Shangri-la Falls Apart: One in Six a Refugee

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In the inaugural edition of the Norwegian Refugee Council Reports Series, NRC highlights the situation in Bhutan where extensive abuse of the population has managed to escape the attention of media and politicians.

Bhutan, a tiny isolated kingdom sandwiched between the giant states of China and India, has a troubled recent history. Despite the extensive abuse of its own population, the country has – to a large extent – managed to avoid criticism in the international media. On the contrary, the media has often helped perpetuate the myth of an exotic land of happiness in the majestic Himalayan Mountains. However, what we have before us is a silent tragedy occurring in a media-created Shangri-la.

In the NRC Report Bhutan, NRC takes a look at the background for the conflict in the multi-ethnic society. The report is the first in a series with which NRC aims to highlight neglected conflicts in the world today.

“One Nation, One People”

The situation in the country seriously deteriorated in the 1980s when Bhutan’s elite identified the Nepali-language minority as a political and cultural threat. New laws and policies in line with the king’s command of “One Nation, One People” consolidated the power, values and identity of the Buddhist elite.

The polarisation of society was so dramatic because the state so obviously represented one ethnic group in a multi-ethnic society. Without access to democratic channels, minorities grew increasingly fearful. There were harsh crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations. As of 1993, one sixth of the population had left the country due to threats, detentions, the confiscation of property and other measures which particularly targeted the Nepali-language minority.

Since 1993, the fate of the refugees has been the object of bilateral negotiations between the Bhutanese government and the government of Nepal. There have been no concrete results: not even a single refugee has been allowed to return home.

Frustration

Moreover, according to many observers, the Government of Bhutan has been deliberately employing delaying tactics to postpone these negotiations. The frustration amongst the refugees is mounting, and donors are becoming increasingly passive. The proposal of voluntary resettlement for the refugees in a third-country is positive – especially for the most vulnerable groups.

However, the Norwegian Refugee Council believes that the international community must also defend the refugees’ right to return, in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and should push for their citizenship to be restored. Furthermore, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should gain access to monitor the human rights situation in the country in order to prevent new violations.

As Bhutan’s closest ally – and economic and military mainstay – India bears a significant responsibility for finding a solution for the Bhutanese refugees in accordance with international standards. But the greatest responsibility lies with Bhutan itself. The refugees must have a voice in the country’s first real parliamentary elections to be held in the spring of 2008.

Exclusion of an ethnic group before an election cannot be considered real democratization. It is, rather, an inclusive policy that will best serve the long-term interests of Bhutan There can be no Shangri-la without human rights.

The report is available at the NRC website

www.bhootan.org reaches out to provide information on Bhutan.

Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start pounding the keyboard. Alan has a fascination with making video and video editing, so watch out if he points his Canon 7d in your direction.