Bhutan’s Plans for Democracy Exclude Hindu Refugees
|Our Correspondent||Jun 1, 2007|
While the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been winning strokes across the world for its abdicating king’s voluntary decision to bequeath democracy to his subjects, the dark side is the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, in neighboring Nepal who were kicked out of Bhutan in 1991.
The refugees are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who were driven out after they protested the passage of a law in the 1980s that arbitrarily cancelled their citizenship. As many as a sixth of the Bhutanese population, most of them living in the south of the country, fled Bhutan in 1990. They have been living in refugee camps in Nepal since that time, seeking to get back home.
Bhutan, also known as Druk Yul or the Dragon Kingdom, is surrounded by Nepal, India and Tibet. The country is the midst of a unique transition from absolute monarchy to multiparty democracy, bequeathed by the Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, and not because of any popular uprising. Previously, his main accomplishment visible to the outside world was his Gross National Happiness standard-of-living index but in December last year, having set democracy in motion, he abdicated the throne in favor of his eldest son, the Oxford- educated Crown, he Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk.
The benefits of happiness, however, do not seem to be available to Hindu Bhutanese.
“Some 108,000 Bhutanese refugees have been registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," says Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), a New Delhi based rights body. Following a visit to the refugee camps in Nepal last month, Chakma reiterated his demand that Bhutan be held accountable for settlement of the exiles.
Bhutan is finding this an annoying distraction from Jigme’s plans for democracy, which is getting a series of dry runs prior to the election of a prime minister and council of ministers next year, diminishing the monarchy to a ceremonial role. A second round of mock polls was completed Monday, with school children under the supervision of the Election Commission of Bhutan participating as dummy candidates. Four mock parties the Druk Red Party, Druk Blue Party, Druk Green Party and Druk Yellow Party, each with different symbols and colors participated. Electronic Voting Machines were in place, with assistance and support from India.
Meanwhile, two political parties, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhutan People United Party (BPUP) have registered with the government. A third political party is in the offing, an alliance of retired civil servants, defense officials and businessmen called the Bhutan National Party (BNP).
"We definitely need at least three credible political parties, a local journalist told Asia Sentinel. “Otherwise it may turn into a situation where the voters would have to select one from two worst candidates," he said. "We expect for a smooth transition, though I cannot deny that many Bhutanese people are still apprehensive about democracy."
The mock polls are for everybody but the exiled Bhutanese, who repeatedly demanded to be included in the first round but were refused. Nepal-based separatists in the camps as well as the Bhutan Communist Party, a group formed by refugees, threatened to carry out bomb attacks in Bhutan during Monday's mock voting but the situation remained calm.
The Nepal government raised the issue with Bhutanese authorities in 15 rounds of talks, though it failed to convince Thimphu to allow the refugees to go home. Not a single refugee has returned to Bhutan. India, though recognized as Bhutan’s friendliest neighbor and biggest aid donor, has kept out of the dispute, arguing that 'it was a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.
It is difficult to see any immediate solution. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres visited some of the Nepal-based refugees recently, the first visit by a high-ranking UNHCR official to the camps since they were established 16 years ago. Speaking in Kathmandu, Guterres reiterated UNHCR's continuing effort to resolve the issue
"We will go on knocking at the door of Bhutan for the amicable repatriation of thousands of Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal," he asserted. "Amazingly, the refugees have a great will to go back."
It appears that a lot of the Bhutanese will give up and migrate overseas. On May 26, US Ambassador to Nepal James F. Moriarty and announced that the US would offer permanent resident status to at least 60,000 of them, adding that the US would provide an additional US$2 million in food aid to the camps. Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also volunteered to take a share of refugees for resettlement. However, the Asian Center for Human Rights has asked all the countries not to undertake any hasty resettlements.
Speaking to Asia Sentinel from New Delhi, Suhas Chakma, the Asian Human Rights Center director, stressed: "The international community must be mindful of the implications of any resettlement process without any written commitment from Bhutan. It would be tantamount to supporting ethnic cleansing policies by the Royal Government of Bhutan."
He warned that if Bhutan can get away with 108,000 refugees, the situation of the remaining ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan could be untenable as they might also be forced to renounce their citizenship or leave Bhutan.”
“Bhutan, which has perfected the art of repression, need not expel the ethnic Nepalis en masse but it can somehow force them to leave,” he said.