Bhutanese refugee stalemate: No end in sight
On their 16th year of exile in Nepal , Bhutanese refugees observed this year's refugee day as the 'black day'. The 15-round of talks between Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan failed to bring any fruitful result and acute political instability in Nepal emerged as a boon on part of Bhutan to prolong the crisis indefinitely.
As the dream of getting back to the homesteads goes flickering; a group of Bhutanese refugees continues to stage a relay strike in front of the UN premises at Pulchowk, Lalitpur to draw the attention of the international community for the last nineteen days. But, so far there has been no concrete response to their demands.
"International community and the Nepal government have forgotten us," Bhutanese human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal told Nepalnews on Tuesday. "The international community has turned deaf ears to the cries of refugees and closed its eyes towards the atrocities of the Bhutanese regime. The injustice continues towards the evicted population of Bhutan at a time when the Bhutanese government has accepted that over 75 percent verified people in the camps are Bhutanese," he added.
President of Druk National Congress (DNC)-a Bhutanese political party formed in exile– Thinley Penjor, outlines three basic factors that have been putting hurdles in finding early solution to the crisis. The first is the then HMG/Nepal's decision in the early nineties to accept the Bhutanese proposal to divide the refugees into four categories, second India 's stance to remain aloof from the refugee issue and third lack of identification of the real crux of the problem.
According to Penjor, since the Bhutanese refugee issue is political in nature, unless Nepal lay off its hand to let the matter to be decided between the refugees and Bhutanese authorities and reach into a political agreement, there is less prospect of getting the refugees repatriated.
Nepal government does not agree with that. Acting secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pradip Khatiwada, told us the responsibility of the (Nepal) government is not to withdraw from the issue but make efforts to repatriate them and settle in their lands with honour and dignity. " Nepal has repeatedly asked the Bhutanese ministers to resume talks, but Bhutan is paying no attention towards it," he said.
Recently, foreign minister of Bhutan Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk met Deputy Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli on the sidelines of the NAM conference in Malaysia where the leaders discussed resumption of bilateral talks. Back in the country, Oli discussed the issue with the Bhutanese envoy to Nepal, Lyonpo Dago Tshering, but all in vain.
Talking to a delegation of human rights activists on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Amik Sherchan said the government would take up the issue of Bhutanese refugees with India. He said he would table the matter during the cabinet meeting and talk to Indian envoy in Kathmandu urging Indian involvement in the process "since it was clear that the problem would not be resolved without Indian cooperation." Half a dozen human rights organization submitted a memorandum to Sherchan asking the government to take immediate steps to resolve the issue and ensure early repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees.
The delegation called upon the Nepal government to sign on the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the additional protocol to the convention, 1967, and constitute a Refugee Commission to look into the issue.
Talking to Nepalnews, president of Human Rights Organisation of Nepal (HURON)-a leading rights group in the country– Charan Prasai, blamed Nepal government for failing to tackle with what he called "delaying tactics" of Bhutanese government and involve India in the process as major causes behind prolonging of the problem. "Unless it is made tripartite, it won't be resolved" he said.
Seeing no prospect of early repatriation, the UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), proposed third country resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees, which the royal government of Nepal rejected outright.
Acting Foreign Secretary Khatiwada told us that the new government was open to the proposal. "We have no reservation regarding allowing the Bhutanese refugees to be resettled in third countries if the concerned countries demonstrated their strength and commitment to guarantee the rights of the refugees as honourable citizens of respective countries," he added.
In its report published on Tuesday on the occasion of the International Refugee Day, UNHCR accused Nepal of not being serious over the matter. In an interview with Nepalnews last week, UNHCR chief in Nepal, Abraham Abraham said his agency could only help for third country settlement of the refugees but not in the repatriation process.
Penjor says, "We are not against the individual rights of the refugees to choose the place they want to live, but UNHCR, Nepal government or any other agencies cannot take decision to that effect unless we agree for that."
Prasai also says unless refugees agree for third country settlement or there are other alternatives, they should not be forced to accept the proposal unknowingly. "Third country settlement is not against the human rights principles but the UNHCR should guarantee that the resettlement countries will respect them as bona fide citizens of that country. Also, they should not be forced for repatriation if they don't want," he said.
In her inaugural address to the reinstated House of Representatives in May this year, deputy speaker Chitra Lekha Yadav called upon the new government to give priority to the issue of Bhutanese refugees. But, bogged down in major political issues including elections to the Constituent Assembly, the Seven Party Alliance has shown no inclination to work towards the early resolution of the refugee stalemate.
And, as suggested by deputy premier Sherchan, the new government could achieve a breakthrough to resolve the impasse if it could persuade India-which takes care of matters related to defense and foreign affairs of Bhutan-to throw its weight upon the autocratic regime of King Jigme Singe Wangchuk to take back his own subjects without prejudice. The Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 1949 states that Bhutan will be guided by India in the issues of foreign affairs and defense.
Perhaps, that is the least over 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees expect from the new democratic government of Nepal.