- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

While Nepal has received widespread international attention, due mainly to its seven-year Maoist insurgency, Bhutan — another Himalayan kingdom, about the size of Switzerland, with a population of 2 million — has failed until now to attract similar international attention.

But that may change.

An ethnic crisis in Bhutan has led to the exodus of nearly 100,000 people of Nepali origin since 1990. They are languishing in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The ethnic and refugee issues have inspired a political opposition movement against King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, led by exile southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin who demand radical changes in the kingdom’s political system.

For more than a decade, the camps in eastern Nepal were generally free of radical politics as the refugees waited to return to Bhutan. The situation changed with the emergence last month of a Maoist party that distributed a pamphlet announcing its birth on April 22, 2003, and its mission to wage a “people’s war” to overthrow the monarchy and establish a people’s republic.

The pamphlet — signed “Vikalpa” in the name of the Bhutanese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) and widely distributed inside the refugee camps in Nepal, as well as in Bhutan — accuses the Bhutanese regime of going down the path of “Sikkimization” and selling out to India on vital issues.

In 1974, neighboring Sikkim lost its independence and joined India, mainly because its dominant Nepali population chose this rather than be ruled by the king, who came from a minority Lepcha tribe.

With the beginning of the 1980s, there was another Nepali-led movement for autonomy in the Darjeeling district of India’s West Bengal state.

In the pamphlet, the Bhutanese Maoists urge the people to join a people’s war and it lays out the party’s strategy of taking over villages and encircling the towns.

The radicalization of Bhutanese politics is not surprising because the camps contain many unemployed young people facing an uncertain future. Until last year, high school graduates from the camps were funded by the UNHCR through nongovernmental organizations to pursue higher studies in India. This support has now stopped.

Moreover, the refugee camps are located near hotbeds of Maoist insurgency. Frustrated Bhutanese youths, seeing the successes of Nepal’s Maoists, have declared their own “people’s war” in Bhutan.

Last year there were unconfirmed reports suggesting that some 200 Bhutanese refugees had joined the Nepali Maoist movement. Publications close to Indian intelligence circles had warned of such a development.

The root of the politico-ethnic crisis in Bhutan lies in the Citizenship Act of 1985. Under that statute, anyone born in Bhutan after 1958 who had only one Bhutanese parent must apply for citizenship, demonstrate fluency in the Dzongkha language, and produce documentary evidence of 15 or 20 years’ residence.

In 1988, the government conducted a survey to “identify Bhutanese nationals” in the southern districts, setting strict standards for documentation. Many who failed to provide documents proving they resided in Bhutan in 1958 were apparently classed as illegal aliens, regardless of whether they held citizenship cards.

The survey led the government in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, to change its attitude toward the southerners and decide they were a political threat. Such a change of attitude on the part of Bhutanese Drukpa elites appears to have evolved because of regional political developments.

Nepal’s democracy movement of 1990 that turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one appears to be another psychological factor heightening fears among the Drukpa elites regarding the Nepali-speaking population of southern Bhutan.

Bhutan’s population consists of three main groups: the Ngalung, who are the Drukpas of west Bhutan and the ruling ethnic group that comprises 16 percent of the population; Sarchops, who make up 31 percent; and Lhotshampa, the Nepali-speaking majority with 53 percent. These figures, however, are subject to controversy.

The minority ruling elite considered the Drukpas an “endangered species,” so Bhutan’s government adopted a policy of “one nation, one people” and introduced a code of traditional Drukpa dress and etiquette called Driglam Namza.

This requires all citizens to wear the gho (a one-piece tunic for men) or the kira (an ankle-length dress for women). The rule was applied strictly, under penalties of fine or imprisonment that terrorized many Lhotshampas (ethnic Nepalis).

In 1989, the government also introduced a new primary school curriculum that stopped the teaching of Nepali language in all Bhutanese schools. Thus, Bhutanese of Nepali origin, irrespective of their legal status in the country, were forced to accept Drukpa customs, language, and culture.

The government’s attempt to impose Drukpa culture on southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin invited political opposition, leading to the creation of the People’s Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) in 1989.

The PHFR, organized in Nepal by former Royal Advisory Council member Tek Nath Rizal, distributed pamphlets in late 1989 inside Bhutan, where several persons were arrested. Rizal was arrested in Nepal and handed over to Bhutan, which imprisoned him for nearly a decade.

In the summer of 1990, Bhutanese-Nepalis formed the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP) in India.

The BPP and the PFHR organized demonstrations in southern Bhutan in September and October 1990, demanding civil rights and radical changes in the political system.

The demonstrations became the catalyst for “ethnic cleansing” by the Bhutan government, as described by human rights activists. They said Bhutan began classifying participants and supporters as “anti-nationals.” Facing police and army repression, southern Bhutanese began fleeing to Nepal by way of India.

The refugees brought with them accounts of torture, brutality and rape by Bhutanese security forces — charges denied by the government in Thimphu, which described the political disturbances in southern Bhutan as “terrorism.”

As the refugee camps in eastern Nepal’s Jhapa district began to swell in the early 1990s, Nepal asked Bhutan to allow the refugees to return to their homes. Bhutan denied responsibility for the refugee exodus, saying the people in the camps were illegal immigrants, Nepali nationals, migrants from India, or southern Bhutanese who had left voluntarily.

Bhutan also questioned the authenticity of the citizenship documents still held by two-thirds of the refugees in the camps, and voiced suspicions of a conspiracy to turn Bhutan into a Nepali-dominated state.

Under pressure from Nepal and human rights organizations, Bhutan agreed in May 1993 that “the royal government of Bhutan will accept full responsibility, for [any] bona fide Bhutanese national who has been forcibly evicted from Bhutan.”

In July that year, the interior ministers of Nepal and Bhutan met in Thimphu and announced that a joint committee would be set up to “determine the different categories of people in the refugee camps who are claiming to have come from Bhutan,” and to arrive at a “mutually acceptable agreement on each category to provide a basis for the resolution of the problem.”

Bhutan, however, stalled until the end of 2000, when a Joint Verification Committee was formed to identify the genuine Bhutanese. Facing pressure from the United States, the European community, and regional and international human rights organizations, Thimphu seemed to realize the need of mending fences with its own Lhotsampa refugees.

Nepal has maintained that the refugees in the camps are Bhutanese citizens and should be allowed to return home. Bhutan maintains that not all the refugees in the camps are genuine.

The two sides talk about four categories of refugees — those forcibly evicted from Bhutan, those who migrated “voluntarily,” non-Bhutanese refugees, and “criminals” who fled Bhutan.

But even this classification has been a source of controversy.

Bhutan insists that those who left “of their own accord” have forfeited the right to return under Bhutanese law. Nepal maintains that most of these were forced to sign statements of voluntary migration, and that most refugees in the UNHCR-run camps are in this category.

While both governments are making efforts to begin repatriations, some refugee leaders seek to prevent any return unless Bhutan agrees to take back all the refugees. Thimphu has made it clear that it will only consider accepting refugees whose status has been verified.

The Joint Verification Team has finished verifying 12,000 refugees from one of the seven camps, and they are likely to be repatriated by September.

Bhutanese Foreign Minister Dorji Y. Thinley arrived in Katmandu, Nepal, this week to decide on the details of repatriating the verified refugees, but the two governments failed to agree. The next round of talks is set for Aug. 11-14 in Thimphu.

New York-based Human Rights Watch voiced concern on May 12 about reported Bhutanese plans to house returning refugees in special camps for two years before awarding them citizenship.

The group warns that ethnic Nepalese continue to face discrimination in Bhutan.

The stalemate has turned some refugees into militants. Some attempt to enter Bhutan through India, but are always stopped by the latter country’s security forces. Others say they are willing to return only when Bhutan becomes a multiparty democracy and the government starts to respect human rights.

The emergence of Maoist revolutionaries seeking to end the monarchy in Bhutan is also a matter of concern to New Delhi, adding to its problems of dealing with other existing insurgencies operating in India’s northeast.

Despite the fact that all refugees from Bhutan entered Nepal by way of India, New Delhi contends it had nothing to do with it. Its position is that the refugee problem is a bilateral issue to be settled by Nepal and Bhutan.

Analysts, however, note that the Indo-Bhutanese treaty of 1949 allows New Delhi to guide Thimphu’s foreign relations.

Chitra Tiwari, a Washington based free-lance analyst of international affairs, was previously a lecturer in political science in Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]erols.com.

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