“Unbecoming Citizens,” Michael Hutt

Charlie Devereux
22 December 2005


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“Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan”
by Michael Hutt
Oxford University Press | August 2005 | ISBN 0195670604

Recommended by Charlie Devereux:

In January I am going to the Bhutanese refugee camps in the southeast corner of Nepal. I was told Michael Hutt’s book was essential background reading for my trip, and in turn wish to recommend it myself.

The plight of Bhutan’s Lhotshampa people is one of the world’s least covered stories of displaced peoples. In the early 1990s, over 100,000 people of Nepali origin were, in effect, forcibly ejected from their land in the south of Bhutan. Coerced into signing voluntary emigration forms in a language they did not speak, most fled to refugee camps in Nepal where they have resided in a state of limbo ever since. With a population of just 600,000 this makes this Himalayan kingdom the largest generator per capita of refugees in the world.

Hutt traces the history of early settlement by Nepali-origin farmers in the country’s lowlands and of Bhutan’s later efforts to modernise, which initially led to attempts to integrate them into society and government, but eventually brought their expulsion from what had now been their homeland for five or six generations. Though a little dry in style, it is a fastidious study of a situation short on written records. What is most shocking and revealing is evidence of a tug-of-war between Nepal and Bhutan for what was then seen as a hardworking community which could provide the state with lucrative revenue through taxes. In this light, their rejection by both governments some fifty years later seems all the more tragic.

The ethnic cleansing grew out of an urge to preserve the indigenous Drokpa culture of the north of the kingdom. Hutt examines the Bhutanese case through a fascinating analysis of ‘essentialist’ and ‘epochalist’ modes of nationalist ideology prevalent in other ethnically divided countries, such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In the nineteenth century, the then autonomous region of Sikkim (now part of India) saw a large influx of Nepalis, and its subsequent loss of independence has been attributed by some to its being “overrun” by an ethnic minority - which goes some way to explaining, if not justifying, the fears that led to the current impasse for the Lhotshampa refugees.

Bhutan’s PR machine has done a good job of painting the country in an enchanting light: towering Himalayan mountains, deep wooded valleys, Shangri-La, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, bans on television (only recently introduced) and smoking, a spotless environmental record, a culture barely touched by modernity, which has preserved its (pre-eminently) Buddhist roots, and the national objective of Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. It all apparently adds up to a perfect antidote to the modern world and an ideal destination for the intrepid traveller in search of the most obscure and exotic holiday. Luxury health spas perched on the side of mountains draw Hollywood types in droves (and with a visa costing $200 a day perhaps only they can afford it).

It may be a commendable aspiration, to wish to preserve a nation’s culture in a world that is homogenising fast through pervasive western influence, but when this occurs at the expense of a large proportion of a country’s population who have a legitimate claim to citizenship, it smacks of totalitarianism.

What can be done? The labyrinthine nature of politics in the region does not bode well for the Lhotshampas. Civil war in Nepal distracts from their cause and India’s dependence on Bhutan to control the movement of insurgents fighting for Assam’s independence along the Bhutan-India border prevents the Indian government from exerting pressure on King Jigme Singhye Wangchuk.

Amnesty International has been campaigning tirelessly ever since the initial expulsions, but the situation appears to have reached a stalemate. Lobbying of hotel chains – such as Como Hotels, who recently set up a luxury retreat in Bhutan, and who might theoretically apply pressure in turn on the Thimpu government – might ruffle a few feathers.

And a small chink of light has appeared in the last week, in the king’s announcement that he plans to hand over power to his son and introduce democratic elections in 2008. How democratic and how ‘essentialist’ in vision Crown Prince Dasho Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk proves to be, may largely dictate the refugees’ fate.

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