Bombs in Bhutan stir refugee
crisis By Mohan Balaji
CHENNAI - The orchestrated bomb blasts
that detonated on Monday in the capital of Thimphu
and three other locations across Bhutan are a
powerful reminder of the simmering refugee problem
that has long plagued the ruling government and
tarnished the reputation of the tiny Himalayan
kingdom often referred to as Shangri-La.
According to Bhutanese police, the
explosions were suspected to be linked to one of
three militant organizations based in Nepal - the
Bhutan Tiger Force, the Bhutan Maoists Party and
the Communist Party of Bhutan.
explosives did little physical damage: one woman
injured leg, windows were
shattered and some shopkeepers and residents
unnerved. But as Bhutan looks ahead to a second
round of the country's first democratic elections
on March 24, the impact of the militant-linked
attacks may be much more severe.
International media have recently lauded
Bhutan for becoming the world's newest democracy,
and piled high praise on its former ruler, King
Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who voluntarily abdicated
after 34 years as monarch to usher in an era of
democratization process, as well as Bhutan's
increasingly complex role as a "buffer state"
between China and India, have overshadowed the
country's refugee issue. This week's blasts,
however, may have shifted the focus back to the
decades-old situation that has been condemned by
rights groups and drawn the scrutiny of the United
States, United Nations and, recently, one vocal
A team of Indian
parliamentarians, on its way to visit Bhutanese
refugees in eastern Nepal, was barred from
entering Bhutan by border security on January 19.
The team, led by Debrata Biswas, general secretary
of the Forward Bloc Party, was en route to Jhapa
district where the joint Indo-Bhutan Solidarity
team was scheduled to address a gathering at
Beldangi and hold talks with refugee leaders.
"Bhutan cannot be called a democratic
nation even after the March 24, 2008, elections
unless it allows Bhutanese refugees to participate
in the elections. We will pressure the Indian
government in all sorts [of ways] to resolve the
refugee situation without the intervention of
countries like the US," Biswas told Asia Times
Bhutan is one of the highest per
capita refugee generators in the world. It has
been estimated that some 170,000 Bhutanese
refugees, most of Nepalese origin, live in seven
refugee camps in eastern Nepal managed by the UN
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Roughly
another 25,000 Bhutanese refugees live in India.
Nepal, which has hosted these groups since
1990, initially sought to repatriate the Bhutanese
refugees, but relented to pressure from the UNHCR
and the US. Nevertheless, pro-repatriation groups
have been advocating the Bhutanese government take
the refugees back and there is fear within Nepal
about the underground militant groups which have
been started by the Bhutanese refugees. Backlash
from such organizations before Nepal's elections
scheduled for April could become a major nuisance
divisions Bhutanese refugees are called
Lhotshampas (people of Nepali origin) who
immigrated to the southern regions of Bhutan in
search of farmland and economic prosperity in the
early 1800s. Bhutan's population is dominated by
the Drukpas (Buddhist Bhutanese of Tibetan
Ethnic problems between the
Lhotshampas and Drukpas escalated
when the policy of "Bhutanization" was initiated
by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the late
1970s and early 1980s. Two citizenship acts,
passed in 1977 and 1985, tightened the
requirements for obtaining citizenship for the
Lhotshampas. These, and a census in 1985,
led to a huge surge of so-called "voluntary"
migration. The 1985 legislation also mandated the
Lhotshampas adopt Drukpa culture:
language, religion and a national dress code known
as Drukpa bakkhoo.
Lhotshampas who could not prove
they were residents of the country before December
31, 1958, were forced to leave. Citizenship was
only granted if both parents were also registered
citizens. The 1988 census revealed that Bhutan's
population was 48% Buddhist and 45% Nepali.
After the introduction of the king's "one
nation, one people" campaign the Nepali language
was banned from school curriculums, and
southerners were required to learn
Dzongkha, a Tibetan dialect spoken only by
northerners. Special permission was required for
admission to schools and to sell cash crops. There
were protests in southern Bhutan against the
reforms, leading to a large majority of
Lhotshampas being classified as illegal
immigrants and a deportation program was
instituted - the so called "voluntary" migration.
The Lutheran World Federation began to
assist the Bhutanese refugees soon after their
arrival, and the government of Nepal enlisted the
help of the UNHCR in late 1991.
soon placed refugees in four categories: Bhutan
citizens, refugees voluntarily migrated from
Bhutan, non-Bhutanese and refugees who had
committed pro-democracy activities in Bhutan.
Since 1993 there have been more than a
dozen high-level meetings between the governments
of Bhutan and Nepal to solve the crisis. In
December 2001, the two sides agreed on a joint
nationality-verification process. The process was
criticized for having fallen behind international
standards. The verification process excluded the
UNHCR and involved only representatives of the
governments of Bhutan and Nepal.
announced in 2003 that it would encourage local
integration in Nepal, but by mid-2005 the
exercises had to be scrapped due to local protests
in Bhutan. The plan is also opposed by the
majority of Bhutanese refugee leaders in Nepal.
US ambassador to Nepal Nancy C Powell
announced on January 9 that 220 Bhutanese refugees
would be resettled soon in US cities as the first
phase of a process to resettle 60,000 of the
170,000 refugees in various camps. A refugee
resettlement processing center for the Bhutanese
refugees living in Nepal's Jhapa district was also
established this month and is operated under the
aegis of the International Organization for
Still, the hundreds of
thousands of refugees in Nepal did not vote in
Bhutan's Upper House elections held last December
31 and will not be allowed to participate in the
upcoming Lower House vote. As Murari Sharma,
former ambassador of Nepal to the UN who has been
involved in Nepal-Bhutan negotiations on refugees,
wrote in Asia Times Online in 2007, "King Jigme
Singye has stepped away from his monarchical perch
without resolving the refugee crisis he created."
If this week's bomb blasts are an
indication, the refugee crisis will become a
critical factor for Bhutan - and potentially a
violent one. The retired king's fledgling
democracy is under fire as well. Ravi Nair,
executive director of the South Asia Human Rights
Documentation Center in Delhi, told Asia Times
Online, "Bhutan is not returning to democracy."
"The elections are a gerrymandered process
and have no legitimacy in democratic circles.
Bhutan's discriminatory attitude towards its own
citizens is violative of every tenet of
international human rights and humanitarian norms.
There are regular and credible reports that
Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali origin living in
southern Bhutan continue to be discriminated
against. Those having relatives in the camps in
eastern Nepal have also faced intimidation and
harassment. The denial of the right to franchise
of the Bhutanese citizens who are denied the right
to return to their country is clearly a human
rights violation," Nair said in an interview.
Mohan Balaji is a print and
broadcast journalist based in India.