Starting over is often frightening and seldom easy. There are always those items too precious to easily part with, no matter the circumstances around them. We can find ourselves lost and confused amid the conflicts and changes forced upon us. This becomes all the more painfully true in those times when our loyalties and our sense of identity are challenged. Those times carry a special torment and often leave the deepest scars in our hearts.
For Suraj Budathoki of Manchester, it is time to start over.
On the 18th of April, he became a citizen of the United States of America. It was a hard-fought milestone, bringing to an end 24 years of fear, anguish and rejection. When he speaks of his new home, he is fond of saying that U.S.A. means “U start again.”
Suraj is one of several thousand refugees of Bhutan who have come to America with the hopes of starting over. His infectious enthusiasm is evident in his enormous smile. In looking at him, you may find it hard to believe the hardships he and his family have had to endure. Suraj looks to the future and sees all the possibilities that his new home and country hold for him, his family and his people. Yet, there are still those memories that beckon him to look behind. They are just too precious to leave, too sacred to be forgotten. The loss of his ancestral home, the livestock his family tended and all the potential that was taken from him for more than 20 years still twist in his soul. He wants the world to know the truth. He wants justice.
At the time the British Empire left India, Bhutan came to a point of starting over. On Aug. 8, 1949, Bhutan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India. While India did have some control regarding Bhutan’s relations with foreign countries, this was the first time Bhutan was recognized as an independent nation. It must have been an exciting time for the Bhutanese people. Their country was now free and able to build its own identity.
The momentum was set, and Bhutan raced forward to be a modern nation. In 1952, with the death of the king, Bhutan began to become a democracy and formed the national assembly. Six years later, the longstanding tradition of slavery was abolished. There were growing pains along the way. Starting over is hard, but progress would not be stopped. By 1971, Bhutan joined the United Nations and entered the world stage.
Nestled between China and India, Bhutan boasts both the majestic peaks of the Himalayas and lush grassy fields. In many ways, it is a paradise on Earth. In fact, in 2006 Business Week rated Bhutan the happiest nation in all Asia, eighth happiest in the world. Much of this is owed to the Gross Happiness Doctrine enacted by the Bhutanese government. This grand and noble gesture, that every citizen should be happy, separates Bhutan from other nations. It is inspiring idea in so many ways and suggests brave and idealistic rulers. However, there is a dark shadow cast over this happiness. It seems that for some to be happy, others must be placed in misery.
The admirable goal of universal happiness flies in direct contrast to Bhutan’s policies regarding its Nepali-descended minority, known as Lhotshampas. Those policies have marginalized, subjugated and persecuted nearly 20 percent of the country’s population. After a long history of legal harassment, much of the ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan have been chased out the country and forced to live in refugee camps.
After the consolidation of Bhutan in the early 17th century, the then-Civil Administrator Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal went to Nepal and brought a few families as construction workers. The Bhutan House (present day embassy) in Kalimpong, India, resettled huge numbers of Nepalese in the southern region of Bhutan as a buffer to British colonial power in India. Also, in the latter part of the 19th century and early parts of the 20th, Nepali immigrants entered Bhutan as workers. Soon they were feared for being such a large minority and were forbidden to settle in the northern portion of the country.
In response, they made Southern Bhutan their home. During 1958, the Citizenship Act officially gave citizenship to those who could prove they had been in the country for at least 10 years. It was an opportunity for so many looking for a new life.
However, those old fears against them came back in the form of policies limiting their citizenship. In an effort to enforce a national culture (mainly those of Northern Bhutan) the government began to marginalize the southern portion of their country. The Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1985 (setting the policy of “one nation, one people”) set codes of conduct regarding public dress, behavior and even an attempt to limit the languages spoken in schools. It was clear that the ruling powers were targeting the Nepali minority. No more so was this evident than in the manner of redefining who was and wasn’t a citizen of the nation. Those now deemed to no longer be citizens were forced to relinquish their property to the government. Speaking against such policy was grounds for losing citizenship. The Lhotshampas were effectively denied democracy.
In 1988, Bhutan had its first census. Many feared that this was merely an exercise in determining who was of Nepali descent. The Lhotshampas were outraged and protested. Those who spoke against the king and his policies were soon arrested or forced to flee. Suraj’s family was among those who ran in fear of being imprisoned.
It was at night that his family left. They packed what they could, poured all of the feed for their livestock in the center of the yard, opened all the pens and took flight. He relates how it all seemed so exciting to his 10-year-old self. He got to ride in a truck and was innocently excited for it.
There being no place for them in Bhutan, the refugees set up seven camps in the uninhabited portions of Nepal. The conditions were miserable. The houses were little more than bamboo huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs. The Budathokis settled in Timai, the first of such camps. It was the harshest of new starts. They lost everything, with little hope of anything ever getting better.
It can be hard to envision what life was like in such a place. Most property was shared by necessity. Work was hard to come by, and money was scarce. The people have to make do with what little they brought with them or could manage to scrounge together. Sickness ran rampant, as did malnutrition. There was no electricity, no plumbing and little protection from the elements. Suraj tells of his childhood with such a pleasant nature that it almost belies the bleakness of his story. How he had to get up early every morning to secure a good place in line for water. How he spent his days breaking rocks down by the river to earn money for his family. Every story peppered with misery told by a man now thrilled at the vastly improved conditions of his new life.
In 2008, the United States government agreed to resettle 60,000 of the refugees in America. Suraj is among these. It is a constant struggle to start over in such a different culture. It is a struggle he gladly accepts with all the promise his new life holds. Now a husband and father, he has taken to activism on the part of the several thousand still living in the refugee camps back in Nepal as well as helping those like him here. It is a new life, a good life. It is more than he ever thought he would get in the more than 20 years he was forced to live in exile.
Underneath the friendly and genuine demeanor is the pain and anger of stolen decades he can never get back. That fires him to seek attention for his people and their cause. It makes him appreciate and love his new home all the more. He delights in simple things such as having a job and all the possibilities the future now holds for his daughter. He happily complains about having to pay rent for the first time in his life.
However, the hardships and horrors of his past still haunt his happy life as they do for so many others. While Suraj is able to channel it toward helping the Bhutanese community, so many others cannot escape those demons. The suicide rate among resettled Lhotshampas in the United States is alarming. It is a problem that is taken to heart by those building a new life here. Starting over is never easy.
In many ways, Bhutan is starting over as well.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne in 2006. This set the stage for Bhutan to become a constitutional monarchy. Sadly, the issues of the Lhotshampas have been pushed further back. This is a new beginning for Bhutan and as the country starts over again, there is hope that maybe this time they will correct the sins of their past.
(Trevor Hart lives in Manchester.)
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by the Concord Monitor (http://www.concordmonitor.com). It has been reproduced with permission from the author.