Refugee problem Need for more international pressure on Bhutan
Hiranya Lal Shrestha:
The Bhutanese refugee problem is now at a serious juncture as the Bhutan government has not shown any intention to repatriate its own citizens already verified in one of the seven camps — Khudunabari; and it has also obstructed the process of verification in other camps. The Bhutan government does not want involvement of third party and does not show its intention to solve the problem through bilateral negotiations. This attitude has remained the major hurdle.
The Bhutanese refugees had first stepped into India after their expulsion from Bhutan. They have been living in Nepal after they were redirected to Nepal from India. Had they not been pushed to Nepal, it would be a problem between India and Bhutan. As India has shifted the problem to Nepal from its land in this way, India has to cooperate to resolve the problem. However, India has shrugged off the responsibility terming the problem a bilateral one. In reality, the Bhutanese refugee problem is a tripartite problem between Nepal, Bhutan and India. Since repatriation has been obstructed under several pretexts, international community must pursue India to cooperate.
Nepal has given them space to stay when the Bhutanese people reached Nepal as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been extending support for their shelter, food, health and the education of their children. Meanwhile, the UNHCR says that it would phase out the relief assistance by March 31, 2005 since it cannot play a role in the repatriation of the refugees as Bhutan government has not given it access; and the relief assistance cannot be continued indefinitely. This overlooks the ‘Right to Return’ of the Bhutanese people. The UNHCR should be involved in their repatriation process.
Nepal itself is dealing with armed conflict and problems of Internally Displaced Persons. It cannot take burden of foreign refugees. In correspondence and during meetings with Bhutanese ministers and officials, Nepal has requested the Bhutan government to repatriate the refugees. The Nepal government has given assurance to provide full security to Bhutanese verification team and has asked to restart the obstructed verification process in the remaining camps. However, Thimphu has not responded to this. Although the international community including the US and European Union and the donors have started showing concern over Bhutanese refugees, their mere concerns have not been bearing results. Thus, they should put pressure for immediate repatriation of the refugees and for the compliance and prevalence of human rights in Bhutan.
The repatriation process has remained uncertain even after 14 years. So the young refugees might become restless and take to extremist ways. As Nepal has experienced the pain of insurgency, it does not want to see the same in Bhutan. Besides, the Communist Party of Bhutan (MLM) has been established in Bhutan too. It is also admitted to the South Asian organisation of Maoists – CCOMPOSA. As the North-East insurgent groups, like BODO, ULFA and KLO are irked with Bhutan for cracking down on their base camps inside Bhutan, it is logical to think that the insurgent groups might extend the hand of cooperation to the Bhutanese dissidents. Therefore, we need to consider whether we would extend cooperation only after starting insurgency inside Bhutan or we would consider preventive diplomacy to build a wall in the way of terrorism. We, forthwith, need to start the anti-terrorism preventive diplomacy and thereby save the refugee camps from being the breeding grounds of terrorism.
The Bhutanese refugee problem developed due to the lack of political freedom, racial equality and human rights in Bhutan. If human rights prevailed in Bhutan, the Bhutanese themselves would call back the Bhutanese refugees and would solve the problem internally through national reconciliation. Bhutanese human rights leader Tek Nath Rijal and the democratic force around him can be the best alternative to save Bhutan from both right and left extremism. International community should urge the Royal government of Bhutan to acknowledge the right to nationality of the returnees. Their right to full and participatory citizenship inside Bhutan must be ensured and enforced. Not a single person should be left stateless. The Bhutan government should return the land, house and other property of the returnees.
Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas comprise around 46 per cent of the total Bhutanese population. A few Nepali speaking people were there in Bhutan since the eighth century. Since 1624, a formalised settlement of Lhotshampas began in Bhutan through an agreement reached between Dharama Raja of Bhutan and King Ram Shah of Gorkha, Nepal. Lhotshampas were the ones who cleared the malarial jungle and cultivated land in Southern Bhutan. They are one of the nation builders in Bhutan. The present Wangchuk monarchy was established only in 1907. So, it is funny to brand Nepali-speaking Bhutanese as outsiders. Bhutanese rulers must give up the ethnic cleansing policy. The international community should not stand by and allow Thimphu to successfully exclude and marginalise the significant portion of its population purely on the basis of their race and ethnicity.
Shrestha, an ex-MP, is a member of Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Support Group