Friday, November 14, 2008

Bhutan’s forgotten citizens

By Bhumika Ghimire

West Lafayette, IN, United States, — Bhutan celebrated the coronation of its new king last week. The 28-year-old Oxford-educated bachelor Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck assumed leadership of a nation that is just beginning to take baby steps toward modernization. The country held its first democratic elections in March 2008 and only recently allowed satellite television and Internet access.

Bhutanese call their country “Druk Yul,” which means “Land of Thunder Dragon.” The country has been described by many as the ultimate tourist destination, untouched by the hazards of the modern world, with a perfectly preserved environment and undisturbed ancient culture.

Unfortunately for the new king, integrating Bhutan with the modern world while keeping its natural and cultural heritage is not the only challenge on hand. For the last 17 years, the country has been wrestling with a major issue, which surprisingly was not mentioned or discussed during the lengthy and lavish coronation celebrations.

King Jigme Khesar’s father, Jigme Singye, came up with a plan for a more homogeneous Bhutan during the 1990s. He wanted Bhutan to have one culture, one language and even imposed a dress code. The problem with his ideal was that his country was not homogeneous. Significant numbers of ethnic Nepalese were living in the country. They had their own language, culture and religious beliefs.

Not to be deterred, Jigme Singye decided to throw out the “undesirable Nepalese” and create a perfect Bhutan. As a result, more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese were left stateless.

Nepal and Bhutan don’t share a border; the two countries are separated by the Indian state of Sikkim. Indian authorities allowed safe passage for the refugees to enter Nepal. The circumstances under which the refugees were escorted into Nepal are often disputed, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the scene was definitely neither pretty nor peaceful.

With India’s help, Bhutan successfully got rid of more than 100,000 of its ethnic Nepalese citizens. Those refugees are now living in camps funded by the United Nations in and around Nepal’s Jhapa district.

For more than a decade, Nepal and Bhutan have been wrangling about the refugee issue. India has refused to get involved. Not a single refugee has been repatriated and all the diplomatic efforts have produced almost zero results – except for protracting the debate.

It was disheartening to see that Bhutan’s new king did not make any move toward reconciliation or show any concern toward his citizens suffering in a foreign land. In his message to the nation after coronation, King Jigme Khesar promised to keep Bhutan safe from “outside influences” and emphasized preserving the country’s heritage, but he chose to forget about the refugees.

Bhutanese refugees have urged their new king to allow them back home. They have asked the Nepalese government for help. But the Maoist-led government is in no position to save the Bhutanese; in fact, it is in no position to save itself. Bitter fighting among various political parties over the issue of integrating former Maoist fighters into the Nepalese Army could very well cause the government’s collapse.

Who is going to stand up and fight for the refugees then? At this time the answer is, sadly, no one. The international community, including the United States, has decided to take the easy route. They have decided to resettle the refugees in a third country. Already, some refugees have been taken in by the United States and Australia, and some will be going to Europe.

It is better to provide a stable home and citizenship to the refugees instead of leaving them to languish in camps for years without any legal status. But if we keep ignoring abuses like the one committed by Bhutan and keep cleaning up their messes, aren’t we empowering the abuser?


(Bhumika Ghimire is a freelance reporter. Her articles have been published at OhMyNews, NepalNews, Toward Freedom, Telegraph Nepal, Himal South Asian and ACM Ubiquity. She is also a regular contributor to News Front Weekly, in Kathmandu, and Nepal Abroad, in Washington D.C. She can be reached at ©Copyright Bhumika Ghimire.)

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