Government of Bhutan created refugees

Published on Oct 13 2010 // Opinion
By Dr. Bhampa Rai

On one of the fine days of early 1991, Nepalese people at Kakarvitta near Indo-Nepal border witnessed about 450 people with worn out faces and woozy looks entering Nepal looking for temporary shelter who in response provided the best of services and support that they could render at their level. They were all Bhutanese seeking asylum after being evicted of their ancestral land.

Unable to get asylum in India, the first country they entered after leaving Bhutan, these people had no options but to seek shelter in Nepal. Moreover, the Indian border security forces instigated them enter Nepal. Eviction was the result of these people’s demand for justice and institutionalization of Human Rights as enshrined in Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Bhutan is signatory, to safeguard themselves from discriminatory and suppressive policies being imposed on them that obliterate their faith, culture and way of life.

Instead of hearing to their appeal, the Royal government chose to militarize the region launching brutal method of crackdown, following intimidation, arbitrary arrest, torture and killing in makeshift detention cells.  Schools were converted into interrogation centers, while women were raped, houses were zeroed to ashes and valuable documents confiscated alongside the militarization of villages and towns. In such dreaded state of affairs, those affected Bhutanese people had to flee the country for their lives.  Their relatives and others, who decided to remain behind too were coerced into signing voluntary migration forms at the gun point and finally evicted from their homeland.

Immediate settlement of Bhutanese refugees
There was no suitable space in the Nepalese territory for sheltering those asylum seekers.  They were however guided by local people to the east bank of holy river Kankai Mai in Jhapa, Nepal. They were provided with temporary shades to safeguard from heat and rain.   As the influx increased, camps at the river banks grew congested enough to be hygienic, which invited medically unhealthy environment and people began to suffer from various diseases.

It is obvious that all the Bhutanese people, evicted in the first phase and later those who followed the suit, passed first through the Indian check posts and entered Nepal check post before joining their country mates at Kankai camps.  Those refugees began to extend their arms for donations in kind, cash and medicines for their survival before the international agencies arrived at their rescue. And, that ultimately turned into what the world witnesses today.

Senior Bhutanese officers joined Bhutanese refugees
In those critical hours of the Bhutanese asylum seekers, several educated lots, who served the government at senior bureaucratic positions too joined them to become asylum seekers.  They appealed the government of Nepal, UNHCR, SCF(UK) and other NGOs and INGOs seeking their support for the weary asylum seekers.  Within a short time, CARITAS, OXFAM, LWF and Nepal Red Cross Society began to field their representatives to assist the stranded Bhutanese people and provided required assistance on an ad hoc basis.  The senior asylum seekers submitted appeals to the government of Nepal using the channel of the then Chief Jhapa District Officer (CDO) Shree Kul Chandra Shrestha for providing humanitarian supports and granting asylum to the suffering Bhutanese people, who had lately been made stateless by their own government.

Asylum in Nepal
After going through documents carried by the people, it was realized that the people in the camps were none other than those evicted from Bhutan as they carried with them valid evidences of being Bhutanese.  On the basis of such documentary evidences, the Govt. of Nepal granted them asylum solely on the humanitarian ground and not on the ground of ethnicity, language or religion as many people erroneously assume otherwise and the Govt. of Bhutan capitalize those beliefs and misinterpret to the outside world, whereby misguiding the international community.

Administration of the camp
It was the senior refugees, who conceived the idea of the system of camp secretary, camp committee, refugee volunteers, health workers, and security guards for management of camps.  A camp was divided into sectors and sub sectors for effective management and better service to the people. The senior refugees handled the administration of the camps in close coordination  with the local authorities until late 1993.  It was handed over to the then CDO cum Director of Refugee Coordinating Unit, Shree Chabi Raj Pantha with the understanding that they would consult senior refugees in all the important issues concerning Bhutanese refugees.

Oppression on Sharchhokp community
After the systematic quelling of the southern uprising, the regime’s attention turned to the eastern community of Sharchhokp, who began to sympathize their southern brethrens and saw the movement from a nationalistic point of view.

For the outside world, it looked more like an ethnic cleansing given the fact that the majority of the affected were of single ethnicity at that point of time. However, in view of the prevailing bond of peaceful coexistence of the diversity for centuries, the general public in other parts of the country gradually began to raise their voice for justice and their civil rights which was in support to the people’s voice in the south. The people of the south had no other alternatives but to leave the country because the eviction took place both at gun and pen point using different methods of more wrathful and less charming coercions through the district authorities backed by military forces.

Since the Govt. of Bhutan didn’t get much resistance at the time of evicting southern Bhutanese en-mass, the regime confidently dared to turn its attention on the other section of Bhutanese multi-ethnicity, the Sharchhokps.  It interfered in the practice of Nyngmapa sect of Buddhism, which was indoctrinated into the community since 7th century AD. The regime’s rampant indulgence into their affairs badly hit the sentiments of the Sharchhokp monks and their community and gradually realized that the southern up-rise of the people were just and genuine.  So, in support to the 1990’s appeal by the south Bhutan, the Sharchhokp community organized a mass peaceful procession that demanded equality to all faiths and culture. However, even before the peaceful procession could take up to the roads, a Buddhist monk was picked up by the district chief and shot him dead point blank at a high pass. Many other innocent people were arrested, while some of them continue to languish in the prisons. Some others had to flee the country for their lives following armed military crackdown in the Sharchhokp dominated regions, where peaceful processions successfully made it over to the respective district and local administrative centers. They ultimately joined their countrymen in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. When the government realized the growing anger in the Sharchhokp community, the regime as a means to pacify the situation quickly promoted junior Sharchhokp officers to the higher ranks in 1998, lifting them as high as cabinet ministers.  However, that did not benefit the community as a whole, but strengthened the palace as its mouth piece in the campaign and advocacy against people who demanded democracy, justice and human rights.

Political Parties and Social Organizations
Meanwhile, the Bhutanese refugees also formed political parties in addition to those already existing prior to establishment of the camps.  They also established  social organizations aiming at looking after the refugees’ welfare and working towards developing a conducive atmosphere to repatriate all the refugees back to Bhutan with safety and dignity.

In 1998, to avoid  confusion amongst the Bhutanese refugees and to support various agencies providing assistance to the refugees, including the government of Nepal, the refugee community formed a committee, “by the Bhutanese refugees and for the Bhutanese refugees” named “Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee” (BRRRC) by keeping all political parties and social organizations intact to allow them function according their respective constitutional provisions.

The BRRRC took the initiatives to documenting information of all the Bhutanese refugees with due suggestions and assistance from the CARITAS and LWF.  It aimed at serving the Bhutanese refugees as their caretaking guardian and serve them in collaboration and coordination with all concerned agencies so that rights of those ignorant refugees are secured and impartial justice is given to all.  However, for various obvious reasons, the BRRRC’s position had been undermined and ignored by the concerned agencies making the repatriation program of BRRC more marginalized.

More influx of refugees
Influx of Bhutanese refugees began to increase in the post-1992 period soaring up to 500-700 a day that soon made the camp over crowded. Food and medicine was not enough to meet the requirement and many people especially old and young ones developed malnutrition, easily infected by common diseases like chest infection, infective diarrhea and typhoid that went on claiming many lives.  At such an alarming situation, once again the senior refugees approached the government of Nepal through Chief District Officer for allocation of new sites to establish camps, which was graciously granted, hence the present camps.

Gradually, voice of the asylum seekers were heard by the international organizations like UNHCR and SCF(UK) , who were permitted by the Govt. of Nepal to assist the Bhutanese refugees that brought a great relief to the refugees. All the new developments that took place in the camps made the government of Bhutan unhappy.  However, both the Govt. of Nepal and the UNHCR turned their deaf ears to the Government of Bhutan.  Exhibiting much agony and unhappiness towards Nepal and the international community, particularly the UNHCR, the Govt. of Bhutan began evicting more and more innocent Bhutanese on various fabricated allegations.  In an attempt to keep their stand clear of Bhutan’s allegation, the Govt. of Nepal and UNHCR jointly established a screening post at Kakarvitta near Indo-Nepal border in 1993, to properly verify the evictees and ensure that no illegal migrants or imposters entered Nepal under the guise of asylum seekers.

Move for Repatriation
Bhutanese refugees constantly worked for repatriation and organized several peaceful repatriation programs, which however, were thwarted by the Indian security forces at Indo-Nepal border. The Bhutanese peace marchers were not only inhumanely handled, but also baton charged and ruthlessly beaten, injured and shot dead at the Mechi bridge, the Indo-Nepal border.  Even those refugees, who successfully entered Bhutan were dumped back to Indo-Nepal border by the Indian security forces and threw them into Nepal at several incidental programs.

Bilateral Talks
Being aware that those asylum seekers huddled up in the refugee camps in Nepal were none other than Bhutanese citizens, the Govt. of Nepal began negotiating with the Govt. of Bhutan.  At the beginning, the Govt. of Bhutan refused to accept the truth.  However, with the international pressure mounting on Bhutan, the government of Bhutan had no other alternatives than to accept and acknowledge the presence of Bhutanese in the camps.  So, with the ulterior motives of deception and to drag the issue by creating an eye-washing exercise, the Govt. of Bhutan proposed to take up bilateral negotiations without involving any third party or refugee representative in the talks, obviously for fear of being caught about its inhuman crime during the process. The Govt. of Bhutan also proposed to categorize and verify the Bhutanese refugees after constituting a joint verification team from both the governments.

Joint Verification
The Govt. of Nepal was very kind to accept the proposal tabled by the Govt. of Bhutan to verify and categorize Bhutanese citizens in the territory of Nepal. The verification of one of the camps, Khudunabari, Jhapa, Nepal was conducted in 2003. The team from Bhutan dominated the entire show that adamantly identified two four year children of that camp as criminals of Bhutan. Even in such one sided verification, it was found that the majority of the Bhutanese refugees (about 74%), were bona-fide citizens of Bhutan and there was no room for the Bhutanese team to deny the fact.  In that sample verification, the rest of the refuges were not accepted for their failure to provide any documentary evidences as their documents were confiscated at the time of eviction. The verified and proven Bhutanese citizens still await repatriation against the Govt. of Bhutan’s deaf ears.  However, Bhutan successfully campaigned international donor agencies, who have over the last four years been working towards resettling the refugees in the third countries, giving a temporary relief to the camp-dwellers.  It is not to be amazed that the cruel and self oriented individualistic rulers enjoy in the palace on the taxes, perspirations, blood and life of the people, who boast themselves as the patriarchs and govern the country for the vested palace oriented interest.

Present stand of Nepal
Initially, the government of Nepal presented seriousness on the Bhutanese refugee issue, but as of now, Nepal seems to be reluctant enough to understand people’s aspirations for the repatriation of those proven Bhutanese refugees verified in 2003 by the joint verification team.  On contrary, the government of Nepal is currently involved actively in issuing one way exit permit to the so-called ‘interested’ Bhutanese refugees for third country resettlement. It is yet to be known whether the government of Nepal is giving exit permit as a guardian of Bhutanese refugees or as a country of asylum. Bhutanese refugees silently feel being fallen victim of conspiracy the second time, as government of Nepal’s assurance to help achieve people’s objectives of repatriation to their original homesteads in dignity and honor remains to be justified.

Role of India
Bhutan alone cannot be blamed for the eviction of its citizens as it was obviously backed by the neighboring ‘big-brother’ that campaigns as a large democracy.  In fact, there is every reason to read that the brain behind eviction was India as it supported the royal regime by not giving asylum to the people in the first port of entry despite the fact that it has been giving refuge to people from countries like Afganisthan, Bangladesh, Sri Langka, and even from Somalia.  In fact it has been the home away from home for Tibetans for over the last fifty years. Unlike the attitude towards those refugees, Bhutanese refugees have been taken inhospitably and repeatedly thwarted at Indo-Nepal borders.  On the other hand, Indian government representatives never paid any visit to the Bhutanese refugee camps, while most representatives of the  international community visited to understand the ground reality of the suffering people in the camps. Probably, India being the brain behind the human catastrophe in Bhutan, should have felt it unnecessary to understand the problems of the Bhutanese refugees as they are more aware than anybody else.

At this juncture, it is not out of place to remind the world community that the friendly relationship that Bhutan and India cherish both at the central and people’s level dates back to as old as Lord Buddha’s era.  People both in exile and inside the country have no doubt about the sacrosanct values of friendship that have been built with bricks of love, friendship and understanding both culturally and through exchange of trade and commerce.  It is not only model to the world community, but also a chapter of illustration to the global neighbors, that a small country like Bhutan, a home of monarchy can coexist with large democracy like India, which is not only one of the nuclear powers but also the country with large population existing in diversity and political harmony.  It is for this prevailing network of friendship between the two nations that Bhutanese refugees take the opportunity to anticipate India’s intervention into the crisis and seek help to resolve the problem both politically and socially, considering the fact that Bhutan cannot sustain or survive without the existing friendly relations at all levels of understanding and cooperation.

Present stand of UNHCR
At the beginning, the Bhutanese refugees anticipated the UNHCR to work towards the interest of the refugees.  However, the chapter of repatriation being limited to the books and the UNHCR working towards resolving the crisis through diplomatic trafficking in the name of “the option of third country resettlement”, the refugees are left with no other alternatives than to opt for the given opportunities.  As it has not made the required effort to convince Bhutan to accept the refugees, people feel that they have deceived themselves by depending or trusting the UNHCR as security provider and an international agent to resolve the problem once for all and everybody.  In the present context, when Bhutan proudly continues to campaign and advocate world community that the refugees in the camps are “not Bhutanese” and “are those Nepalese workers evicted from neighboring Indian states”, it becomes UNHCR’s obligation to tell the world community, why those registered in the camps in Jhapa and Morang are being resettled as Bhutanese refugees as temporary solution.  ‘Why the international agencies are taking so much of pain to feed the refugees as humanitarian victims from Bhutan?’ is a question that needs clarification in response to what has been stated by Bhutan’s Prime minister.

Until late 90s, the UNHCR was found working for repatriation but since 2000 onwards it began working with complete U-turn that systematically discouraged the efforts of advocacy for repatriation by active campaigning, motivating and even indoctrinating the brighter side of third-country resettlement to the ignorant refugees.  The concluding thoughts of the refugees thus explains that the UNHCR action is supporting Bhutan, who pushed these people out of their home.  The ongoing exercises of the UNHCR thus goes to making the refugees absolutely stateless and develop distance from the hope of restoring their nationality and citizenship identity as the citizens of Bhutan.

Urging international community
The Bhutanese refugees urge the international community to pressurize the Govt. of Bhutan to take back its citizen from Nepal and elsewhere on the basis of the proven facts of being bona-fide Bhutanese by virtue of being in the camps administered by Nepal and supported by the UNHCR.  It may not be out of place to mention here that the motivation and instigation of the ignorant refugees for third country resettlement at the cost of their nation and nationality to become international laborers tantamount to rightfully allege the resettling machineries as diplomatic and professionally dignified human traffickers.