Refugee issue: Negotiation alone is not enough

After several years, Nepal and Bhutan are to hold talks on November 21-22 in Thimphu on the fate of Bhutanese refugees exiled forcibly through the policy of racial discrimination adopted by the royal government of Bhutan since 1989. Bhutan’s deliberate act was manifest when it began a systematic process of revocation of citizenship of thousands of Lhotshampas (Nepali-speaking Bhutanese), culminating in a systematic process of coercing tens of thousands of Bhutanese to fill and sign the “Voluntary Migration Forms”. They used torture, rape and killing to ‘intimidate’ people.

Any talks aimed at resolving the problem must not overlook its genesis, which was rightly expressed by foreign minister K P Sharma Oli as a problem between the royal government of Bhutan and the citizens of South Bhutan. It was a long interval after which a Nepali foreign minister informed the UN member states about the terrorism perpetuated by the Bhutanese government. The only exception was former foreign minister Prakash C Lohani’ statement at a Human Rights Commission meet in Geneva.

The Nepali government has slighted the Bhutanese cause by stating that the forceful eviction was an act of the Royal Government of Bhutan aimed against ‘its own citizens’, with Nepal only playing host to the refugees from Tibet. The government committed a grave mistake by acting as if it was a bilateral issue. From the very beginning, Bhutan internationalised the issue by telling the world community that the intrusion of Nepali speaking people into Bhutan was a deliberate policy of Nepal to create “Greater Nepal” and to impose Nepali culture on the minority.

In this respect, let’s read a publication of Bhutanese government, “BHUTAN, Himalayan Kingdom” in 1979. On page 14, it says ‘Bhutan’s people fall in three broad ethnic groups. The first, the Sarchops (37 per cent), the Ngalings (9 per cent), and third, the (ethnic) Nepalese or Lhotshampas (43 per cent). So the new King framed a policy of eviction of Lhotsampas because they were more conscious of a democratic system and human rights. Teknath Rijal, a close associate and one of the King’s counsellors, was jailed for 10 years for advising the King against a discriminatory policy and for advocating that the citizenship act not be made on a discriminatory basis.

When the talks started on September 13, 1993, the Bhutanese insisted on categorisation of the refugees, and the request was accepted by the Nepali side. The acceptance of categorisation created a time-consuming verification process. It took six years to verify one refugee camp and when the results were out, the Bhutanese government found it contrary to their expectations. They concocted a story of security threat and throttled the registration process.

The Nepali government always believed in persuading a small nation through goodwill, failing to widely publicise the causes of eviction of such large numbers of people. Nepal failed to refute the charges of Bhutan against it. It also failed to tell the international community about Bhutan’s real situation and how the royal government had been suppressing human rights and promoting racial discrimination.

When Dr. Lohani drew the international community’s attention at a general meeting of the Human Rights Commission for the first time, the Bhutanese ambassador used his right to reply, thereby undermining the earlier Nepali stance. After that event, it is only now that Oli has the raised the issue internationally. Only by internationalising the problem and isolating the Bhutanese government can it be forced to address the issue. At the forthcoming talks, Nepal should not believe in Bhutan’s time-buying tactics, so that refu-gees start looking for opportunities here and forget their demand of repatriation. The offer of foreign governments to settle the refugees in their respective countries is praiseworthy, but they must realise that it would only encourage Thimphu to intensify its policy of racial discrimination and suppression of rights.

The US government, the EU and Japan must persuade the royal government to rewrite its citizenship act on a non-discriminatory basis and promote human rights and democracy. The donor countries must pressure Bhutanese government to repatriate the refugees; and their goodwill must be sought to resolve the crisis.

Foreign minister Oli, who is in India, could request the Indian government to advise the Bhutanese King to respect human rights. He must draw the attention of the parliamentarians and politicians in all the countries with which Nepal has diplomatic relations, as well as other members of the UN, that Bhutan, itself a UN member country, ought to abide by the UN charter and its Declaration of Human Rights.

The many rounds of bilateral talks so far have taught us a lesson. We should not be afraid to negotiate but negotiation alone is not enough. Pressure of the international opinion and of civilised governments has to be put on Bhutan to resolve the crisis.

Upadhyay is a former foreign minister