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    South Asia
     Jan 23, 2008
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.

The explosives did little physical damage: one woman suffered an

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 multiparty democracy.

The much-heralded 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 Indian politician.

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 Online.

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 for Kathmandu.

Ethnic 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 origin).

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.

The UNHCR 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.

The UNHCR 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 Migration.

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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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