It's not quite yet a thaw, but the governments of Nepal and Bhutan seem to be trying to quickly resolve the 10-year-old Bhutanese refugee crisis that has strained bilateral relations.
A Nepali delegation led by Foreign Minister Narendra Bikram Shah returned to Kathmandu Wednesday after meeting with his Bhutanese counterpart, Jigme Y Thinley. At an airport briefing, Shah sounded upbeat: "We have agreed to meet again on 11 May, and the repatriation of refugees will start after that."
In Thimphu itself, senior Bhutanese officials appear to have overcome previous reluctance to talk about the refugee issue, admitting privately this was a humanitarian crisis that shouldn't be prolonged. Bilateral friction was holding back development in both countries, one said, and it was time to "patch up and move on".
Welcoming the largest-ever Nepali delegation to visit Bhutan last week, Foreign Minister Thinley said: "Nepal and Bhutan share bonds of culture and religion, we also share the same fears and vulnerabilities. There is a mutual desire to put this festering problem behind us and get on with the business of business." The 20-member FNCCI delegation visited Bhutan to expedite a draft bilateral trade treaty. Indeed, this air of optimism seems to be cautiously shared by the Nepali camp after this week's meetings in Thimphu.
Some 100,000 refugees have been living in camps in Jhapa for the past 11 years. In 1993 then-home minister Sher Bahadur Deuba agreed to a Bhutanese proposal to categorise Bhutanese into those who left voluntarily, who were forcibly evicted, those with criminal records and "non-Bhutanese".
It has now been two years since the first batch of 12,000 refugees living in the Khudunabari camp were processed by a joint verification team (JVT). The "categorisation and harmonisation" process is taking place in an office in Thimphu, and one Nepali JVT member admitted to us here last week that "things are moving slowly". But he had detected a sense of urgency in Bhutan to resolve the issue.
Foreign Minister Shah said Wednesday the JVT had been instructed to finish the Khudunabari verification by the 14th ministerial meeting next month so repatriation can start. A decision on verification of refugees in other camps will also begin after that, he added.
But Bhutanese in Nepal maintain the categorisation process is an eyewash. "It is a farce," said RB Basnet, president of the Bhutan National Democratic Party, himself a refugee in Kathmandu. "Bhutan's strategy has always been to dilly-dally and to minimise the number it takes back to the maximum extent possible."
The negotiations now seem to be settling down into a "numbers game". Bhutan realises it must take part of the refugee population back, while Nepal is so keen to get over this headache that it may decide to go along if the proportion is substantial enough.
Bhutanese officials now say they will consider taking back those who were forcibly evicted and want to return. But refugees here want to know on what basis that will be decided. "Let's say Bhutan wants to take back 20 percent of the refugees, how are they going to pick us? Are they only going to take able-bodied, young, good looking ones?" asked one refugee representative in Kathmandu.
The sense of urgency in Thimphu could be a result of international pressure and also concern that the camps may be radicalised by Nepali Maoists. There are other long-term worries: even if Nepal and Bhutan agree on partial repatriation and the camps are closed, there will still be enough refugees who will not give up trying to go back to what they consider their homeland.
Bhutan's Minister for Trade and Industry, Khandu Wangchuk says the two countries should start trading more, and that would relax relations. "As two sovereign nations, we have to join hands to strengthen our sovereignty and economic development," he said in Thimphu last week.
Nepal has sent a draft trade treaty with Most-favoured Nation provisions to Thimphu, but Wangchuk says Bhutan would prefer a free trade treaty. "If Nepal is not yet ready for free trade, we can agree on a list of items of Nepali exports which will get preferential treatment," he added. Nepal and Bhutan signed a MoU to set up a Joint Economic Council to push the treaty and to boost trade. Suraj Vaidya, the leader of the FNCCI delegation told us, "We have been bogged down by the refugee crisis, but if we start trading it may be easier to resolve the issue."
But Bhutanese exiles in Nepal are skeptical. "We are deeply disappointed," said RB Basnet. "Nepal has fallen into the categorisation trap and can't get out. And Bhutan, as usual, is just playing for time."