- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

Bhutan, a small reclusive kingdom in the eastern Himalayas, used to be known as a Shangri-La. But this image has been slowly eroding since 1990, when the royal government forced thousands of Bhutanese of Nepalese origin to leave the country because of their lack of citizenship certificates.

These refugees, numbering more than 100,000, found their way into Nepal by way of India, where they are housed in seven camps run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other international humanitarian agencies.

Human rights activist Tek Nath Rizal says there are 30,000 more refugees in India. The State Department estimates Bhutan’s population at 2.1 million.

Mr. Rizal, 57, chairman of the Human Rights Council of Bhutan, who is in Washington to participate in a “leadership and good governance” summit, said he wants to “expose the ill designs of Bhutan and draw the world’s attention towards the plight of the Bhutanese people.”

Mr. Rizal was jailed for life in 1989 for founding the human rights organization to speak against Bhutan’s autocratic royal family. He was released in 1999 amid pressure from Amnesty International and other international rights agencies and quiet diplomacy by the U.S. government.

Mr. Rizal said the refugee crisis “is a direct result of the state terrorism perpetrated by the Bhutan government.”

He said the government introduced a Nationality Act in 1985, depriving citizenship rights to the southern Bhutanese and, four years later, imposed northern Bhutanese Drukpa religion and culture on the southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin.

“As the people opposed these policies, the government ordered its army [to suppress] the movement and started evicting the people forcefully,” he said.

Mr. Rizal said the Bhutanese government was delaying the repatriation of refugees into Bhutan from Nepal, blocking even those categorized as “genuine Bhutanese” from returning home.

Mr. Rizal said there is “tremendous degree of sympathy” for the refugees from the international community, including the United States and Europe. However, India, Bhutan’s neighbor and a regional power, has maintained “a hands-off policy,” Mr. Rizal said.

On reports of infiltration by Nepalese Maoists into the refugee camps in Nepal and their growing influence among the refugees, Mr. Rizal said they were “only rumors and a ploy to malign the refugees … by the Bhutanese government.”

However, he said, “If we fail to solve the problem soon, the possibility of the frustrated youth in the camps being used by the Maoists cannot be ruled out.”

Mr. Rizal said the recent visit of Arthur Dewey, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, to the camps has given “renewed hope” to the refugees for a speedy repatriation.

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