Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Murari R Sharma: A shakeup for Bhutan

Jan 5, 2007

A shakeup for Bhutan

By Murari R Sharma

In December, King Jigme Singye of Bhutan made headlines by suddenly abdicating and handing the throne to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Geshar. He has also pledged to grant some measure of democracy to his subjects by holding elections in 2008. The king has not, however, explained the motivation behind his precipitate action.

This news dazzled the international community. But Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal have not been impressed. To Ratan Gajmer, one of their leaders, the king's announcement was "just pulling wool over the eyes of the international community about democratization and election propaganda".

Pressures for change have been building up both inside and outside Bhutan. Bhutanese citizens have been clamoring for democracy and freedom. Nearby Nepal is contemplating the future of its monarchy and passing through its own democratic transformation. The Bhutanese king appears to have wanted to grant his people limited democracy before they, like the Nepalis, actually take to the streets. His plan is to introduce a guided, two-party democracy under a new constitution that has long been in the making.

But the king hasn't said anything about the resolution of the refugee problem, which belies Bhutan's promotion of itself as a tranquil and happy kingdom.

Bhutan boasts of having a high "gross national happiness". Many Bhutanese do not share this opinion. They contend that a country with one-sixth of its population living abroad as refugees could not have a high level of happiness.

Tek Nath Rijal was once King Jigme Singye's adviser. Jailed and tortured for nine years for his human-rights activism, he has chronicled in his autobiography Nirvasan ("Exile") how the king crushed an incipient movement for democracy and human rights to tighten his grip on power. First the government in Thimpu restricted the Nepali community's rights to movement and property. Then it imposed the Tibetan ruling clan's language, dress and culture on other communities, which constitute almost two-thirds of Bhutan's population.

Protests broke out in the 1980s, and Thimpu cracked down hard. The government changed the citizenship law in 1988, stripped the protesters of their citizenship, and evicted them from the country. Since the majority of the evictees were of Nepali origin, they went to Nepal, and others followed suit under duress or out of fear.

Today, nearly 120,000 refugees - almost one-sixth of Bhutan's population - live in Nepal. Most live in the camps operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many have lived there for 16 years. Local Nepalis blame the refugees for depressing local wages, damaging the environment, and promoting social ills around the camps. The international community has begun to show donor fatigue over their maintenance.

No solution to this problem is yet in sight. Bhutan has been telling its development partners that to preserve its ethnic identity, it cannot take the refugees back. It has been telling Nepal that a formula should be found for refugee repatriation and has held 15 rounds of ministerial talks since 1993 for that purpose. The only concrete achievement of this bilateral process has been the completion of a joint verification of refugees at one of the 12 camps. The verification found that more than 76% of refugees were eligible to return without further documents or investigation. Bhutan has evaded formal ministerial talks ever since.

The United States announced in October that it would accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees from the UNHCR-administered camps over a three-to-four-year period. Bhutanese refugees have appreciated this humanitarian gesture. Thimpu has heaved a sigh of relief in the mistaken belief that the refugees would grab the US offer without further ado. But the Bhutanese government seems to have forgotten that the refugees who choose to settle in the US might finance a robust anti-monarchy campaign in Bhutan so that their compatriots back home can enjoy some of the same freedoms they have in their adopted land.

Local assimilation and third-country relocation should be used as options for those refugees who see no prospects of returning home for long or who might face extreme risks on their return. But assimilation or relocation should not be selective. Selectivity tends to be detrimental to the larger interest of refugee communities. It often robs them of their best and brightest who could mobilize public opinion to secure their return and drive change in their home countries.

More broadly, repatriation should remain the principal plank of resolving most refugee crises. There are nearly 21 million refugees around the world, most of them living in poor countries. These countries cannot locally integrate refugees without suffering major economic setbacks and political costs. Third countries are interested in relocating only a fraction of that refugee population, if at all, and often do so selectively. So local integration and third-country relocation are not necessarily desirable options.

External role According to a 1949 bilateral treaty, India is responsible for Bhutan's foreign and defense policies. India is also the first country of asylum for these refugees, as Nepal and Bhutan do not share common borders. But India has refused to help find a solution to the problem, perhaps out of fear of pushing Bhutan into China's embrace. The refugees complain that India allows the Bhutanese to take a trip from Bhutan to the camps in Nepal but not back again.

A peaceful South Asia is in the best interest of the United States. But the region has been far from peaceful. Countries from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka are in the grip of conflict. The India-Pakistan confrontation continues to cast its dark shadow over the region. And the strategic contest between China and India, both rising powers, remains a huge source of discomfort. Washington has either stayed out of South Asian problems or not tried hard enough to make a difference. But that seems to be changing now. The growing extremism, terrorism and radicalization of refugees in the region seem to have stirred the US to pay closer attention to the subcontinent.

The US offer to accept Bhutanese refugees has produced mixed reactions. On one hand, some educated and skilled refugees are happy that they will be able to chase the American dream. On the other, the majority are worried that a selective relocation will dash their hope to return home and build a democratic society in Bhutan. Also, Nepal will still be left to manage an ongoing problem. It will have to deal with the remaining half of the refugees until other countries step forward to relocate them. And it must contend with the influx of new refugees lured by the prospects of third-country relocation.

King Jigme Singye has stepped away from his monarchical perch without resolving the refugee crisis he created. With its newfound weight in New Delhi after the recent US-India nuclear deal, Washington should lean on India to use its influence with Bhutan to pave the way for the repatriation of refugees before they, out of frustration, turn into a serious threat to peace and security. This solution will allow the refugees to return home in dignity, weaken the monarchy's grip on power, and advance democratic values and institutions in Bhutan.


Murari Sharma, former ambassador of Nepal to the United Nations, has co-authored the book Reinventing the United Nations, due out this month. He was actively involved in Nepal-Bhutan negotiations on refugees. attemps to reach out to as many people as possible and provide information on Bhutan.


© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Julian Assange: A Thousand Days In Belmarsh
Julian Assange has now been in the maximum-security facilities of Belmarsh prison for over 1,000 days. On the occasion of his 1,000th day of imprisonment, campaigners, supporters and kindred spirits gathered to show their support, indignation and solidarity at this political detention most foul... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: The Mauling Of Novak Djokovic
Rarely can the treatment of a grand sporting figure by officialdom have caused such consternation. Novak Djokovic, the tennis World Number One, has always had a tendency to get under skin and constitution, creating a large following of admirers and detractors. But his current treatment by Australian authorities, and his subsequent detention as an unlawful arrival despite being granted a visa to participate in the Australian Open, had the hallmarks of oppression and incompetent vulgarity... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Voices Of Concern: Aussies For Assange’s Return

With Julian Assange now fighting the next stage of efforts to extradite him to the United States to face 18 charges, 17 of which are based on the brutal, archaic Espionage Act, some Australian politicians have found their voice. It might be said that a few have even found their conscience... More>>

Forbidden Parties: Boris Johnson’s Law On Illegal Covid Gatherings

It was meant to be time to reflect. The eager arms of a new pandemic were enfolding a society with asphyxiating, lethal effect. Public health authorities advocated various measures: social distancing, limited contact between family and friends, limited mobility. No grand booze-ups. No large parties. No bonking, except within dispensations of intimacy and various “bubble” arrangements. Certainly, no orgies... More>>

Dunne Speaks: Question Time Is Anything But
The focus placed on the first couple of Question Time exchanges between the new leader of the National Party and the Prime Minister will have seemed excessive to many but the most seasoned Parliamentary observers. Most people, especially those outside the Wellington beltway, imagine Question Time is exactly what it sounds... More>>

Gasbagging In Glasgow: COP26 And Phasing Down Coal

Words can provide sharp traps, fettering language and caging definitions. They can also speak to freedom of action and permissiveness. At COP26, that permissiveness was all the more present in the haggling ahead of what would become the Glasgow Climate Pact... More>>