Nepali Times
SAARC’s forgotten triangle


After the SAARC summit's studied silence on the issue of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, it's perhaps time for louder thinking on other ways of resolving it. The disappointment that has descended on the Bhutanese refugee community after the Kathmandu Declaration was released is understandable, especially since most SAARC member states are coping with their own clusters of displaced people. Sceptics, however, always saw little chance of the South Asian summiteers taking up the matter because the SAARC charter explicitly forbids discussion on contentious bilateral issues. Lost somewhere in between the extremes was the reality that the Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal is a matter of trilateral concern. Since Nepal and Bhutan don't share a border, these hapless men, women and children had to trudge through Indian territory to their asylum in Jhapa and Morang. Moreover, it's important not to forget that a third of the 150,000 ethnic Nepalis driven out of Bhutan are still on Indian soil.

While lamenting the lack of progress on a settlement over the decade, let us not lose sight of the scale of the challenge Kathmandu and Thimpu have to surmount. Nepal says that almost all the 100,000 refugees living in camps in eastern Nepal have valid papers proving they are Bhutanese nationals. Bhutan says it's willing to take back only genuine refugees who, it insists, number no more than a few thousand. Then there's the catch. Thimpu says many ethnic Nepalis had left the country voluntarily and some had committed economic offences, which under Bhutanese law, disqualifies them from citizenship.

After nearly a dozen rounds of ministerial talks, Kathmandu and Thimpu have worked out a way of identifying and categorising the refugees. Since the complicated mechanism was spurred more by international cajoling than regional compulsions, it would perhaps be unwise to expect early repatriation.

Internationalising the issue contains its own risks. For each human rights group that assails the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon's restrictive domestic policies, there is an aid agency ready to lavish praise on Thimpu for having provided as a model for sustainable development. Start talking about how ethnic Nepalis who have lived for generations on the southern plains of Bhutan are treated as second-class citizens in their own country and you'll find influential voices in the west who say they don't want another ancient culture destroyed in a whirlpool of democracy. One man's ethnic cleansing is another's preservation of nationhood.

It would probably be more sensible for Nepal to consider the range of options it could pursue on its own. We could agree, for instance, to grant citizenship to Bhutanese of Nepali origin already in the country on Thimpu's express pledge that it wouldn't drive out more southerners. From a purely ethnocentric perspective, such a course would be more sagacious for Nepalis than trying to revive the provisions of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which is in constitutional limbo ever since the Supreme Court struck it down last year.

Such an offer from Kathmandu could also provide a clear demonstration of the kingdom's ability to engage in a home-grown version of economic diplomacy, especially in a world full of 45 million refugees and internally displaced people. International donors, fatigued by turmoil from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, may see in Nepal's gesture a genuine reason for fast-track consideration. Once the Bhutanese refugees are assimilated in the mainstream, the money and material aid that would start pouring in would have a multiplier effect on the national economy struggling to widen a severely shredded tax net.

What matters most, however, is the verdict of the refugees who are clinging on to tattered photographs of the houses and land they hope to return to one day. While seeking their views, it should be acknowledged that the issue could become most explosive on the geo-strategic front. A referendum under UN Security Council auspices may have to be contemplated in the camps. Instead of remaining prisoners of the past-or the present-Nepal and Bhutan should think about their common future.

Those who consider this prognosis unduly alarmist should reflect on the following scenario. One day Kuensel carries a cogent commentary on why the Bhutanese government should move towards raising its international profile by, among other things, establishing more embassies abroad, diversifying its sources of weaponry and naming its first SAARC secretary-general.

That piece would probably contain enough firepower to prompt strategic analysts in India to warn their government of how the foreign intelligence agencies were using Bhutanese territory against India. (By the way, the chief minister of the north-eastern Indian state of Assam began the new year by castigating New Delhi for not doing enough to discourage cross-border terrorism on his flank.)

Under growing pressure from both North and South Blocks and an alarmed media, Indian leaders are forced to cite the 1949 treaty that guarantees Indian non-interference in Bhutan's internal affairs, but allows New Delhi influence over the kingdom's foreign relations. Thimpu responds by saying that "influence" is just a fig leaf for naked interference. India argues that the accord is in line with the 1910 treaty Bhutan signed with British India, giving the sahibs control over Bhutan's foreign relations. Thimpu insists that piece of history only strengthens its case for abrogating an accord that is out of step with a world in which the tiniest microstate is asserting its right to exercise full sovereignty. At this point, New Delhi sees the extended community of Bhutanese refugees in Khudnabari, Beldangi and other Nepali camps as useful messengers in advising Thimpu to straighten out its priorities.

All this means we'll have to find a regional solution-and soon. Perhaps the architects of sub-regional cooperation could work out modalities for engagement within the growth quadrangle framework. For starters, how about setting up a joint working group on the refugee triangle?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)