Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bhutan’s "Nelson Mandela" driven to Nepal refugee camp

Kathmandu, Nov 15 (IANS) A 45-year-old Bhutanese of Nepali origin, who was released from prison after 17 years by the Bhutan government this month, has been forced to take shelter in refugee camps in Nepal.

The expulsion of Dhan Kumar Rai, dubbed the Nelson Mandela of Bhutan by Nepal’s media for his long imprisonment, comes after the coronation of a new king and Bhutan’s well-publicised plans of reform and modernisation.

Rai, who arrived in Kathmandu for medical treatment Friday, is suffering from heart and mental problems.

One of the founding members of the exiled Bhutan People’s Party, he was earlier forced to leave Bhutan in 1989 when the Druk government began a crackdown on ethnic citizens, especially those of Nepali origin.

He fled to West Bengal in India where two years after his escape he was arrested by police from the Dooars area and handed over to Bhutan. The 28-year-old was accused of sedition, terrorism and attempt to murder and was sent to the central prison.

Rai says there were 74 more Nepali-speaking Bhutanese prisoners in the same prison block.

Rai and three other political prisoners of Nepali origin - Manbahadur Moktan, Ratna Thapa and Indrajit Pulami - were released Nov 1, five days before the coronation of Bhutan’s fifth king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, reportedly due to pressure by the International Red Cross Society and other international human rights organisations.

However, he could not view the three-day lavish coronation ceremony. Rai was given 48 hours to quit Bhutan.

On Nov 5, he arrived in Khudunabari in east Nepal where his brother and other family members have been living since fleeing Bhutan in the 1980s.

The freed activist says there are still about 100 political prisoners in the Chemgang Jail where he was held. He says he saw six prisoners die due to torture inside the prison.

Rai’s arrival in Nepal comes at a time when the previous government of Nepal, despairing of ever getting Bhutan to agree to take back the over 100,000 refugees languishing in Nepal, gave its nod to six Western countries to resettle the refugees.

Over 6,000 refugees have left the camps and are now trying to make a new life for themselves in the US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. In the coming days, more refugees are likely to be resettled abroad.

The exodus is being opposed by exiled Bhutanese political parties who feel if the camps are empty, Bhutan will be emboldened to evict still more ethnic citizens.

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