Bhutanese Refugees and International Community

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As Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, chief guest at India’s Republic Day function last week, arrived in New Delhi, Bhutanese refugees and rights activists staged a rally at the UN headquarters at New York to draw attention to the plight of the refugees. The protesters were led by Bhutanese refugee leader, Tek Nath Rizal, a former member of Bhutan’s Royal Advisory Council.

Rizal also submitted a petition to UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and India’s envoy to UN to be forwarded to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seeking New Delhi’s help to revive the stalled Nepal-Bhutan dialogue on restoring citizenship and properties of refugees.

A pioneering figure in the democratic movement of Bhutan, Tek Nath Rizal, who had come to attend an International Conference in Washington DC, argued “When Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971, it agreed to abide by its charter. Three decades later, while taking full material advantage of the membership, the Royal Government of Bhutan imprudently displays utter disregard for and fails to honor the principles of this august body. If Bhutan doesn’t respect United Nations charter, what sense does it make to have its so-called representation to this international body? I feel that the UN and its member states as well as the larger international community must put pressure on Bhutan in order to safeguard the rights and fundamental freedoms of Bhutanese people”.

The delegation also tried to submit a petition to the Bhutanese king through the country’s mission in New York, but was reportedly refused admission. In a petition to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Rizal said despite 12 years of exile, several rounds of Nepal-Bhutan dialogue and the verification of over 12,000 refugees in one of the seven camps in southern Nepal, not a single refugee had been repatriated.

The refugees, who are mainly from southern Bhutan, allege discrimination by the government. They say the government did not seek participation of southern Bhutanese in drafting of the country’s constitution. The cabinet too has no representation from southern Bhutan.

Nepal agreed to verify the citizenship of the refugees upon request by the Dragon kingdom and has been insisting that Bhutan should allow the refugees – who have already been verified as Bhutanese citizens – to return home. Both Bhutan and Nepal started preparations for joint verification in January 2001. It was only on March 26 that the team actually started physical verification. Only towards the end of December 2001 did the teams complete actual verification and interviews with the families. This was only for one camp – the Khudunabari camp, which consists of about 12,500 members.

However, analysts say the total resolution of the problem is still a long way off, as verification will take a long time to be completed.

The tenth round of Nepal-Bhutan bilateral talks gave some hope that it might lead to the repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees. But it did not specify how long the field verification would take.

Various international human rights organisations and donor agencies have exerted ‘pressure’ upon Bhutan to introduce democratic reforms but to no avail. The so-called election of the ‘cabinet’ by the National Assembly in 1997 is one among them. Amnesty International, (AI) London has published three reports on the violation of human rights by the government of Bhutan.

In the Bhutanese context, it is also important to note UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recent statement that the human rights issue is beyond the limit of state sovereignty and violation of human rights could be an act of crime against humanity.

Nepal has even offered integration of left-over refugees in Nepal, if Bhutan agreed to take back those refugees (Category I, II & IV of Khudunabari camp) if accepted as originating from Bhutan. Nepal signed an agreement called ‘Agreed Position on the Four Categories (APFC)’ with Bhutan in May 2003 in which it agreed to grant Nepalese citizenship to those people under category II who do not wish to return to Bhutan. Despite this magnanimous gesture, Bhutan showed no interest in taking back its citizens.

Nepal is passing through a difficult phase because of a Maoist insurgency. Added to this are the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin living in the UNHCR-maintained camps in eastern Nepal, driven out of Bhutan by the Drukpa kingdom’s ethnic cleansing policy in the late eighties. Fifteen rounds of Nepal-Bhutan Ministerial Joint Committee talks did not yield any result. The bilateral process has become a total failure.

Nepal has done everything in its power to please Bhutan for a negotiated settlement, but it failed.

Uncertain Future: Bhutanese refugees at one of the camps in eastern Nepal.

The United States has been critical of Bhutan, particularly in its country report on Human Rights Practices. It is indeed a welcome sign that the US is beginning to exert pressure both on Bhutan and Nepal to expedite the process for repatriation of the Bhutan refugees.

“The United States’ firm engagement would certainly make a vast and visible difference in resolving this long-standing impasse. Even though the Bhutanese refugee issue is of critical importance, it has not received the attention of the international community to the point where it would put pressure on the Bhutanese government to take concrete steps to accept its citizens back and resettle them with dignity and respect,” said Rizal.

Refugee groups say that until India exerts pressure on Thimpu, Bhutan will never agree to repatriate its own citizens. Around 100,000 refugees have tried to go back to their country but they have been stopped and arrested on the Indo-Nepal border by Indian authorities in the past. We cannot forget that Bhutan is bound by a 1949 treaty to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.

“India has tremendous influence in the area. More importantly, since all the refugees arrived in Nepal by crossing through about 100 kilometers of India territory, and must return the same way, any solution without Indian involvement is unlikely,” said Rizal.

India and the international community should take note of the grave situation of the Bhutanese refugees and exert their influence to resolve it quickly. It would be regrettable if inaction leads to frustrated youths in the camps taking a violent course to determine their own future.

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Nepali journalist and Story Writer Kamala Sarup is an editor for mediaforfreedom.com. She specialises in in-depth reporting and writing on Peace, Anti War, Women, Terrorism, Democracy, and Development.