Months of Incarceration in Retrospection
Prior to 1990 Democracy Movement, I was working as field engineer in irrigation project in Gelephu in southern Bhutan, under the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control, funded by the UN agencies. As a public servant under an absolute Monarchy, one was required to remain away and abstain from politics. I was a person more inclined to my profession and least interested in politics. I had a small contended family with a farm, livestock, a concrete house and cardamom plantation.
With the ban on Bhutanese Nepalese culture and imposition of dress code and etiquettes of northern Bhutanese on the Lhotsampa [southern Bhutanese], everybody was hurt. The imposed dress code was suitable for the people in the north living in colder region. For people in the south with hot and humid climate and 99% of the population living as subsistence farmers, the dress code was a bane. Gradually, we began to hear about Lhotsampas being mistreated, including, the harassment of women by the Police. Their hair was forcefully cut short against their wish and tradition. Books on Nepali language being taught in the school were dumped and burnt publicly. All these events naturally led the demagogues to take to the streets – resulting in peaceful demonstration.
In my entire life I had never seen a protest program. On the day of protest in Gelephu, I was in my office chamber working with my colleagues in the Dzong, the district headquarters. The public servants were asked to stand behind the Police, while the Police stood behind the Army, if there was need to clamp down the protest. So we did not move from the office building. However, word came around that protesters would search and beat every individual who were upholding the dress code by wearing the ethnic dress of the Drukpas. Initially, I hid myself in the office toilet. When the air began to rant with slogans and whole environment became overwhelming, I took off the Drukpa dress, borrowed a trouser from Bengali [Indian] colleague – leaving him in his shorts. Then clutching the Drukpa dress under my armpit, I walked out into the streets. I walked in the procession to avoid being targeted by the protestors. After a while, we reached a spot where protestors, as a mark of protest against the imposition of dress code, began to dump and burn the Drukpa dresses. I didn’t want to burn mine, as it was beautiful and expensive, which I had only recently bought with my monthly salary. As the protest program continued, I walked away from the area and went home.
The government started to mobilise the army and began to crush the protest. Soon the project I was working in was closed. Other various projects in the district were closed too. Later, schools and hospitals were closed, converting them into torture-centres-cum-prison-cells. When the project was closed, I was transferred to Punakha in northern Bhutan. While in Punakha, I was unaware of the protests that were going on in Sarbhang a town close to Gelephu. When news did arrive from Sarbhang, I found out that many project officers (many of colleagues) had been arrested. My family was beginning to worry about me. Beset by the developments, I grew anxious about the situation of my wife and daughters who were still living in Gelephu. So I decided to drive to Gelephu to see them.
On my way to Gelephu, I was arrested at Sarbhang at 9 pm on 9th December 1990 by Police Officer, Chandra Gurung. When I explained my family situation and asked the reason of my arrest, the officer blabbered and gave no reason. I was taken to the Sarbhang Police Station and confined in a room for two nights and a day – not allowing me to drink water for the whole period. They interrogated me – but I had nothing to say. In reply, the officers would suggest that I knew why I had ended up in detention and that I should confess in specific detail, why I wanted ‘democracy’. As ordered by Chandra Gurung, I gave a written statement about myself to him. Two days later, I was transferred to Gelephu. During the transfer, my hands were taken to the front and handcuffed. And while walking around I was handcuffed at the back.
When I reached Gelephu, I found the local hospital converted into a joint Police-Army barrack cum prison cells. And almost all the project officers, I knew, were there along with other public servants and some local government officials. I was not kept with them. Instead, I was taken to the house of Deputy Superintendent of Police, which had been converted into cells for solitary confinement. It had five rooms. I was kept in one of them and there wasn’t a toilet. It was a dark cell with its windows painted black – barely letting in the light during day. The winter of December 1990 was very cold. My hands were tied behind all the times. The door of the cell hardly opened. When it did – it was only to push a plate of rotten rice and lentils with more water to render it bland. I was given tiny plastic container to empty my bowl and to urinate. At night I was taken outside to wash the container and that was the only time I was allowed to drink water.
Several times, police officers used to take me into the bathroom outside my cell and made me stand there. They would leave the water tap slightly open to make water drop continuously filling the bathroom floor. I wasn’t supposed to close the tap and used to get wet and soaked in the cold winter days. Tired of standing, I used to take off my shoes and sit on them. There were other officers who felt that such punishments were inhuman and they would bring me back into the cell. Sometimes at night, I heard wails and cries of people adjacent to my cell when being beaten and tortured.
Soon they began to interrogate me at night while I was still in the solitary confinement. They would mercilessly beat me for hours asking me – why I was in prison? When I could not tell the reason, I was beaten until I said – I knew the reason. They would tell me that I should confess as to what I wanted from the protest program. And if I didn’t respond, they would beat me until I did so. To avoid further beating, I had to make up my own story, the way they wanted me to tell, saying that, I knew the leaders and was vigorously involved in the protests.
Sometimes at the night, the officer would enter my cell. Sitting beside me he would say, “Have you heard that the wives of several project officers were raped?” Another one would come and say, “There is a Dasho (high officer) coming from Thimphu, who beats people ruthlessly to death – did you meet him before?” In this manner, I was mentally tortured on a regular basis.
After 28 days of physical and mental torture, I was transferred to a hospital complex that had been converted into Army barrack. While being transferred to the army barrack, I was handcuffed and accompanied by two policemen through the streets. I was not allowed to speak to bystanders whom I knew. One Police officer said, “Have you heard, a person working in your department was killed here?”
In the army barrack I was taken into a small room. There was blood on the floor and blood spots on the wall. They apparently looked fresh. It was a torture cell with different torture instruments, such as, ropes and bamboo sticks of different sizes. The cell was divided by a small curtain. On one side of the curtain the prisoner was kept and tortured. And on other side, roosted meat and alcohol was kept on the table. After every torture session, the torturing officer used to go to the other side to devour roosted meat and alcohol, and come back and torture again. In most occasions, it was army Lieutenant Rinzin Dorji who use to interrogate and torture me. The other high official that tortured me was Colonel Rinchhen, whose nickname was ‘Tiger’.
As I was sitting in the cell, officer Rinzin opened the curtain and came in. He began by asking – why I was there in the cell. When my answer was not what he wanted to hear, he began to punch me and bang my head on the wall. After awhile he stopped hitting me and asked me to write the confession. I wrote confessions after confessions, but he did not accept them and demanded to write again. He again started to torture me by clamping my calves. Later he hung me down from the hook in the ceiling. Next the officer began to drive in pins beneath my fingernail. While the blood flowed, he sat there holding my hand and hitting with duster driving the pin in. He would demand me to confess, but reeling under pain, I could only cry.
In that state of agony, I wrote 11 pages long confession. Little later, they brought the typed and tempered version of my statement and read out in front of my colleagues in presence of Dr. Kinzang Dorji, the Zonal Officer. To protect his in-law, Som Bahadur Tamang, Dr. Kinzang said that I was responsible for influencing co-officers to involve in politics and that I should be further interrogated. On special instruction from Dr. Kinzang, Colonel Rinchhen started to torture me. My hands were kept horizontal and a long wooden beam was tied to them. I was then ordered to rotate around along with the beam. Next, they wanted to hang me from the ceiling, with my hands still tied to the beam. As the officer was about to tie my leg to hang me down, he was required for another task and he left – giving me a little relief. On that occasion, I was tortured for over 13 hours beginning form early hour of the day into the night. After that I was taken into solitary confinement and probably it took three days to become fully conscious.
I was then transferred to a common cell with around 60 prison inmates. The room was crowded and the condition very unhygienic. We could hardly get enough space to sleep. Later we were transferred to a semi-underground prison with around 100 inmates. It was a huge garage converted into a prison by digging its floor 4 feet deep. A mud staircase led into the prison. Only at the time of receiving food we could see light. Other times, it was pitch dark.
In this semi-underground prison, I began to fall sick. I suspected malaria. When I became unconscious, I was taken to hospital. I was diagnosed with both malaria and tuberculosis. I lay unconscious most of the time. My hand and leg were still tied to the hospital bed with handcuffs. As my condition deteriorated, the doctor advised for referral to Thimphu hospital. My wife was called to inform about my transfer to Thimphu hospital and I was taken to Thimphu.
In Thimphu I was kept in TB Ward, which had become a prisoner ward, with many prisoners ending up there. While I was still fragile and undergoing treatment, I received a notice of my release. After 28 months of incarceration, I was finally released on 28 March 1993.
I came back to my home village. I was still sick. The school was closed and my children were idly staying at home. There no scope of employment. All businesses were closed. Even if there were employment scope, I wouldn’t be given No Objection Certificate (NOC) required for job entry. I couldn’t travel beyond Gelephu, because my citizenship card had been seized. Later I went to the Police camp to get my belongings. Luckily, I got back my citizenship card. The police constable, who had taken my fine watch, was still wearing on his wrist, but said that it is lost. I avoided arguing with him. The village around me had shrunk, and many families started living closer together for protection. I could sometime observe the village headman taking around Drukpas from north showing the lands belonging to evicted southern Bhutanese. Everyone suspected that the headman was accumulating commissions by helping to parcel off lands belonging to evictees.
One day I was going to Gelephu town to get some medicine. On the way, my neighbour’s wife called me and told in tears that her husband has fled to refugee camp in Nepal for fear of rearrest. After buying medicine, I went to the village headman’s house. He told me that an officer from Thimphu was coming to check on people who have been released from prison and find out if they had left the country. If they hadn’t, they would be re-arrested. I was overwhelmed by the fear of re-arrest.
On 10 November 1993, I fled from Bhutan and journeyed to refugee camps in Nepal, where Bhutanese were housed and looked after by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Within a few weeks, my wife and children followed me to the camps.
(As published in “Refugees from the Land of Gross National Happiness” by Bhutanese Advocacy Forum- Europe. Adhikari shared this story with Avishek Gazmere and Jogen Gazmere in South Australia.)
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