Slowly, the UN stepped in and we could get something to eat and a place to take rest. Then, we started getting the basic education, basic health services and a few more things, but all of them were ‘just basic’ especially meant for survival.
My heart cannot bear all those feelings if I recall my days back in Nepal. Sadly, thousands of my fellow countrymen are still there and I hope, I would be able to meet them physically one day here or hear about a change in their status and life style, be they anywhere, in homeland or in third country.
I have a faint memory of the day my family was forced to bid good-bye to the homeland, leaving behind every belonging. During my 16 years in the camp, I always had the desire to see my hometown with my parents and fellow countrymen in camps, but no refugees were accepted to enter Bhutan and were termed as terrorists. Repatriation has always been merely a speech and dream. Nepal tried a lot to convince Bhutan to accept its citizens and offer them equal rights, but Bhutan was not interested to listen to Nepal’s request. Even, powerful nations and international communities have so far failed to make Bhutan realize the illegal ethnic cleansing it promoted.
For me, the resettlement is a better choice than spending life in the tumbledown huts in Nepal. So, my friends in Nepal have no legal work permit. They are confined within the camp by the local authority. I have availed a privilege to earn my educational degree of my choice here, I have found a place called home and I can never imagine of dying without medical treatment in this land. Additionally, in a few years, I may wish to become an American citizen. However, nothing replaces my homeland, my village and everything that I had to leave behind, due to the autocratic regime of Bhutan.
I have a dream that my country will accept me one day as Bhutanese and I’ll be able to spend rest of my life in my own village.
My heartfelt thanks to the donor agencies for saving our lives for years and providing us basic necessities, to the international agencies and governments for giving new life with a new hope, to the “welcome to America project “for making an empty hall a beautiful home.
I request all the leading organizations, international agencies and the Governments to help those lingering countrymen of mine to get out of hell and give them a new life. The gratefulness you receive from those needy souls will worth thousands of awards.
Please, “Welcome to America Project” accept my heartfelt gratitude for your outstanding and distinct role.
(Khanal, BNS correspondent in Phoenix, delivered this speech at ‘An Evening in Bhutan‘ of Welcome to America Project on October 2 in Arizona).