During the nearly two decades they stayed in UN-overseen camps in southeastern Nepal, Bhutanese exiles and their community leaders have regularly pushed for international support and solidarity in an attempt to strengthen their call for the establishment of inclusive democracy and human rights in their homeland.
The image of the isolated Bhutanese kingdom is a benevolent one that includes an enlightened king who brought democracy to his people and invented an eccentric but effective measurement of progress called gross domestic happiness instead of gross domestic product. But that is belied by the fact that in the late 1980s, more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese known as Lhotshampa were accused by the government of being illegal aliens and forced out of the country. According to US State Department estimates, the Lhotshampa amount to as much as 28 percent of Bhutan's population if the refugees were included.
Since full-scale third-country resettlement began in November 2007, support for the refugees has begun to materialize in unexpected ways, and already indicates a newfound strength within the new Bhutanese diaspora of the West. Opponents of the resettlement program had regularly argued that accepting such an offer would weaken their struggle for democracy – tensions that, in the beginning, even led to attacks on refugee leaders and laypersons who vocally supported the resettlement option. Yet already, these concerns are being proven unfounded.
Despite early misgivings, by now the majority of refugees – currently around 85,000 among a total of 108,000 – have declared their interest to leave the camps and attempt to set up new lives in the West. Resettlement countries include the US, which has agreed to take in the majority of those who want to leave, as well as Australia, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand, and potentially the United Kingdom.
Within a year of the start of that process, the new diaspora's growing presence began to be felt. In December 2009, a group of Europe-based Bhutanese exiles demonstrated in Geneva against the government delevation in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu that is tasked with presenting an official report before the UN'S Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights. Significantly, demonstrators were even allowed access to the meeting hall, requiring the Bhutanese delegation to present their report in the presence of members of the refugee community. The delegation was later forced to accept various recommendations put forth by the representatives of other member states on behalf of the exiled Bhutanese, including that Thimphu commit itself to resuming talks with Kathmandu regarding repatriation, and improve the human-rights situation in the country, among others.
Together, these turns of events were taken by exiles and activists as a triumph. Except for a few previous instances, due to their political status refugees had not been able to protest what they saw as Thimphu's deceit regarding its process of democratization. Most of the refugees belong to the Lhotshampa, the southern, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese community that has for decades been marginalized or actively persecuted by the Bhutanese state. Following a forced mass exodus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the refugees found few outlets in which to air their complaints while in exile in Nepal. However, the Kathmandu platform had its limits, as became clear in retrospect.
Durga Giri, the chief coordinator of the Bhutan Advocacy Forum Europe, which organized the Geneva protests, says the resettlement offer has already turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the pro-democracy movement.
"Testimonies of human-rights violations in Bhutan are no longer confined to bamboo refugee huts in Nepal," Giri said recently. "In fact, the perspective offered by settling into new countries has given us leverage to re-organize the movement for human rights and inclusive democracy."
In spite of the challenges inherent in resettling in a new country, many Bhutanese are now finding that they can speak far more freely about their experiences in Bhutan, and reach a far larger international audience. "The thought that the Bhutanese movement would naturally die down after the resettlement process was misconstrued," says R P Subba, a well-known politician and activist. "Today, nearly all of the newly resettled have far better access to the Internet and other media sources, and they have subsequently expanded their outreach – assuming new roles as ambassadors of our movement. And, as more refugees join the diaspora, the effectiveness of this campaign will only grow and expand." In this, the work of the Youth Organisation of Bhutan has already been notable.
Indeed, some of the more outspoken among the refugees are now calling for continued resistance as a moral imperative for the diaspora community. "We all have a moral responsibility to help establish inclusive democracy and genuine human rights in Bhutan," says Jogen Gazmere, a former Amnesty International ‘prisoner of conscience' now resettled in Australia. "Our activism must also be geared to deterring further eviction of southern Bhutanese."
Still, having moved out of the refugee camps, there seem now to be far less personal stakes at play. The chairman of the Bhutanese Community Support Organization in America, Dick Chhetri, admits that it is improbable that any resettled Bhutanese will ever return to their homeland. At the same time, he emphasizes, they have the opportunity to carry forward a strong international campaign to benefit those who remain in the refugee camps and are still hoping for repatriation – as well as those marginalized communities still in Bhutan that continue to hope for equality and justice in their everyday lives.
Almost all of the half-dozen resettlement countries have been, and remain, major donors to Bhutan. Yet an exploration of the government's use of much of this international funding (in infrastructure building, primary health care, etc) finds that marginalized groups – the Lhotshampa, the Sharchop of the east and liberal sections among the dominant Ngalung – remain principal sufferers. This does not necessarily mean that international funding should be discontinued, but rather highlights the need – and opportunity – for a potent check-and-balance situation. With donors holding such potential clout over Thimphu in terms of pressing Bhutanese officials to institutionalize democracy and guarantee fundamental rights, newly resettled Bhutanese in each of the donor countries are suddenly in a far stronger position to lobby concerned decision-makers.
Meanwhile, the refugees' own financial circumstances will undoubtedly change over the years, given the new opportunities available to them following resettlement. While this resource base could be of significant assistance to the country itself should Thimphu institutionalise its democratic reforms, in the meantime it offers a significant new engine to drive a nonviolent movement for inclusive democracy within Bhutan. In this, of course, there are important precedents from the region, as several resettled South Asian communities have in the past formed extremely strong advocacy networks while in a diaspora.
Dhurba Rizal, the author of Bhutan: Decentralization and good governance, suggests that the resettled Bhutanese community could now begin to contribute intellectual resources as well as moral and financial support, and offers positive examples from the Tibetan, Tamil and Burmese diasporas. Each of these have been notably successful in not only attaining significant international support for their causes, but also in funneling funding and other support back to opposition movements in and out of their homelands. Of course, it is not expected that the Lhotshampa will support violence to the extent that parts of the Tamil diaspora supported the LTTE.
Already there are signs of a change within Thimphu's body language, indicating at least some impact of diasporic activism. During the first week of April, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley, while in Nepal to pay homage to the late Nepali politician G P Koirala, publicly stated his appreciation to resettlement countries for their "humanitarian" work for the "people in camps".
This is a notable turnaround. Just three years ago, then-Bhutanese Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuck had termed the refugees "readymade terrorists" and "non-nationals" – the sharp change in semantics indicating, possibly, a willingness in Thimphu to regard the refugees as citizens ousted from their own land. That, at least, is the hope. As resettlement continues and the Bhutanese diaspora continues to strengthen, perhaps this stance will continue to soften.
T P Mishra is founder-president of the Bhutan Chapter of the Bangladesh-based Third World Media Network. He currently lives in New York. This was reprinted with permission of Himal Southasian, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.