Ethnic exclusion

Published on Nov 11 2010 // News Analysis
By Jainendra Jeevan

Kamala Poudel, a housewife from Gulmi, who has made Australia her home, keeps herself engaged in social works as well, now that both her sons are grown-up, besides assisting her husband Kashi Ram in running his Nepali restaurant in Adelaide. Recently, she volunteered her services for the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia to help Bhutanese refugees adapt to their new homeland. The government of South Australia, now home to some 3,000 such refugees, seeks services of Nepali-speaking people like Kamala to help them settle.

According to Kamala, the younger refugees who were too young to remember their life in Bhutan are happy to have finally settled in a developed and democratic country like Australia and they are pretty adaptable. However, the more grown-up ones are often overcome with nostalgia. Similarly, those who are educated or lived in cities like Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Dharan are quicker to learn livelihood skills than their less educated compatriots who come straight from refugee camps.

Bhutan – publicized as the last Shangri-la on earth – is also one of the last few racist regimes of the earth. Even the most powerful countries who had offered material and moral support to the refugees, including a new homeland to them, had been unable to pressurize tiny Bhutan to repatriate them as India, the all-powerful giant of the sub-continent, has been backing it because it serves her strategic and security interests. Although the treaty of 1949 that made Bhutan a protectorate state had been replaced by a new pact in 2007 conferring sovereign and independent status to the Dragon state, its de facto dependence on India has not changed.

More than 1,00,000 Bhutanese, many of whom still live in refugee camps and cities and towns in Nepal, fled their homeland some 20 years back to escape discrimination and oppression. Known as Lhotsampas or people from South as they lived mostly in southern Bhutan, the Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry had migrated there about a century before. Their trouble started when the census of 1984 figured their number at 54 percent of the total population, which at that time stood at 4,84,000 – a closely guarded secret of the racist regime till date. Sharchokpas, who have migrated from Myanmar, figured nearly 40 percent. Ngalongs – the ruling clan and an ethnic offshoot of the Khengpas of Tibetan origin – numbered less than 15,000 (less than 4 percent).

The census revelations shocked King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, father of the present king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who disliked Lhotsampas as they were not only ethno-culturally different from rest of the Bhutanese but also politically more conscious, active and demanding. Despite their majority, socio-cultural-political landscape of Bhutan had always been shaped by Sharchokpa-Khengpa domination as both share a common culture although Sharchokpas have historical rivalry with the ruling Ngalongs. Departing from his father King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk’s approach, King Jigme Singye adopted a very hostile attitude toward Lhotsampas during the later part of his rule.

A regime that sends over 100,000 people out of its total population of 700,000 or one-third of a whole race to exile has no business to lecture the international community on how to make their countrymen happy. Bhutan’s happiness formula can be considered only once people of all communities there feel happy.

In 1985, the 4th king entrusted Namgyel Wangchuk, a Lhotsampa antagonist and his step-paternal-uncle, who was to him what Himmler was to Hitler, the task of planning and executing the exodus of Lhotsampas. Over a period of three years, Namgyel, who was later appointed Home Minister to successfully implement the design, meticulously surveyed, spied and prepared the list of Lhotsampas that ‘needed’ to be driven out. As genocide or a whole ethnic cleansing would not be possible, it was decided that only as many Lhotsampas as required to reduce them into minority be forced to exile. The tools to so force included harassment techniques like capturing their properties, change in the Citizenship Act of 1958 that would go against the community’s interests, provisions of stringent ‘No Objection Certificates’ in every official business and its targeted misuse against them and, above all, systematic displacement of their language, culture and religion. When the victims would find the agony unbearable, the government would offer them ‘assistance’ in fleeing. From the Bhutan-India border town of Pheuntsholing, they would be transported in trucks through Indian soil to Nepal-India border and be dropped there. The rest is history.

During the last two decades, all diplomatic efforts to repatriate them failed because of Bhutan’s unwillingness. Although most of the refugees possess valid documents of their Bhutanese identity, Bhutan maintains that they are Nepali nationals who have temporarily been to Bhutan for employment. India on its part has been playing a ‘hands off’ drama saying ‘it is a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan where India figures nowhere’ (although it stops the refugees whenever they try to return to their homeland via India, the same route they were transported to Nepal). Why is it so? People often ask. Well, India may have given birth to Mahatma Gandhi, but its realpolitik does not operate on the saint’s principles; it operates on the so-called national interests. Unfortunately, India believes that its interests and stakes lie not with the well-being of people but with the autocratic regime of its strategically-located neighbor.

Taking lessons from the fate of Nepal’s monarchy and also to woo the international community, especially the Western powers, the 100-year-old absolute monarchy recently introduced political reforms that feature constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, in practice, the monarchy is as powerful as ever. Also, to divert international attention from its partial ethnic cleansing, the Druk regime has floated a new terminology – ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) – for discussions, which it claims to have attained. GNH, it says, will be a better index than GNP or GDP/Capita to measure a country’s progress.

However, its prescription of happiness is as much hypocritical as its practice of democracy is full of controls, particularly for Lhotsampas. For example, without the knowledge of Dzonkha language, which naturally Lhotsampas do not possess, its newly-introduced statute does not permit anybody to contest an election; but except schools for army personnel, there are few or no schools for civilians that teach Dzonkha in southern Bhutan where Lhotsampas live. Thus, very cleverly, they have been excluded from the whole electoral and political process. Similarly, another 80,000 Lhotsampas who the regime fears to be either political opponents or suspects to have links with refugees in Nepal, had been deliberately excluded from the census hence depriving them from citizenship and voting rights (instead, a ’10-year-residential-permit’ has been proposed for them, making them open to eviction anytime). Only two political parties – Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s DPT and Tsering Tobgay’s PDP that are proponents of mono-culturalism and that are part of the ruling elite – have been allowed to operate. Political restrictions aside, Lhotsampas are severely discouraged to practice their culture and religion; they cannot even wear their traditional costumes, and are coerced to wear the traditional Bhutanese dress, Gho for male and Kira for female.

Anyway, a regime that recognizes only one ethnicity, one culture and one language and disowns or disdains half its population on those grounds cannot be a democracy. Similarly, a regime that sends over 100,000 people out of its total population of 700,000 or one-third of a whole race to exile has no business to lecture the international community on how to make their countrymen happy. Bhutan’s happiness formula can be considered only once people of all communities there feel happy.

Reoublica, November 11, 2010