China and Bhutan: crushing dissent

Meenakshi Ganguly
4 July 2007

The study of history provides rich lessons about the damaging effects of oppression and injustice, particularly egregious human-rights violations. One of the most important is that if legitimate claimants are brutally repressed into silence and desperation, their grievances can be exploited by those who instigate further violence. The result of this mistaken choice of war over peace is that almost everyone involved is drawn into a circle of fear and degradation in a way that leaves them even worse off.

Among the various battles raging around the globe - with cluster-bombs and suicide-bombs, between militants and soldiers, over religion or land - one peaceful struggle is rapidly disappearing from our newspapers, and another, possibly more violent, threatening to make news. Each is nourished by human-rights abuses and hidden by the "happy news" of the state concerned. The tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan and the enormous state of China share the dubious distinction of representing dominant ethnic and linguistic majorities that would prefer to erase minority cultures.

Meenakshi Ganguly is the Mumbai-based south Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch

Also by Meenakshi Ganguly in openDemocracy:

"Sri Lanka: time to act" (11 September 2006)

"India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest" (9 January 2007)

In Tibet, China is building roads, rails and other infrastructure in an attempt to push people into choosing prosperity over religious and cultural identity. Tens of thousands who fled into exile can still cling to their language, culture and religion, but the millions who remain, after years of arrests and killings, have largely been forced into compromise. Many Tibetans believe they are ignored by the international community because their movement was peaceful.

Bhutan, even as it boasted of its high "gross national happiness", has violated international laws protecting political freedom and those shielding against discrimination based on religion or ethnicity, attempting to create a homogenous culture. When minority ethnic Nepalis complained, Bhutan responded by forcing into exile more than 100,000 of its citizens with impunity. Those that remained were silenced and terrified into submission. But now, Bhutan is witnessing the beginnings of a violent Maoist rebellion, one which has already led to reports of arrest and torture of suspected supporters.

Tibet's hidden fractures

If China were to write the history of Tibet, it would describe a "splittist" monk who tried to dismember the nation and harm a government determined to provide its people with care and opportunity. A few journalists, allowed recently to travel to the region by Chinese authorities, reported a 13% annual growth rate, widespread construction, tourism and jobs. They were not encouraged to look at the continued repression of political activists, the arbitrary detention and torture, the fact that even possessing a picture of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is regarded as a crime. New housing projects are on display, with claims that government subsidies are encouraging nomadic tribes to gain access to education and health.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet and Bhutan:

Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, "Globalisation - the view from Bhutan" (25 October 2001)

Charlie Devereux, "Bhutan's outsiders in limbo" (20 April 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Bhutan's democratic puzzle" (30 June 2006)

"Tibet vs China: the human rights showdown" (16 August 2006)

Karma Phuntsho, "Bhutanese reform, Nepalese criticism" (13 October 2006)

By contrast, little has been said about how the Chinese government is forcibly relocating those herders into the housing projects, demanding an end to their traditional livelihoods. Human Rights Watch, in a report published in June 2007 - No One Has the Liberty to Refuse: Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region - found that approximately 700,000 people have been resettled in western China. The economic and social rights of Tibetan herders have been violated as they are forced to slaughter their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies without consultation or compensation.

Stories such as those recorded in the report seldom surface. One herder said: "The government says that if we sell our animals and start businesses like shops and restaurants we would have a happy life and not have to work so hard. In our village at present, about 100 households still have cattle, and 100 have none left. Of those, about fifty opened shops and restaurants, but they don't know how to do good business or how to prepare food very well, so naturally they became poor. The other fifty have no shops, no restaurants, and no cattle."

Yet Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, have remained staunchly peaceful. The Dalai Lama insists that eventually, truth and right will persevere: what after all, is a few decades in the life of a nation? This is easy enough to say for a man who is believed to be in his fourteenth incarnation; but in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama presides over the Tibetan government in exile, restless young men alternate between figuring out a ticket to the west and dreaming of a homeland they insist will be lost unless they fight for it - with bombs and guns. They respect their holy leader and cannot disobey him, but no one pays attention to peaceful protests, they insist.

Bhutan's inner strains

In Bhutan, some young people have probably reached the same unfortunate conclusion. In the early 1990s tens of thousands of Bhutanese citizens were expelled from their home. They were ethnic Nepalis, Hindus unlike the Buddhist Drukpas and culturally distinct; the Bhutanese government believed them to be intruders, and potential troublemakers. The community had grown in numbers and influence, and the Drukpa elite believed that its own privileged position and cultural identity was at risk. Citizenship laws were tightened and in 1989, the king ordered all citizens to observe the traditional Drukpa values, dress and etiquette, even removing the Nepali language from the school curriculum.

This led to growing turbulence, culminating in mass protest demonstrations in late 1990. Instead of addressing the reasons for discontent, the government arrested and exiled a large number of ethnic Nepalis. For almost two decades, the refugees have remained in camps in Nepal. Their demand for repatriation was peaceful, but despite endless rounds of talks with Kathmandu, Bhutan has shown little inclination to let them come home.

Meanwhile, ethnic Nepalis who were allowed to remain in Bhutan face constant discrimination, unable to get government jobs, buy or sell land, find admission in colleges or open a business unless they are cleared by government, a certificate nearly impossible to secure. They have to wear the national dress and speak the Dzongkha language. In a report published in May 2007 on this long-term refugee crisis - Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India - Human Rights Watch quoted a man who said, "They don't ask me to leave, but they make me so miserable, I will be forced to leave. I have no identification, so I cannot do anything, go anywhere, get any job."

The state will no doubt try to write this ugly chapter out of the history of Bhutan. But that won't make the situation any less volatile. In the refugee camps, an offer of resettlement by the United States and other countries has sparked unrest because to some it means an end to their quest for justice and the eventual goal of return to Bhutan. Refugees who speak in favour of resettlement are being threatened and intimidated; in late May 2007, they were attacked by a mob, one of their leaders beaten, and huts burnt. In the ensuing violence, Nepali police forces shot and killed two of the rioters.

Bhutan's Maoist leader Vikalpa, complaining about the "denationalisation" of Bhutanese citizens, told a journalist that there was no option other than to launch a "people's war". "Where there is suppression, there is revolt. Where there is revolt, it explodes the empire of suppression into pieces", he said. Meanwhile, there are reports that a number of people allegedly involved with the Maoists have been arrested and tortured by the Bhutanese government.

China and Bhutan still have a chance to avoid the brutal confrontation their policies of ethnic suppression nurture. But to do so, they must stop propounding the cheerful narrative that writes their troublesome minorities out of the picture of national identity, and instead grant them the respect and rights to which they are entitled.

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