Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Bhutan's outsiders in limbo

About the author
Charlie Devereux is a freelance journalist and photographer. He was a member of the openDemocracy editorial team from August to December 2005

The broad leaves of banana trees obscure hundreds of rows of bamboo huts set out in compact grids that reach the fringes of the forest. The intersecting pathways are neatly swept, and many huts sport fenced gardens of white and yellow roses. Outside their huts, women sit and talk while they work at their wool looms. The men play carrom, a traditional board game, or drink tea while children play or attend school. Life seems tranquil in Beldangi II Extension.

But the appearance of order belies a situation fraught with tension. Beldangi II Extension is one of seven refugee camps run by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in southeast Nepal. Bhutanese refugees – currently numbering 105,000 – have lived in such camps for some fifteen years. They are primarily a Hindu-minority ethnic group known in Bhutan as Lhotshampas (southerners), who make up about a quarter of the country's population. They settled as farmers in the southern lowlands in the late 19th century, many with an express invitation from Bhutan, which needed labourers to help clear its malaria-infested jungles.

It was only in 1958 that Lhotshampas were officially accorded Bhutanese nationality and became more involved in the running of the country. But policy reversals in the 1970s and 1980s required all citizens to conform to the majority Drukpa culture, to wear Drukpa dress and to learn Dzongkha, the national language. Further measures followed: requirements for Bhutanese citizenship were tightened and, through a census conducted only in the south, many Lhotshampas' status as citizens was challenged.

Their sense of discrimination led to politicisation and protest. In 1990, the Bhutan Peoples Party was set up, and the country saw its first mass demonstrations demanding human rights and judicial reforms. The participants were branded dissidents and "anti-nationals". Several arrests, including that of Tek Nath Rizal, a royal advisory councillor, and reports of torture fanned the flames of an already volatile situation. As the census gathered pace, it was enforced with more draconian measures, which led to arrests, threats of arrest, further reports of torture or death, property confiscation and deportations.

Today, the protracted state of affairs in the camps in Nepal is considered normal. The hope of repatriation as an attainable goal evaporated with the collapse in 2003 of a citizenship-verification pilot project aimed at resolving the issue.

Charlie Devereux is a freelance journalist and photographer, and a contributing writer to Hotshoe magazine. He has worked at openDemocracy and at Trolley Books. In December 2005 he was involved in a PhotoVoice project on Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

Also by Charlie Devereux in openDemocracy:

"The tyrant's flaw: an interview with Geoffrey Robertson"
(October 2005)

"Chechnya: elections vs reality"
(November 2005)

"Unbecoming citizens, Michael Hutt" – a review of Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan, Oxford University Press, 2005 (December 2005)

"The making of the Man in Black"
(February 2006)

Between image and reality

To the outside world, Bhutan remains largely uncharted territory. But the last fifty years have seen the country emerge cautiously from a cocoon in a slow and deliberate march toward modernisation and what many see as enlightened and forward-thinking social policies. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has famously declared that he is more interested in generating "gross national happiness" than gross national product. This maxim of people before profit – coupled with bans on smoking, a claim to be the last nation on earth to introduce television and admirably stringent environmental-protection laws – has provided Bhutan with a progressive image.

But the country actually presents two faces to the world. While Bhutan is rightfully lauded on one hand by environmental and spiritual groups as a beacon of the developing world for its progressive policies, it is condemned on the other by the human-rights movement for having rendered one-sixth of its population stateless. A recent survey conducted by ethicaltraveller.com ranked Bhutan second best in its approach toward ecological issues, but second worst for its humanitarian record.

What has muddied the waters is the country's attempts to preserve its indigenous Buddhist culture. From within its cocoon, Bhutan has observed its neighbours grappling with the difficulties presented by the flow of people across borders and the effects of tourism. The influx of backpackers has seen the dilution of Nepal's rich cultural heritage, while Nepali migrants have superseded the Buddhist population in the neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim.

In response, Bhutan has sought to contain its heritage through the laws that led to the expulsion of a section of the Nepali-origin community – an action that it sees as a necessary evil, as collateral damage, in order to preserve its essential culture.

Any person classified as "un-Bhutanese" was asked to leave the country under threat of imprisonment and, according to some reports, torture or death. Even some families who had been verified as genuine Bhutanese were coerced into leaving. Aita Singh Gurung was a boy of seven when his family left Bhutan. Although his family were classified as genuine Bhutanese, he says, they were still forced to abandon their farm. "They were threatening us. In the census, they were saying that within fifteen days we had to leave the country; otherwise, we would be shot or tortured". Many were persuaded to sign "voluntary migration forms" – written in Dzongkha, a language that many Lhotshampas did not read or speak – by which they gave up their Bhutanese citizenship.

In the camps

While the refugees remain outwardly positive today, scratch beneath the surface and the more disturbing features of a long-term refugee situation begin to emerge. Donor fatigue has set in, and of the original non-governmental organisations brought in as UNHCR's implementing partners, only the Lutheran World Federation, Caritas Nepal and the World Food Programme remain. Depression, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, dropping out of school, domestic and gender-based violence and trafficking in girls have all escalated in the camps. Sister Gemma, a Roman Catholic nun with the Jesuit Refugee Service, arrived via Caritas Nepal two-and-a-half years ago to implement a counselling service. "Since I have come, the situation has deteriorated so much", she says. "Hopelessness has set in."

In particular, Sister Gemma has noticed that the levels of anxiety and depression increase once children reach their final year of education in the camps, a time when they begin to think about how they will support their families. Additionally, she has been chronicling the more "vulnerable" cases, particularly orphaned children who have been left to fend for themselves through suicide or abandonment by their parents. In many cases, the eldest sibling – who has to care for younger ones – feels the most pressure and is, therefore, most susceptible to emotional problems.

While education in the camps has always been one of its strongest points, absenteeism is now rising and pass rates are declining – a situation partly explained by the exodus of qualified teachers seeking better pay in Nepal's private schools. (Teaching is effectively the only form of employment the refugees, who often have strong knowledge of English, can pursue.)

In the early years of exile, the mood in the camps was optimistic. Many felt the disruption was short term and would be resolved through negotiation with the international community. Since the collapse of the citizenship verification project in 2003, however, a mood of dejection has set in and pragmatism has replaced idealism. Most of the young have left to pursue work in Nepal or India, or have joined the exodus of migrant workers to the Gulf states, tempted by the possibilities of earning sufficient money to buy Nepali or Indian citizenship.

Indra Timsina, one of the few young men who has stayed, has noticed the decline in morale and community spirit. "Previously, if one person died in another sector, the whole people would carry firewood for the cremation and join in the procession. For the last two to three years, if someone dies, no one cares. The unity has disappeared". Emphasis has shifted from the collective to the individual.

The prospects for a satisfactory outcome to the refugee situation look bleak. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal has pushed the issue to the bottom of that government's agenda. In Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has drafted a new constitution that will pave the way for democracy and reduce some of the powers the monarchy currently holds. On 17 December 2005, the king announced his intention to abdicate and hand over power to his son when the country holds its first democratic elections in 2008.

To what extent this will change the attitude toward the refugees is yet to be seen. Bhutan's new constitution contains the same citizenship conditions as before, and it is unlikely that Lhotshampas will reach positions of power within the new system. Significantly, however, the constitution allows for the creation of an independent news media. Until now Bhutan's only newspaper has been the English language Kuensel. Bhutan's information and communication ministry announced on 1 February 2006 that two new independent weekly papers – the Bhutan Times and the Bhutan Observer – would begin publishing in April. The hope among the refugee community is that this might stimulate debate about the position of the Lhotshampas within Bhutanese society.

Human-rights groups have also expressed concern for the Lhotshampas still resident in Bhutan. The annual census has produced population figures that continually show a decline in the number of citizens, while non-nationals reportedly are on the increase. The statistics have aroused fears that the government may be planning to expel the remainder of the Lhotshampa population.

Also in openDemocracy, Bhutan's former foreign minister (currently the interior and culture minister) writes:

"Humanity must evolve a new set of ethics, a new approach to sharing rather than profiting. We need to accept that prosperity amidst inequity is fragile and evanescent. In the final analysis, wealth is only a means to the happiness that the human individual seeks in life. Therein lies the philosophy behind the objective of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that my own country in the high Himalayas has undertaken to pursue. But happiness is only an emotional state of being. It is an illusion. Is there anything absolute and permanent in the nature of prosperity? It too is an illusion. The only way that an illusion can be sustained is when it is shared by everyone."

Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, "Globalisation – the view from Bhutan"
(October 2001):

A regional concern

India, in its role as Bhutan's main development partner, has the potential to break the stalemate, asserts Brigid Mayes of the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group. "They could solve it tomorrow if they wanted to", she says. A map of Bhutan reveals much about its external political influences. China, in the form of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, looms large to the north, behind a wall of Himalayan peaks. To the south, east and west, Bhutan is cradled by the fingers of land that make up India's northeastern frontier – the states of Sikkim, Assam, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh. Some believe that Bhutan's expulsion of the Lhotshampas was influenced, in part, by Indian fears of the creation of a Nepali "superstate", incorporating Darjiling (Darjeeling), Sikkim and the south of Bhutan.

For India, what is most important is to keep open its corridor of communication with China. India has refused to become involved in the citizenship-verification negotiations, arguing that it's a matter between Bhutan and Nepal, and yet it has been involved in quashing recent protest marches from Nepal to Bhutan at the Indian border.

The northeastern frontier is a politically sensitive area for India. The country's reluctance to become visibly involved in the dispute can also be partly explained by its reliance on good relations with Bhutan to control the flow of Assamese secessionist fighters, such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), across its borders.

Third countries – including the United States, Canada and Australia – have professed an interest in taking in some of the refugees. Currently, this is hindered by Nepal's reluctance to sign over exit forms permitting the refugees to travel outside the country. Some observers have argued that it is in Nepal's interests to retain the status quo: the establishment of UNHCR camps has brought an injection of development money into the area. Others believe that Nepal still feels that the issue can be solved bilaterally.

The emphasis is beginning to move away from repatriation toward some – even any – kind of settlement. One proposal is that the same rights be ascribed to the refugees as to the 20,000 Tibetan refugees resident in Nepal, who have been allowed to integrate and work legally.

The NGOs still operating in the camps have begun to feel the squeeze of UNHCR's budget cuts. In February 2006, Caritas launched a fundraising campaign, concerned about the drop in education standards. It has been suggested that the budget cuts might signify a winding down of UNHCR's operations, and that by closing down the camps they might force the hands of Nepal and the international community. Most observers, however, believe that the more likely solution lies in a piecemeal approach, with a mix of repatriation to Bhutan, assimilation in Nepal and third-country settlement.

A hunger strike staged by the elders of the camps in January only exacerbated the refugees' frustration, given that little is reported of activities inside the facilities. Rumours have spread that Maoists have penetrated the camps in attempts to recruit disaffected youth. The bombing of the World Food Programme building in Damak, in eastern Nepal, on 2 March suggests that the Maoists' and the refugees' worlds could converge, and the prospect of emulation of the Nepali Maoist movement in Bhutan must worry the government; the setting up of the Bhutan Communist Party and reports of armed factions operating inside the country's borders might become a serious problem if the current state of affairs is not resolved.

Indra Timsina has no doubt that, if nothing changes, some of the youth of Beldangi II Extension could be radicalised: "If [the international community] do not focus on the problem now, there will be a great problem. That is the problem of terrorists. Most of the young people will be engaged … it will reach a critical point if they don't address it now."

Bhutan’s assertion that many of the expelled Lhotshampas were dissidents and terrorists is, at the very least, overblown; the reality is rather of a peaceful people being subjected to extreme pressures and provocation. But the danger is that if there is no easing of the Lhotshampas’ plight, such anathemas may in some cases turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.