Fears of 'demographic inundation' behind Bhutan's refugee crisis
THIMPHU, Bhutan — From their isolated perch in the heights of the Himalayas, the leaders of Bhutan looked upon their borderlands in the 1980s and saw a problem.
Their authority and traditional way of life, preserved by centuries of reclusion from a changing world, were threatened, they felt, by people they had allowed to migrate into the Buddhist kingdom for more than a century.
These newer people were a minority but could soon become the majority. So the monarchy sent a message and promised to enforce it: Fit in or get lost.
Members of an ethnic minority of Nepali ancestry that had planted roots in southern Bhutan in the late 19th century, and grew in numbers with continued migration throughout the 20th, were cataloged, counted and forced to prove their citizenship. New laws mandating Bhutanese cultural practices added to the chaos.
In the tumult, up to one-sixth of the people of Bhutan — which now claims a population of roughly 700,000 — fled the nation in the early 1990s for refugee camps in nearby Nepal. Bhutanese officials dispute the refugee numbers recorded by human rights organizations but acknowledge the tumult.
“It was a national tragedy that happened,” said Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. “It was a very sad event, and I hope that it will never recur.”
Tens of thousands of refugees from Bhutan are now migrating to the United States and seven other nations that welcomed them, bringing renewed worldwide curiosity to a problem that the Bhutanese would like to put behind them.
Bhutanese authorities say they sympathize with those who were stranded for 19 years in refugee camps, but do not take blame for what led them there. They offer three sometimes contradictory explanations for what pushed out tens of thousands of Lhotshampas, the name for Bhutanese people of Nepali descent.
One was simply that the Lhotshampas were too many in number, failed to assimilate into the dominant Bhutanese society and left when the government made cultural assimilation a priority. A second is that many of the Lhotshampas were illegal immigrants, regardless of where they were born, and Bhutan was acting within its sovereign powers to evict them. A third is that Lhotshampa activists secretly plotted to turn their people against the king in a power grab and needed to be stopped.
All of these explanations are lumped into what Bhutanese call the “ngolop problem.” Ngolop means anti-national or traitor.
“This is a very, very vulnerable, fragile county and there were designs to undermine the credibility of this country,” Thinley said. “And when this was exposed, some of them chose to leave.”
Many of these 108,000 exiled Bhutanese are now finding new audiences to dispute Bhutan’s official version of events. Most of them are coming to the United States. They are sharing 20-year-old stories of alleged discrimination, repression and violence in Bhutan with new neighbors from Norway to North Dakota, Australia to Alaska.
Many refugees still want an apology from Bhutan and a chance to go back to their native land. Bhutan says they are lying about their mistreatment to uninformed foreigners — and that many of the refugees never set foot in the remote kingdom. The government refers to them as the people of the camps, refusing to use the term refugee.
“Listening to the victims, one doesn’t always get the truth,” Thinley said, speaking in the parlor of his home in the hills above the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu.
Thanks to America and seven other countries, a “dignified human solution” has been found, Thinley said. The people of the camps are being resettled and have a chance for a better life.
“The U.S. has to be admired. For a country like the United States to show interest, and then to go to this extent to alleviate, to help communities of two remote parts of this world, is admirable,” Thinley said. “I see this as a redemption of the good that exists in our society, especially in the West.”
To some, that means the case is closed. The refugees found new homes and relief from their long plight. But for those in exile, a new place to live is not the same as the acknowledgment of a wrong — refugees believe their mass expulsion was a flagrant violation of human rights.
“They were expelled in a little-noticed but very real ethnic cleansing exercise,” said Terry Rusch, director of refugee admissions for the U.S. Department of State. Rusch made the comment in a June speech to a crowded refugee conference in Sacramento.
In testimony last year before a United Nations review of its human rights record, Bhutan described its restrictive nationality and citizenship laws as the only safeguards against the nation’s greatest danger: a “demographic inundation” that threatened its survival as a nation state.
Today, the mass movement of uprooted Bhutanese to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe is one of the largest organized resettlements in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 30,000 Bhutanese refugees have moved to the U.S. in the last 2 1/2 years, including hundreds who have created a burgeoning Bhutanese community in the East Bay.
In dozens of interviews with refugees in the Bay Area and eastern Nepal this year, those who were old enough to remember have vivid memories of a peaceful life in Bhutan and a sudden, traumatic exodus. Bhutan denies that the vast majority of them ever belonged in its nation, and has not welcomed any of them back.
“And as to why they left this country,” Thinley said, “the causes are something that will be truly difficult for many people — unless they do a serious study — to understand.”
A kingdom besieged?
“I can see the kind of brutal logic of what they did,” said Oxford University professor Michael Hutt, speaking of the way Bhutan’s royal government managed to flush out so many Lhotshampas in a few short years.
A tiny nation wedged between the giant powers of India and China, the leadership in Bhutan had reason to be worried about its vulnerability, said Kinley Dorji, Bhutan’s secretary of information.
Bhutan is about half the size of the state of Maine and has fewer people, most of them scattered in rural valleys across a pristine and mountainous terrain. Its biggest city, the capital, Thimphu, is no more populous than Berkeley.
The nation became the last surviving Himalayan Buddhist kingdom when India absorbed neighboring Sikkim in 1975. Travelogues wistfully describe the Buddhist realm, where most residents wear centuries-old clothing styles, as an idyllic, romantic place, the “Last Shangri-La.” Bhutanese call their homeland Druk-Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Bhutanese who admire their king and their unique Buddhist culture were disturbed by what had happened in nearby kingdoms like Sikkim, where migrants from Nepal slowly became a majority and a Buddhist monarchy disintegrated as India annexed the formerly independent land.
“In the past, Bhutan, Sikkim, they were all Tibetan stock, people like us,” said Dorji, a former journalist, as he twirled the lid of a teapot on his desk in Thimphu this spring, naming a list of extinct Himalayan societies. “But now they’ve all disappeared because the Nepalese have migrated eastward. The entire belt is Nepalese-speaking. They are moving into the hills, migrating into the hills.”
Bhutan’s southern border is a crooked line where the peaks and rushing rivers of the Himalayas careen into the lowland Duars of northeast India, flattening into a vast, sweltering plain. When they ruled India, the British recruited migrants from Nepal to work in the region’s tea estates, and many of them stayed put, contributing to a Nepali-speaking population that numbers in the millions in northeast India, Dorji said.
Bhutan also encouraged migrants to populate its mostly uninhabited southern belt that borders the Duars. The people were needed for labor and also to create a buffer zone to prevent British or Indian incursion into Bhutanese territory in the 19th century, Hutt said.
The Nepali-speakers of southern Bhutan came to be known as the Lhotshampas, which means people of the south. For decades they had little contact with the Drukpa people — the king’s ethnic group — of the high altitude northwest or the Sarchop people of the east because no roads led up through the mountains to the heart of the kingdom until the 1960s. Lhotshampas could not own land up north and the few Drukpas who descended to the south were shepherds looking for seasonal grazing grounds.
So for decades, Lhotshampa farmers remained culturally separate from northern Bhutanese. They spoke Nepali and did not know any Dzongkha, the language of the north. They never wore the national Bhutanese dress — gho for men and kira for women — in part because the thick, highland attire was not designed for the humid south.
A gradual integration
Despite their differences, the Lhotshampas, over several decades, had been gradually integrating into the fabric of Bhutanese society.
The modernization of the Bhutanese school system beginning in the 1960s helped bring together otherwise isolated regions, and many Lhotshampas excelled in the schools. Harvard-educated D.N.S. Dhakal was one of several Lhotshampas who earned a royal scholarship to study abroad.
“Those were the golden years,” said Dhakal, leader of the exiled Bhutan National Democratic Party. “There was no problem. Life was nice. I am from southern Bhutan and I was given the opportunity to study abroad.”
Northern traditionalists, however, remained worried about the Lhotshampas, whose population has always been disputed but was estimated to range between 25 percent and 50 percent of Bhutan by the late 1980s. The fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, referred to his people as an “endangered species.”
The Bhutan monarchy’s approach for decades had been to maintain its traditional society by promoting integration. To encourage a unified nationality, the royal government gave 10,000 Bhutanese ngultrum, the national currency, to any couple that married between ethnicities. Some took advantage of the grants, though many Lhotshampas, abiding by the Hindu caste system, were reluctant to marry outside their group and sought spouses from outside the country.
Not everyone felt the integrationist track was working. Sonam Dendup, who attended school in the southern, Lhotshampa-majority city of Gelephu as a child in the late 1980s, remembers classmates who did not feel Bhutanese.
“They used to praise the king of Nepal, not the king of Bhutan,” said Dendup, who is now a government worker in Thimphu and is not a Lhotshampa. “The students belonging to Nepali ancestry didn’t have attachment to this country. They never had that kind of belongness to this country.”
Nandalal Rai, whose ancestors migrated to Bhutan from Nepal in 1921, did not grow up wearing the highland gho — a mix of robe and kilt — or elaborate Bhutanese boots, but he now wears both proudly as an elected member of the Bhutanese government.
“I never had doubt in my mind who I was,” he said. “I always thought I was a Bhutanese.”
He joined the Royal Bhutan Army as a teen. When the Lhotshampas, his own people, demanded more rights in 1990, he was a major tasked to quell their street protests. Now one of the highest-ranking Bhutanese politicians of Nepali descent, defenders of Bhutan often point to him as proof of an equitable society and government. He remembers the strife as an “identity crisis.”
“They felt they were still Nepali,” Rai said of the exiles, who include members of his extended family. “They were still for Nepal. This problem was not started by the nation. The problem was started by the people themselves in their minds.”
Hutt, the Oxford scholar, said if the Bhutanese elite waited longer, continuing to promote gradual integration, more Lhotshampas might have partnered with northerners in the inevitable modernization and democratization of the country.
Instead, in the mid-1980s, the monarchy launched steps that would sharply alter Bhutan’s trajectory, and drain the country of up to one out of every six residents. A census was held that stripped thousands of their citizenship by putting people into seven different categories.
Dick Chhetri, a Bhutanese exile who lives in Alameda, was among thousands of Lhotshampas who had been climbing the ladders of Bhutanese society, only to see everything fall down.
“The southern Bhutanese were becoming an economic power,” said Chhetri, president of the Bhutanese Community Support Organization in America. “They had the best land. They were becoming a powerhouse of knowledge and skills. And they were becoming more liberal, democratic, with influence from across the border, by the modernization there. (The government) thought these people would slowly overtake Bhutan and they would lose their identity, instead of integrating, welcoming them, making the government more powerful.”
Census teams arrived to every village, demanding Lhotshampas show 30-year-old tax documents that proved they had been citizens since at least 1958. Not everyone had kept them, even if they had, in fact, been born in Bhutan. A group of bureaucrats, all originally from the south, was asked by the king to investigate. They toured the south and wrote a letter to the king protesting the census process but were jailed, and some were charged with attempting to incite an uprising.
The uprising did eventually happen — in fall 1990, in towns across southern Bhutan, Lhotshampas took to the streets in protest. Their grievances ranged from the census to the northern Drukpa clothes they were forced to wear at school and work as part of a new “One Nation, One People” policy. They called for democracy and representation.
“In Bhutan, our intention was very clear. We wanted our cultural rights,” Dhakal said.
There were scattered incidents of violence, most attributed to militant activists who opposed the government.
By 1991, the environment was so toxic that Lhotshampas began to flee in large numbers. By 1992, Amnesty International reported more than 80,000 Bhutanese refugees had entered Nepal. Some say the Bhutanese police or military visited their homes and forced them out with the threat of violence or imprisonment. Others were encouraged to leave by dissidents, or to join family members who already fled. Still others signed voluntary departure forms and gave up their properties, later saying they did so under duress or confusion.
“It was a case of legal ethnic cleansing,” Dhakal said. “Legal ethnic cleansing is when you pressurize indirectly. You threaten them. It was a very selected, calculated eviction.”
The government argues it was merely enforcing its citizenship laws, and that many of the people who left did so on their own accord. Thinley blames forces outside the country with “evil intentions,” not the Bhutanese government, for spurring the exodus, though he declined to be specific.
“Many were beguiled,” Thinley said. “Many were betrayed and misguided by people with wrong intentions.”
Into the camps
Chhetri tried to stop fearful Lhotshampas from leaving, especially his own family members who lived in the south. He was working at the time as a pilot for Druk Air, the sole Bhutanese airline.
“I went home and basically told my brothers, my father, my in-laws, I told them, ‘Don’t sell anything, don’t sign anything, don’t buy anything.’ If anybody tells you, ‘You have to leave,’ just tell them you’ll wait until winter when it’s dry,” Chhetri said. “People came to know I was trying to stop people. My brother told me I might be arrested.”
And getting arrested for political activity would potentially place Chhetri and his relatives in one of the noncitizen categories, the categories that could get them kicked out. On his way home to the village near where he grew up, Chhetri said he was called “jaga,” an ethnic slur, after officials demanded he show them some identification. Chhetri said he objected, and got attacked.
“The government had let discrimination get out of control,” he said. “Most of the Bhutanese people are good people. I lived with them, went to college, to school with them. But when the king, the moral of the country, tells them to do so, they’ll do it.”
India did not allow the refugees to stay, so they were trucked to the border of Nepal, which accepted them. Before the United Nations took over the relief efforts in 1992, thousands of refugees lived in makeshift, riverside camps where illness and death were common. It is now a popular belief in Bhutan, fueled by official government statements, that poor citizens of India and Nepal sneaked into the camps for the free food and shelter, and now comprise a large percentage of those who are refugees. Those who have worked with the refugees say those allegations are wrong.
“They’ve been censused and verified and recorded so many times,” Hutt said. “If they hadn’t been from Bhutan, somebody would have noticed by now.”
Bhutan’s last diplomatic visit to the refugee camps happened in 2003, when a verification team comprised of Bhutanese and Nepali officials interviewed residents of the Khudunabari camp, one hut at a time. Camp residents remember welcoming the delegation with hospitality and open arms, hoping that this would lead to their repatriation. After they finished, however, the Bhutanese team held a meeting at the camp’s biggest building and announced that just 2.4 percent of Khudunabari’s more than 12,000 residents were “genuine refugees” from Bhutan who might be eligible to go back. Most of the others might have been living in Bhutan but had renounced their citizenship by voluntarily leaving, and another 24 percent were not in any way Bhutanese, the report claimed.
“This provides the most incontrovertible evidence substantiating that many people in the camps in eastern Nepal are not from Bhutan,” said Bhutanese diplomat Doma Tshering in a written statement this year.
Camp residents were infuriated, and, according to multiple accounts from people who were there in 2003, chased the Bhutanese diplomats out of their camp. Bhutan says their representatives were attacked. They never came back to finish the count.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has categorized all of the camp residents as genuine Bhutanese refugees, said official Bimal Babu Khatri. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been visiting the camps to re-interview each refugee who wishes to resettle in the United States.
“I really believe that entire villages were emptied out,” said David Derthick, an American official for the International Organization for Migration who has worked with refugee populations for decades. “That’s different from the way it happens in other parts of the world. In other places, older people hunker down (rather than flee their country). It’s astounding to me how many people are over 90 (years old) in the camps.”
Today, after being isolated from the world’s attention for two decades, these refugees are sharing stories that differ sharply from the message Bhutan’s leaders have crafted about how the Lhotshampas left Bhutan. Yet in their search for reconciliation and redress, Bhutanese refugees don’t have a dynamic leader who can rally international sympathies to their cause, as the Dalai Lama has done for the Tibetans, Hutt said.
Many Bhutanese refugees have praised Bhutan’s transition to democracy two years ago, but resent they cannot be a part of it. It is likely, Hutt said, that their resentment will die out as the refugees adjust to their new countries.
In some ways, that means Bhutan won, Hutt said.
“The situation the Bhutanese governing elite wanted to create has been created,” Hutt said. “They can democratize, reform, without the danger of the Nepalis becoming the major group.”
What they created was a “manageable minority” in Bhutan, Hutt said, a Lhotshampa population about 100,000 people smaller and less inclined to create a stir — and another community of new Americans.
Reporting for this story was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.
DRUKPA: A term (which translates to “dragon people”) that many Bhutanese use to describe themselves, though it usually refers to the ruling ethnic group from northwestern Bhutan, who are also known as Ngalongs (not to be confused with ngolop — see below). The other main ethnic groups are the Sarchops of the east and the Lhotshampas of the south.
# LHOTSHAMPAS: Bhutan’s term for the people who live in the south of the country. The word is often synonymous with Bhutanese people of Nepali descent whose families migrated to Bhutan from the late 19th through the 20th century. Most, but not all, Lhotshampas practice Hinduism. Buddhism is also common. Tens of thousands of Lhotshampas fled the country in the early 1990s.
# NGOLOP: Bhutanese person who is considered an anti-national or traitor against the kingdom. In Bhutan, the “ngolop problem” is a phrase still used to describe the Lhotshampa exodus and political rights movement of the early 1990s.
# DRIGLAM NAMZHA: A code of etiquette and dress for Bhutanese Buddhists which includes the wearing of a gho for men and a kira for women. In 1989, the government began more strictly imposing the code on Lhotshampas.
# KIR: An ankle-length, cylindrical dress worn by Bhutanese women, usually with a long-sleeved blouse and short jacket.
# GHO: A thick cotton robe for men which is tightened at the waist so that it resembles a kilt. The outfit also includes large white cuffs, knee-high socks and formal shoes or boots, though some men wear sneakers instead.
# MAHAYANA BUDDHISM: The state religion in Bhutan. The monk hierarchy continues to play an important part in Bhutanese society, though their role has diminished over the past century.
# DZONGKHA: The official national language of Bhutan and the language of the Ngalongs. Other languages spoken in Bhutan include English (the primary language of instruction in the schools), Nepali and Tshangla.
# King Jigme Singye WangchuCk: The “Fourth Dragon King” reigned from 1972 until 2006, when he abdicated to his son and launched the kingdom’s transition into a constitutional parliamentary democracy. He was the head of state during the refugee crisis of the early 1990s. His family’s dynasty and the Bhutanese monarchy began in 1907.
# KING JIGME KHESAR NAMGYEL WANGCHUCK: The “Fifth Dragon King” of Bhutan is the current monarch who presides, without the absolute power of his father, over a newly democratic kingdom. The 30-year-old has never publicly commented on the refugee crisis and was a child when it began.
# PRIME MINISTER JIGME THINLEY: He became Bhutan’s first elected prime minister in spring 2008. He was also prime minister twice before Bhutan became a democracy. The Penn State alum has worked for the Bhutanese government since 1974 and defended the monarchy’s crackdown on the Lhotshampas in a 1993 essay, “A Kingdom Besieged.”