Repatriation, Dignity and Rebuilding Bhutan-Nepal Relationship   

Refugee Family in Camp

By Dr. D.N.S.Dhakal

Nepal and Bhutan had patron and priest relationship during the period of Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal This tradition was snapped by the Rana Oligarchy, and it could not be renewed when Bhutan emerged as monarchy.

Nevertheless, Nepal is littered with Temples, Lakhangs and Gompas where Bhutanese lamas have visited, consecrated or even established clientele relationship in some cases.

Hundreds of Bhutanese tourists visit Nepal every year. Pasupatinath. Swayambhunath, Boudhanath, Lumbini, Halisi Mahadev and Pharping are popular pilgrimage sites. I was told by a Nepalese Buddhist scholar that there are numerous Buddhist shrines in north Nepal where Bhutanese lamas continue to come for annual meditation and worship.

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This serene cultural relationship was muddled by the emergence of refugee problem. Bhutan’s brutal suppression of demand of the Lhotsampa community for cultural rights created refugee exodus to Nepal in early 1990s.

Bhutan’s misplaced perception on the peaceful mass demonstration of 1990 made it to react brutally. It was further complicated by twists and turns of the bordering tea-garden politics. Consequently, over 84,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin were evicted from their ancestral lands in a span of three years’ time. The evicted population were given refuge in UNHCR organized camps in eastern Nepal.

<> on March 13, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal.

After 16 rounds of failed bilateral talks the Bhutanese refugee issue caught international attention. Much of the credit goes to the patience of refugee community and sympathetic review on their case by the international community under the leadership of the United States of America. The international community decided to resettle the Bhutanese refugees on burden sharing principle.

A high profile visit of the US Congressional team to Bhutan and the refugee camps in Nepal, and the subsequent visit by the Assistant Secretary of State for population opened the door for third country resettlement.

Many of the refugee leaders who were initially opposed to the idea of third country resettlement took the international initiative positively and opted themselves for third country resettlement. The resettled Bhutanese refugees in US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and European countries are doing well as compared to other nationalities resettled as refugees.

If the resettlement program goes as planned less than 10,000 refugees will be left in the camps by the end of 2016. Bhutan and Nepal have not yet closed their Joint Verification Offices in Damak, which were set-up under the framework of bilateral process to categorize the refugees into four groups: (a) Bhutanese if forcibly evicted, (b) Bhutanese who immigrated, (c) Bhutanese with criminal records, and (d) non-Bhutanese people.

As per the bilateral agreement all the categories besides those falling under non-national category are eligible to return to Bhutan. Verification of refuges in Khudunabari camps by Joint Verification Team of Bhutan and Nepal governments had established that more than 75% of the verified refugees were eligible to return to Bhutan.

A key issue to remember here is that refugees are the victims; they are the main stakeholder. Unless, the refugee community are involved in finding the amicable solution, it will not bring-long-term political stability in Bhutan.

I have mentioned in my earlier write-up that repatriation of remaining refugees to Bhutan is only a part of the solution. The most potent issue is that the resettled Bhutanese community in overseas countries should be accorded Non-resident Bhutanese (NRB) status, giving them the option to reconnect back to their motherland.

In fact, Bhutan should create a separate ministry for overseas Bhutanese and begin the reconnection process as soon as the refugee camps are closed in Nepal.  More than 17% of the country’s population in developed countries is definitely a national asset for Bhutan, and it most review the issue of NRB in long-term perspective.

The refugee solution should also reenergize Bhutan-Nepal relationship to blossom at cultural and economic levels. We have been advocating establishment of Bhutan-Nepal Foundation (BNF) with membership restricted to people inside the country (Bhutanese), non-resident Bhutanese (NRB) and Nepalese citizen of Nepal.

The BNF could engage at promotion of ancient cultural and historical relationship focus at cultural exchanges and preservation of refugee history in Nepal. It should be nurtured and managed on the strength of Bhutanese and Nepalese peoples.

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To happen this Bhutan will have to express apology for committing atrocities onto the Lhotsampa community in the early 1990s, repatriate the remaining willing refugees from the camps, and accord NRB status to the resettled Bhutanese.

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Also, there are cultural and citizenship issues related to Lhotsampa community in Bhutan, for example, teaching of the Nepali language in schools and the pending citizenship issue of some 45,000 residents of Nepali origin. Bhutan government must take concrete steps to address these pending issues.

Bhutan should learn from what has happened in Nepal. Had King Mahendra facilitated deepening of multiparty politics in Nepal the situation would been different today. Nepal would have continued to remain as constitutional monarchy; it would have easily graduated by now to middle income country; and democracy and political stability would have rooted firmly in the soils of Nepal.

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No doubt Bhutan has gained today international recognition for the concept of gross national happiness, preservation of pristine environment and achievement of higher per capita income in the region. All these achievements can go down the drain if body politics is not brought into right tracks, and the entire Bhutanese communities are not made part of the overall polity.

The need of the hour is not a pat at the back from the international community.  There is a need to take bold political steps to make correction on any aberrations in body politics and solve the refugee issue once for all.