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SOUTH ASIA: Bhutanese Refugees Forgotten in Nepal’s Turmoil

Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU , Nov 24 2005 (IPS) - King Gyanendra’s military-backed ‘royal coup’, on Feb. 1, has proven a major setback for the Lhotsampas (Bhutanese nationals of Nepali origin) fleeing the autocratic regime of the world’s other Himalayan kingdom.

No one seems to have noticed the effect that Gyanendra’s assumption of direct rule and restriction of civil liberties have had on the fate of the more than 105,000 Bhutanese refugees, languishing in seven camps run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR),in eastern Nepal.

Their plight simply vanished from the political and diplomatic radar of Kathmandu, which has since been occupied with second-guessing the absolute monarch’s next move.

Nepal’s vibrant press, sympathetic to the cause of the refugees, has been reduced to struggling for its own survival in the face of a relentless onslaught on freedoms by the royal regime, in the name of fighting a bloody Maoist insurgency.

Fearing total eclipse of their cause, a group of 27 women refugee women from the UNHCR camps arrived in Kathmandu on Nov. 11 and began a four-hour daily sit-in before UN House-that accommodates most U.N. offices and agencies-demanding that Secretary-General Kofi Annan intervene for their safe and early return to Bhutan.

The women, drawn from all the seven camps, who timed their protest to coincide with the 50th birthday celebrations of Bhutanese monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, called off the sit-ins on Nov. 15 only after receiving assurances from U.N. officials.

As a further attempt to put pressure on Thimphu, the refugees also made an appeal at the summit of the seven-nation South Asian Assocaition for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) regional bloc in Dhaka on Nov. 12-13. SAARC includes Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

“The refugees of Bhutan seek to draw the attention of the leaders of the South Asian countries and the member states of the United Nations towards their plight and request them to take immediate steps to effectively raise the issue in appropriate fora,” they pleaded.

The refugee women were supported by the Human Rights Council of Bhutan, headed by exiled refugee leader Teknath Rizal and the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Representative Committee, an eastern Nepal-based refugee organisation.

Refugee organisations as well as political parties are banned in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan but function in Nepal and India.

“The political turmoil in Nepal has had a very negative effect on our goal of returning home with safety and in dignity,” Rizal told IPS. “We are tired of waiting and want the international community to take steps to ensure smooth and early repatriation.”

Rizal, who languished for over a decade in a Bhutanese prison, said that given Thimphu’s reluctance to take back its own citizens, the international community must exert “required pressure” on it to do the needful.

In their letter addressed to Annan, the refugees said: “Of late, there has been curtailment of basic necessities in the refugee camps. Not to mention education, the health condition is deteriorating. The people are dying for lack of proper treatment for their illnesses.”

Indeed, the office of the UNHCR says it is facing a funds crunch and cannot sustain the refugee camps. Supplies of vegetables and fruits have had to be severely cut and other staples reduced.

Kerosene rations, vital for cooking as well as lighting lamps (there is no electricity in the camps), have also been reduced. Rizal fears that continued indifference to the refugee plight may invite disastrous consequences for the entire region.

The Bhutanese, mainly Nepali-speaking Hindus, started arriving in eastern Nepal via India (Nepal and Bhutan do not share a border) in the early 1990s, alleging forced eviction by the Bhutanese government, under an ‘ethnic cleansing’ drive- a charge that the ‘Dragon Kingdom’ denies.

Fifteen rounds of talks between the foreign ministers of Nepal and Bhutan, aimed at securing the refugees’ safe repatriation and dating back to 1993, have yielded little progress.

More than 75 percent of the over 8,000 refugees from the Khudunabari camp were deemed eligible to return to Bhutan and their repatriation was to have begun on Feb. 15, 2004. But the process stalled even before it began.

Scuffles broke out Dec. 22, 2003, when officials were sent to brief the refugees, and the two governments have since locked horns over finding and punishing those responsible for the incident. Two Bhutanese officials and a Nepalese police officer were injured when refugees pelted them with stones.

Underlying the outbreak was refugees’ fear that they would face persecution anew upon return to Bhutan.

Stoking that fear, Bhutanese officials have warned refugees that on return they would have to live in ‘quarantine’ in camps for another two years, during which time they would have to prove their loyalty to the monarch, history, and culture, before being finally accepted as citizens.

Desperation in the camps drove about 300 refugees, mainly the elderly, women and children, to cross into India on Aug. 3 this year in an attempt to reach Bhutan but Indian police, thwarted their move at the Kakarbhitta-Pani Tanki international border.

The refugees squatted for several hours on the Mechi Bridge, which joins Nepal and India, before being forced into vans and buses by Nepal Police, to be dropped back at their camps.

While the monarchists and the political parties fight for control of a country already under seige by Maoist rebels, the plight of the refugees has clearly been ignored. One of the banners carried by the women refugees during their sit-in poignantly read: ‘’Have you forgotten us?”

The refugees strongly believe that their plight could end quickly if India, which has great influence over Bhutan and a significant sway over Nepalese government, intervenes to resolve the long-festering problem.

India’s official position has been that it is a bilateral issue between Bhutan and Nepal and one that these two countries can settle amicably.

For their part, the two kingdoms have also been maintaining that it was a bilateral issue, though Kathmandu has, in the past, warned of “internalising the issue if Bhutan continued to deliberately drag its feet over finding a solution.”

What has irked the Nepalese government is the international community’s suggestion that it accept the UNHCR’s standard, three-tier formula in such cases: repatriation to country of origin; re-settlement in third countries; local integration.

The Nepalese government has no problem with the first two options but the last one is seen as a red herring and described by officials as “putting the cart before the horse”.

While the two governments continue to talk about when to hold the next round of talks, the refugees’ patience is running out. “How long shall we wait for justice?’’ a Lhotsampa woman asked.

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