Bhutanese refugee crisis - A by-product of political problem

The unveiling of the draft constitution by the royal government of Bhutan (RGOB) on March 26, 2005 clearly demonstrates that the Bhutanese problem is purely a political problem and, without it being addressed politically, there will be no durable solution. It may be recalled that the Bhutanese refugee problem is the by-product of the Bhutanese political problem.

The RGOB envisage that the people of Lhotshampa community would be a political threat to the throne in the long run if their population was not maintained demographically balanced. In the well-designed strategy for the depopulation, the Bhutanese people of other ethnicities were also affected, which resulted in the mass exodus of the all sections of the Bhutanese society.

The draft constitution is silent on the existence of the multi-religious and multi-lingual nature of Bhutan. A constitution, as practised in the democratic world, is a document which is aimed at ensuring rights to culture, tradition, religion, livelihood, politics, democracy and citizenship. However, in the case of Bhutan, even the Buddhist monks are put behind the bar simply because they committed the crime of raising their voice against the religious discrimination. The drafting committee constituted by the King does not have fair representation from all sections of the civil society and the ethnic groups.

At this juncture, the failure of the host country Nepal to take the Bhutanese refugee issue to the appropriate international forums to find an early and amicable solution has been tremendously in favour of the RGOB. It is observed that the Nepali government initially took the issue quite seriously but as the time passed the situation changed gradually. Unfortunately, the current political imbroglio in Nepal has been in favour of the Bhutanese stand on the refugees. The frequent change in the governance and political instability in Nepal contributed to the delay in the bilateral process. The tactics of time buying strategy of the RGOB have succeeded because of the Nepali side’s delay in expediting the process of verification and repatriation.

One of the debacles of the Nepali side is to agree on several proposals made by the Bhutanese regime. The role of the UNHCR is also quite dubious. Instead of providing the humanitarian assistance to the refugees, it started playing seasonal politics using few but not committed leaders of the cause of Bhutanese refugees. It is quite dangerous and if something appropriate is not done right now, the future of the refugees would be dark. Some groups, interested and concerned about the Bhutanese refugee issue, are taking great advantage of the unplanned approach of the Nepali authorities, which could not convince the international community that the refugees in the camps are genuinely Bhutanese and denial of their right to return is a violation of the international instruments and undermines the UN’s commitment and credibility for global peace, stability and prosperity.

There is a big dilemma for the refugees to take the right decision. Fifteen years has been too long and most painful for them to resist without knowing exactly what will happen to their future. The refugees grievances have been sidelined by those who were expected to play a significant role in resolving the crisis permanently. Fifteen rounds of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan, without any avenue of airing the refugees’ grievances, ended up as a futile exercise.

On the other hand, India remains a silent spectator to the whole state of affairs. The Bhutanese refugee problem is not a bilateral problem only. By showing the gesture of humanity and offering shelter to the refugees, Nepal cannot shoulder the burden of refugees for an indefinite period. It is not only Nepal to provide shelter to the refugees and it is not only the Bhutanese Lhotshampas who are sheltered as refugees in Nepal. There are many other refugees in Nepal from Tibet, Afghanistan and Iran. So, some close observers speculate that Nepal has provided shelter to the refugees because they were ethnic Nepalis. But this argument does not sound convincing.

The refugee crisis has clearly become a regional problem if not an international one though the UNHCR is involved in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees since they entered Nepal. Therefore, when India guides the foreign policy of Bhutan under the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between Bhutan and India, it also becomes India’s treaty obligation to advise Bhutan to resolve the protracted Bhutanese refugee crisis amicably. Bhutan and India enjoy unique relationship in South Asia. India is not only the largest donor to the Bhutanese developmental programmes, but it is also responsible for Bhutan’s overall security. India must keep in mind that peace and violence cannot go together. Prolongation of the Bhutanese refugee problem could contribute to further violence in the region.

Wangchuck is chairman, Druk National Forum based in Nepal and India