FREELY Refugees blur Bhutan's
image By David Koppers
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Peaceful kingdom or
oppressive monarchy? Land of happiness or human
rights violator? For much of its existence, Bhutan
has sat perched in a world of its own, content in
being left to its own devices. Traditional ways of
life however have recently come undone.
Along with the advances of the 21st
century has come the reduced isolation that many
nations were once comfortable with. Refugees from
Bhutan have come forth to tell a very different story
from the one popular in
travel books and websites.
search of the word Bhutan will lead visitors to a
range of travel websites as well as spectacular
images of mountain vistas and peaceful Buddhist
temples. Only after further, careful searching
will you find anything about the forced expulsion
of a significant portion of the population.
For hundreds of years, immigrants of
Nepali descent have settled in the farmland
composing Bhutan's southern valleys. In Bhutan
they are known as Lhotshampa, or "southerners".
In Dzongkha, Bhutan's official language,
the Bhutanese refer to themselves as the Drukpa,
or "dragon people". The people of Bhutan,
originally of Tibetan origin, number only around
700,000. Increased immigration in the south has
resulted in xenophobia. At one point the
Lhotshampa were encouraged to intermarry and
integrate into Bhutanese society. The policies of
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck changed all of that.
Gross National Happiness is a concept
created by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck that has
been adopted by much of the world. Countries
around the world today are often measured by their
Gross National Happiness. Creating a measure for
the well-being of the people of your country is
commendable, forcibly removing your country's
minorities is not.
Beginning in the 1980s,
the king issued a policy in which all people in
Bhutan must wear traditional Bhutanese style
dress. The use of the Nepali language was
suppressed and only Dzhongkha could be taught in
schools. This inflamed the divide among the
The 1990s saw a period of
violence in which the Lhotshampa protested against
government policies. Government forces clamped
down on protests by raiding villages and attacking
protesters. The Lhotshampa fought back and were
promptly branded terrorists.
News of these
events were slow to reach the outside world. Few
people inside the country even had televisions at
the time. Only recently has the Internet been
allowed. Bhutan has carefully crafted the image of
itself as a land of peace and happiness. Bad news
is suppressed, and to this day, few people know of
the seriousness of its human-rights abuses.
After refugee camps were set up in Nepal,
victims of violence in Bhutan began to arrive.
Often they were coerced into signing papers
stating that they were leaving Bhutan voluntarily,
when in fact, they were forced out. Repatriation
efforts began after 2000 and since then, thousands
of refugees have settled in the United States,
Canada, Australia and Europe.
actor Michael J Fox visited Bhutan. His visit was
televised as a journey of optimism to the land of
peace. Fox was there as part of a spiritual quest
to overcome his Parkinson's disease. His visit to
the temples, parks and festivals was indeed,
inspiring. He even claimed that his symptoms were
Yet, as he talked about the
immense happiness that he witnessed, there was no
mention of a darker side. Perhaps he too, was kept
in the dark.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel
Wangchuck, the current king of Bhutan, was wed to
Jetsun Pema on October 11, 2011. Their ceremony
was the largest media event ever to take place in
Bhutan. It proved to be Asia's version of the
wedding of Prince Harry to Kate Middleton.
Both couples are close in age and have
much in common in their respective countries.
Throughout the media coverage of the event, we
again heard of Bhutan as the isolated mountain
kingdom of peace and tranquility. For now at
least, the current king has done little to change
his father's preferred image of his country.
Travelers are welcomed to Bhutan from
around the world. There is a quota placed on the
number of visitors allowed in per year, nominally
to preserve the unique, isolated culture there.
Exorbitant fees are placed upon those who apply
for a visa. Tourists should boycott travel to
Bhutan until human-rights grievances are
Nepali refugees from Bhutan
have struggled to adapt to life in their new
homes. We can learn a lot from them their stories
and what they have gone through in life to get
where they are today. This story would not have
been possible without them.
Koppers teaches Nepali refugees from Bhutan in
Speaking Freely is an
Asia Times Online feature that allows guest
writers to have their say.Please
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