Dondup Wangchuck

Today, the protracted Bhutanese crisis is lost in a thick cloud and there is not even a thin silver lining anywhere. Fifteen rounds of bilateral talks between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal within a period of 12 years simply wasted a huge amount of money which could have been utilised for the development of health, education and communication in the villages of these least developing countries in South Asia. Millions of dollars from UNHCR would not have been wasted merely for feeding the people, many of whom are educated, competent and could have fetched lucrative jobs anywhere for their better lives. It is crystal clear for anyone that Bhutan is still not ready to take the refugees back. Any effort by the government of Nepal or any pressure from the international level has failed to yield any positive results for the refugees.

Equally ambiguous is the stand of UNHCR in regard to the issue. We first knew from the UNHCR statement that until a last refugee remains in the camp, they will continue providing necessary relief. After the fifteenth round of Ministerial Joint Committee meeting, UNHCR made the statement that the repatriation of the refugees is now taking place only within the framework of bilateral arrangements and it is up to the refugees to decide whether they are confident prior to their repatriation for their security back in Bhutan. This has given a clear message to the refugees that they should think twice to exercise their right to return unless there is a third party involvement to ensure safety and dignity of refugees upon their repatriation. Though the suggestion of the UNHCR deserves high appreciation, its sudden unanticipated notion to phase out its relief programme from the camps in Nepal by the end of 2005 has once again added confusion and disappointment among the refugees about UNHCR policy.

In fact, Nepal, as a host country, has miserably failed to play its diplomatic role. Perhaps a new democracy in Nepal provided extra privileges for every prominent Nepali leader to enjoy the status of premiership and frequent changes of guard in Nepal could be one of the reasons why the issue has not been handled effectively and consistently. This, however, has been most advantageous for the Bhutanese side. The processes of one step forward, two steps backward hang on perpetually in the bilateral negotiations, though Nepal does not appear exhausted but continues to opt for the same process. Nepal should have understood by now very clearly that the Bhutanese refugee crisis cannot be solved bilaterally.

The involvement of third party and the inclusion of the representatives of Bhutanese political parties in the talks could bring a lasting solution, which could be in the greater interest of the refugees and the governments of both Nepal and Bhutan. It is for certain that unless the Bhutanese issue is addressed politically, no effort can work to change the mind of the Druk regime. The Bhutanese government will continue to remain rigid and adamant in its stand unless a situation is created where the political sensation touches the pulse of the king.

Since the Bhutanese foreign policy as per the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949 has to operate under Indian guidance and the security of Bhutan is also in Indian hands, it is in the long-term interest of India to come forward and extend its support in finding both political as well as humanitarian solutions so that the two Himalayan kingdoms can play a more meaningful role in their contribution to regional peace and prosperity. The largest democracy of the world, the super power contender of the region and biggest development partner of Bhutan should not hesitate to take an appropriate decision and help Bhutan and Nepal find a durable solution. The lack of democracy in Bhutan is not only against the interests of the Bhutanese people but is also an obstacle to regional peace, development and co-operation.

At this juncture, the government of Nepal should not delay internationalising the Bhutanese refugee issue. There is no reason why Nepal should continue the bilateral negotiation when Bhutan is using every means not only to delay the long-standing refugee repatriation process but also to defame Nepal as a whole. Unlike some claims recently made by the Kathmandu based so-called intellectuals that the Bhutanese refugee crisis is a result of “greed to grab power” by a few power hungry individuals, the crux of the crisis is entirely the failure of the royal government’s policy to address the genuine grievances of the innocent Bhutanese citizens. No matter who says what, the Bhutanese crisis is purely a political problem coupled with the contradictions of geopolitical interests. Any observer, concerned or interested in the Bhutanese crisis, should not be carried away by the misleading information, which is intended to appease the feudal and despotic regime in Bhutan, which is not constructive but a big obstacle to the process of finding a solution. It is the 21st centaury, the era of democracy, not autocracy. The ill founded and the double standard policy of the Bhutanese government is solely responsible for creating an unending crisis in the region.

Wangchuck is chairman, Druk National Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan