Monday, September 3, 2007

Editorial : Abraham Abraham and the Refugee Refugees


The tragedy of the so-called Bhutanese refugee crisis seems to be repeating itself. Those who have failed to understand the true nature of the tragedy now have another chance. Hopefully they won’t miss the irony either.

Against a tide of international criticism in the 1990s the government of Bhutan maintained that the mass exodus of Nepalese from southern Bhutan was not a result of government or military pressure on citizens, but was a result of the refugees’ own secret little plan. Leaving Bhutan in droves was Stage I of the Plan. Coming back to Bhutan in force of numbers and on their terms was supposed to be Stage II.

Many of the refugees-to-be wholeheartedly supported this plan. The concept of a Greater Nepal featured prominently in the delusions of the Nepalese diaspora those days, encouraged no doubt by the successes of the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Many of them relished the idea of Bhutan going the Sikkim way. Kanak M. Dixit, a prominent editor from Nepal even wrote a cover page article on Bhutan revealingly titled “House of Cards” that seemed to foresee imminent collapse in Bhutan (Kanak Mani Dixit: House of cards: fearing for Bhutan. Himal Vol.7 No 4, July/August 1994.). Such sentiments had to be carefully hidden however and not surprisingly were heatedly denounced as some RGOB bogey.

Not all refugees were so excited by this delusion and many had to be coerced through threats and intimidation to cooperate. There was a militant wing among the refugees that offered to shorten by 6 inches anybody who did not cooperate. Translated bluntly, this was an offer of a beheading. Since the refugees were shrewdly trying to craft a picture of a persecuted minority, this fact too had to be denied. The refugee leaders cleverly deflected the blame for the exodus on a ‘despotic kingdom’ dabbling in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of a ‘peaceful minority’. Now which self-respecting headline reader could resist buzzwords as catchy as these?

Having successfully created the critical mass of refugees and successfully set up their camps in Nepal (which incidentally was made possible only after a Long March and a standoff with the Nepalese police over the Mechi bridge), the plan began to stumble. The refugee leaders had never reckoned with Bhutanese bureaucratic obduracy and for 16 years Stage II has been in limbo. They’ve had to struggle to keep people focused on why they left Bhutan and what the next step was. Sadly for them, international sympathy for their humanitarian situation did not translate into international belief that the refugees were all Bhutanese citizens.

Finding lessons for Bhutan from the happenings in India and Nepal has been a habit among the Nepalese leaders in Bhutan. Their agitations in Bhutan in 1952 and 1990 following the successes of the uprisings against the British in India and against the monarchy in Nepal respectively bear this our. So it was no surprise that in the successes of the Maoists of Nepal the refugee leaders found inspiration and they promptly created their very own Maoist group. Unfortunately in their excitement they forgot about the US’ penchant for overreacting to anything communist or even the colour red. Not surprisingly the US became unduly alarmed by this and decided enough was enough and offered to clear the camps with a sweeping offer of resettlement in the USA.* Most of the refugees jumped at the offer as they saw it for what it was – an opportunity of a life time.

In this happy solution however the refugee leaders have found despair. Who will they lead is the main question. What will become of them as leaders? These hard questions have triggered the return of their hidden true nature and despite the risk of losing their hard earned image of peaceful refugees, they have once again resumed their old role of ‘guiding’ the people. According to them, the US offer is simply no good. No doubt being six inches shorter has something to do with it. Reports from Nepal describe a rapidly worsening situation as the Bhutan Communist Party and the Bhutan Tigers’ Front intensified their ‘campaign’ against third-country resettlement.

Such is the level of fear and intimidation that has gripped the refugee camps that dozens of families have fled the camps for their safety. Many refugees now find safety in the surrounding villages.

If there is one thing that is worse than becoming a refugee, it is for a refugee to have to seek refuge FROM a refugee camp. Abraham Abraham, the Country Representative of the UNHCR camps in Nepal must answer up to this incredible failure.

And it is high time that he and the UNHCR organization acknowledge the sinister role played by the refugee leaders in the creation of the refugee tragedy.

*This is but one possible explanation for the generous US offer.

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