The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan is in exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition is organized by the Honolulu Academy of Arts. On display are selected antiques from Bhutan, known in the west as a mysterious country, to avail Americans a unique opportunity to comprehend the rich cultural heritage of a Himalayan civilization and attract them for a visit.
It is a rare occasion for visitors to see Bhutan’s art and past; some of the antiques on display are rare to see even in Bhutan. But the exhibits depict the government’s vision of the nation’s cultural wealth. It is by and large a faulty, incomplete and biased representation of the truth. The presence of culture and heritage of numerous other major and minor ethnic and cultural groups who are an integral part of Bhutan, are unrepresented in the government-run exhibition abroad.
It shall remain an incomplete visit to Bhutan’s cultural exhibition if the visitors miss the other side of the exhibition, where the Bhutanese people’s representatives with cheerless face and gloomy placards are anticipating the visitors to listen to them and get the complementary part of the Bhutan’s saga of barbaric treatment on political opponents. A representative segment of a large population protesting in front of the exhibition venue embodies the victims of the royal government’s policy of population-scaping to conserve its rule.
The demonstrators offer a noiseless protest and anticipate the visitors to hear their stories of persecution by the rulers in Bhutan.
Ms Sweska Basnet coordinated the first day’s protest on 20th February; the day the exhibition was opened by one of the Bhutanese princes Jigme Dorji Wangchuck who was an infant when a quarter of the nation’s population was bleeding under the state sponsored terrorism under his father’s autocratic rule. Now, his elder brother Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, who is silent on the issue of the evicted people, rules as a constitutional monarch.
The participants of the protest raised the issue of religion, arts and culture being consistently used by the Bhutanese government to cover up the truth: Secret and Systematic ethnic persecutions of Lhotsampas and the Bhutanese refugees. They displayed messages in the placards and distributed literature to create awareness of the other side of royal government’s hypocrisy and urged them to see behind the cultural curtain as to what has happened to the Lhotsampas and what is going on today despite democracy in the country. Not to be confused, it is by no means a protest against the ancient glory of Bhutan, as some may try to project. Its aim is to promote and to save it from becoming a political tool in the hands of the government.
Back in Bhutan, the nation is clearly segregated into two distinct facades. The first is the tourists’ Bhutan with expensive hotels and resorts, hospitable treatment, modern infrastructure, high standard of living and people speaking English with an American accent. This is also the region where the bureaucrats and royals live and is known to the outsiders as the place of happy people. The other Bhutan lies beyond the hinterland, where the electricity, tourists, roads, communication, education, health, sanitation, rule of law and justice are still dreams if not luxuries; where eviction, discrimination, domination are in surfeit.
While the happy Bhutan is represented inside the exhibition hall, visitors to the protest can hear the facts from the tongue-tied part of the country, see the plight of the people there and get a complete picture of the rule in Bhutan.
Some of the banners on display read: Other side of Bhutan : F1, F2, F3, F4, F5, F6 and F7; The Gift from Dragon: covers ethnic cleansing; Bhutan should not use its culture to cover up ethnic cleansing; Bhutan: hides atrocities behind cultural curtain; Bhutan : Evicted 100,000 + + Lhotsampas; Bhutan : mandates ethnic homogeneity; Bhutan : made me refugee; Folks, don’t be blinded by cultural colors; Bhutan : Govt. leads me no where……; Stop the Ethnic Cleansing in Bhutan; Bhutan Is Not “Shangri-La” For Its Lhotsampas ; Stop Ignoring Bhutan’s Hindu heritage, etc.
Not all participants of the protest are as well versed as those inside the exhibition. They still carry the trauma of the terror they experienced in the evening of their lives in Bhutan and long deteriorating lives in the refugee camps. Some of them have recently reached America under the US government’s policy of sharing burdens with UNHCR who have been resuscitating the tens of thousands of people brutally evicted by the royal government in Bhutan. Dick Chhetri, is one of the participants who can best explain the curious visitors.
Mr Chhetri wants all the visitors to understand that their demonstration is by no means a protest against the magnificent arts and culture of Bhutan, with which they grew up and became part of. In fact, Chetri was adopted and educated by a member of a royal family. He grew up with them. His room was in the alter room on the top of the house where he experienced Buddhist rituals every day. He greatly respects the religion, Bhutanese arts and culture and apologizes to those who may get offended if his intention gets misinterpreted.
His protest is for a reason. He maintains that it is not fair on the part of the government to camouflage and cover the atrocities carried out against the Lhotsampas (Bhutanese citizens of ethnic Nepali origin) with a cultural veil and use it as a political tool.
If you have a chance to hear him, share his past. He has many sad and adventurous woes to share. His sixty four year old father was arrested, handcuffed and publicly beaten along with his brothers and other Lhotsampas.
Later, when he tried to organize a civil disobedience by refusing to leave the country, the government agents threatened his life. And when he was running away for safety, the royal Bhutan police pulled him out from the bus and beat him in front of the public until he was profusely bleeding. He is not alone.
There are tens of thousands of Lhotsampas and others who fled in fear, many of whom have suffered similar atrocities or worse at the hands of the royal government. Mr Chetri says, “We are neither anti-nationals nor illegal immigrants nor criminals as claimed by the government. The historic immigration policies of the government are too stringent to have so many illegal immigrants inside Bhutan. We are the sons and daughters of Bhutan unfortunately born in the Southern part of the country by the will of God with a different ethnic heritage”.
The silent, peaceful protest is carried out with permission from law enforcement officials and also with understanding among the Asian Arts Museum staff. The protest is scheduled in front of Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin street, San Francisco, 94102 every Sunday from 10am-2pm till May 10.