Nepali Times
Guest Column
Gross national grief


The US government goes through periodic spasms of interest in the Bhutan refugee issue, and comments by a US congressional delegation after a visit to Thimpu last month emanated from the latest.

US pressure in 2000 may have been one of the factors that prompted Bhutan to enter the joint verification process that began and ended in Khudunabari camp.

Only a few hundred of the 12,000 residents were found to be bona fide Bhutanis who have been evicted forcibly from their country. The most controversial aspect of the verification was that it categorised 70 percent of the camp as "voluntary emigrants". The process should have led to the repatriation of at least a handful of the bona fides from Khudunabari. It did not, because the Bhutanis hastily withdrew to Thimphu when those categorised as "voluntary emigrants" reacted with anger and stones to an offer of temporary, conditional repatriation-an offer the Bhutan government knew very well they would never accept. By this time the Americans' attention span had long since been exhausted, and the Bhutan government knew that India, its closest friend, would not force its hand.

The US congressional team seems to suggest that Bhutan should take back a number of its erstwhile citizens as a show of goodwill and that the US and other countries would accept many of the others. Most refugee leaders said long before the American intervention that they were implacably opposed to third country resettlement. They still say their demand for wholesale repatriation to Bhutan is non-negotiable. At least some of the 100,000 in the camps agree, going by recent demonstrations at Pathri and elsewhere.

The refugees have endured up to 16 years in the camps. They are among the most honourable, dignified people I have ever met. But Bhutan will never agree to anything even approaching wholesale repatriation. If it was going to, it would never have resorted to the disgraceful measures it took to expel around half of its Nepali-speaking population during the early 1990s. It will not take anyone back at all unless some other government or international organisation pressurises it to do so. But every Nepali government has been impotent in the face of skilled Bhutani diplomatic manoeuvring since the crisis first arose. India continues to insist that this is a matter for Nepal and Bhutan to resolve, even though the expulsions could not have taken place without the connivance of the Indian authorities. And no other government has any reason to prioritise this issue in its foreign policy, least of all the Americans.

Refugee leaders surely know this, but cannot acknowledge it in public. For them to begin to discuss third country resettlement would be to accept defeat, and the end of the long campaign that gives their lives some purpose and meaning. After his mistreatment at the hands of the Bhutan authorities, it is psychologically and politically impossible for Tek Nath Rizal. But it is not clear whether this leadership is truly articulating the actual wishes of the mass of the refugee population.

Eighteen years have passed since the first citizenship cards were confiscated in the villages of southern Bhutan: refugee babies have grown into young refugee adults. A few, having watched recent events in Nepal, have concluded that insurgency will bring them justice. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Bhutan will not take back the gentle political innocents it first expelled, it is unlikely to accept their revolutionary children, and no one will ask it to do so.

The Royal Government of Bhutan is guilty of abusing the rights of a large proportion of its population. It should take back those who were once its citizens and who left their country against their will. However, I see no reason to believe that it will elect to, and I see no prospect of it being made to. The injustice of the situation in which the refugees find themselves is a testament to the hypocrisy of the international community. But it is not enough to reiterate the facts of this injustice again and again. Tens of thousands of young Lhotshampas deserve a better future than further years of hopelessness. If the Bhutan government will not admit them to its land of Gross National Happiness, let other nations make them an offer.

(Michael Hutt is professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is the author of Unbecoming Citizens, OUP Delhi 2004.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)