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Cultural Cleansing in Bhutan

 

Mr. David B. Thronson of Harvard Law School, USA , who was intern at the INHURED International wrote the following report on "Cultural Cleansing" in Bhutan. The report was published by the INHURED International, Kathmandu, Nepal in August, 1993

A Distinct National Identity and the Refugees from Southern Bhutan  By Mr. David B. Thronson


Introduction
Exile in Nepal
Demographic, Diaspora and Greater Nepal
Southern Bhutan Today
Nationality, The Core Issue
The Camps
Ambiguities and First Census
Categorisation & Diplomatic Time Line
Driglan Namza, Language & Green Belt Policy
Nationality Laws of Bhutan
No Objection Certificates
Bhutan Marriage Act
Protest, Mass Arrests & Torture

 
Introduction

In 1959, one year after nationality was extended to the Nepali-speaking population of southern Bhutan, the National Assembly noted that these new citizens had pledged "to think like all other Bhutanese citizens, and to adhere to the same culture and traditions." Over thirty years later this pledge is taken quite literally. In 1989, the King of Bhutan told the National Assembly that "in a large country, such [cultural] diversity would have added colour and character to its national heritage without effecting national security. However, in a small country like ours it would effect the growth of social harmony and unity among the people." result of this fear of diversity is the 'One Nation, One People' policy through which the government stresses the need for a "distinct national identity". Yet Bhutan does not envision forging this distinct identity to encompass the existing diversity of the nation's cultures. The chosen national identity is that of the politically dominant Drukpa culture of northwestern Bhutan.

 

Though culture and ethnicity are integrally linked, this is not a situation of "ethnic cleansing" but rather "cultural cleansing". The perceived threat to national identity stems more from cultural traditions than the individuals who practice them. Bhutan has made concerted efforts to integrate or assimilate the ethnically Nepali southern Bhutanese population into the Drukpa culture. But culture is a difficult thing to legislate or change, and many of the southern Bhutanese treasure their cultural heritage as much as the Drukpas of the north treasure theirs. Failure to convert the southern Bhutanese has been followed by efforts to remove them.

It is partially fears about their own culture's survival that the northern Bhutanese forward to justify the steps taken to impose Drukpa culture on southern Bhutan. But the real issue may be less about the continued survival of their culture than about continued dominance of their culture. Ironically, the harmony that the King fears would be disrupted by diversity was to a large extent present between the peoples of Bhutan before the crisis began. The question now is whether this harmony can be achieved again.

 


In 1985
Bhutan passed a revision of its existing citizenship laws, in practice limiting the grant of citizenship to those who could prove residence since before December 31, 1958. In 1988, the new law was implemented through a census conducted only in the southern districts of Bhutan, inhabited primarily by ethnic Nepalis. In April 1988, TekNathRizal, a southern Bhutanese member of the Royal Advisory Council, submitted a petition to the king questioning the implementation of the stricter 1985 citizenship law and calling attention to allegations of discrimination, threats, coercion, and confiscation of identity cards during the implementation of census. This petition was declared seditious against tsa-wa-sum, the three elements of King, Country, and People. Rizal was removed from office and detained for three days. He later fled to Nepal

As the census continued, a decree from the king required all citizens to observe the driglam namzha, a code of conduct and dress based on the Drukpa culture of western Bhutan. Teaching of Nepali language was dropped from the schools of Bhutan, and strict marriage laws imposed heavy burdens on anyone marrying a foreigner. A short lived plan to create a "green belt" along the southern border threatened the eviction of thousands of southern Bhutanese. Rizal and a small group of dissidents formed the Peoples Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) to address the human tights situation in Bhutan. Beginning in October 1989, a number of dissidents were arrested, including Rizal, who was abducted from Nepal and returned to Bhutan. The protests within Bhutan grew and the Bhutan Peoples Party (BPP) was formed in June, 1990. Mass rallies were organized in September and October, 1990 and resulted in violent conflict between the dissidents and the authorities, followed by mass arrests.

Throughout 1991 and 1992, refugees fleeing Bhutan described mass arrests, torture in custody, and the ongoing denial of Bhutanese citizenship to many southern Bhutanese through the census. 'No Objection Certificates' were required for enrollment in higher education, sale of some cash crops, and employment with the government. During this period the government of Bhutan presented a much different story, reporting violence and terrorism in southern Bhutan and framing the situation as a struggle for national identity in the face of demographic threats from illegal immigrants. UNHCR was invited by the government of Nepal to provide relief in August, 1991.

The flow of southern Bhutanese across the open borders into India and Nepal started as a trickle and peaked in early 1992 with a flow of about I 0,000 people per month entering Nepal. The flow has slowed considerably now, but still continues. New arrivals report continuing human rights violations, though on a smaller scale than in past years. UNHCR's May/June 1993 Situation Report lists 84,245 people registered in the camps in southeastern Nepal. It is estimated there are another 10,000-15,000 living the outside the camps in Nepal and India. In May 1993, the government of Nepal and UNHCR instituted a tighter screening process at the border utilizing international standards.

The growth in refugee population has been accompanied by a growth of human rights and political organizations among the refugees, creating more rivalry than cooperation. This fragmentation and politicization, coupled with generally improved conditions in the camps, has increased unrest among the refugees, particularly among youth with little else to keep them occupied. Tensions between refugees and the local population are gradually increasing.

"Quiet diplomacy" by the governments of Nepal and Bhutan has finally resulted in the agreement to establish a bilateral commission to address the situation. This commission is not yet formed has so far. Its intended purpose is limited to determining the different categories of people claiming to have come from Bhutan in the refugee camps of eastern Nepal.

 

Demographics, Diaspora and Greater Nepal

 

 The disparity between Bhutan's recently downsized total population estimate of 600,000 and the more precise yet presumably less accurate 1990 figure of 1,461,853 demonstrates the level of speculation which creeps into any discussion of demographics in Bhutan. [1] Yet demographic forces and fears lie near the heart of events in Bhutan. Refugees make demographic arguments to support their longstanding roots in Bhutan and their legal claims to Bhutanese citizenship. The government of Bhutan counters with allegations of illegal immigration which threatens Bhutan's "survival as a distinct political and cultural entity" and "impose[s] a state of demographic siege on Bhutan." [2] The open borders between Bhutan and India, and India and Nepal, historically have created easy movements of people and difficult determinations of nationality throughout the region.

The demographic battle has two primary fronts. First, within Bhutan the government argues that many of the ethnic Nepalis or their ancestors in Bhutan arrived after 1961 to work on development projects and do not meet the 1958 cutoff for citizenship established by Bhutan's 1985 Nationality Law. Second, outside Bhutan the government justifies the need for the current immigration crackdown citing "the relentless tide of the Nepali diaspora" [3] waiting for an opportune moment to invade Bhutan. At times this anticipated invasion is portrayed as the demographic pressure of people seeking better living conditions, but often it is described as a plot for the establishment of a "Greater Nepal" or a Nepali dominated Bhutan.

Under any interpretation, the southern Bhutanese population is a major part of the demographic equation of Bhutan. Bhutanese Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering stated that one-third [4] of the country's population is of Nepalese origin while some refugee groups claim figures as high as 53%. [5] The government of Bhutan has not released any census data, and other potential indicators, such as the civil service composition of 39% southern Bhutanese in 1990, [6] perhaps suggest that the true figure is somewhere in between. Estimates of the Ngalong population display similarly divergent ranges, from refugee estimates of 16% [7] to an official figure of 28%. [8]

In supporting their positions, both sides have resorted to historical arguments concerning the early presence of ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan. Refugees place "the first batch of Nepali settlers... as far back as 1624 A.D." [9] while the government "state[s] emphatically that no Nepalese ever crossed beyond the Teesta River until after 1865, let alone penetrate [sic] into Bhutan." [10] The resolution of this historical argument has little relevance to the average resident of the camps in Nepal. The issue of early Nepali settlement is important, however, in analyzing the current population. Few dispute that in, or around, 1898 the Dorji family was granted permission to settle immigrants in southern Bhutan and in 1932 a British army officer reported 60,000 Nepali-speaking inhabitants in south west Bhutan. [11] Nepalis came legally as laborers to clear forests in Samchi and the cleared - land was parcelled off to workers. [12] According to the government, only in the early 1950s did settlement spread from southwestern Samchi and Chirang to the Sarbhang, Geylegphug and Samdrupjhongkhar areas, and in 1958 the National Assembly passed its first Nationality Act, granting citizenship to these settlers. [13] Most southern Bhutanese in the refugee camps claim to have settled before 1958 or trace their ancestry to those early settlers to derive claims to citizenship. The government charges that many of the southern Bhutanese came after the first five-year development plan in 1961 when: ... faced by a shortage of manpower to construct roads and implement development programmes, the government employed baidars (labour contractors) to import tens of thousands of labourers from Nepal. Almost three decades passed before the Royal Government became aware of the presence of illegal immigrants. By then substantial numbers of them had already mingled and merged with the local population in southern Nepal. [14]

According to the government, "..this influx was a case of outright illegal immigration over a porous and open border" and was "undetected by the government until the census carried out in 1988." [15] Whether invited as potential future citizens simply as migrant laborers, ethnic Nepalis clearly were actively recruited and welcomed to Bhutan. The government's claim of thirty years of ignorance concerning their presence must be met with skepticism. Many of the workers were granted land [16] and the 1958 Nationality Act allowed for the naturalization of landowners after ten years of residence. The issue of integrating the growing southern population frequently was discussed in the National Assembly, such as the 51st Session of the National Assembly in 1979 where debates included the appropriateness of using the Nepali language in the Assembly, southern Bhutanese attitudes towards driglam namzha and national dress, incentives for intermarriages between ethnic Nepalis and Drukpas, and the issuance of identification cards to Bhutanese citizens. [17] Additionally, citizenship and marriage laws were debated repeatedly long before they were revised in 1977, 1980 and 1985 and a national census was conducted in 1981 followed by the issuance of citizenship cards. The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs reported to the National Assembly that "according to an assessment in September, 1987 there was [sic] over one lakh [ 1 00,000] non-nationals in the country." [18]

The picture is not one of a sudden realization, thirty years after the fact, that Bhutan was inhabited by a large number of illegal ethnic Nepalis, but rather a scenario of escalating concern over the failure to integrate this portion of the population into the politically dominant Drukpa culture. Writing in 1977, Leo Rose noted that the Bhutanese government "populated the area of Bhutan most susceptible to rapid economic development and to ideological penetration from India with a community that had not been integrated, either socially or politically, into the broader Bhutanese society." [19] The progression of citizenship laws, the policies on driglam namzha and language, and especially the events since 1988 reflect a growing assimilationist, and failing that exclusionist, mood.

While minimizing estimates of the ethnic Nepalis legally settled in southern Bhutan, the government repeatedly raises the spectre of "another 10 million Nepalis living in India, many of them across Bhutan's immediate southern border... look[ing] towards Bhutan as an economic haven." [20 ] The 1981 census of India reports 1,252,444 speakers of Nepali, although this did not include Assam, which had 353,673 Nepali speakers in 1971. [21]

While conceding this census figure may be low and a decade behind, it seems an estimate of ten million is clearly exaggerated, and certainly not all of these are looking towards Bhutan. Even crusaders for the inclusion of the Nepali language as an official language of India held their likely inflated projections to five or six million [22], including Nepalis settled in distant central, west and south India. Still, whatever estimate is reasonable, the Nepali population in India is substantial compared to that of relatively under populated Bhutan, and the fears expressed by Bhutan merit consideration.

The least credible of the fears Bhutan expresses is that of a "Greater Nepal" or "Pan Nepal" stretching across the Himalayas which Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering identified as a "motivating factor" of immigration to Bhutan. [23] Under this theory, unnamed forces seek to unify the entire Himalayan region into one state with a dominant Nepali culture. The conflicting politics of the region make the likelihood of a unifying force seeking to exploit a consciously guided, politically motivated migration highly unlikely. [24]

Comparisons with Sikkim are more apt and an Indian Adviser to Bhutan's King in the 1960s later wrote that the "Bhutanese have seen how, in neighbouring Sikkim, the original inhabitants have been gradually outnumbered by Nepalese immigrants, and are determined to stop the process in their own country before it assumes unmanageable proportions."[25] The government of Bhutan echoes this thought, stating that "the southern Bhutan problem is neither a movement for democracy nor an issue concerning human rights. It is simply an attempt by an ethnic community to turn themselves into a majority through illegal immigration in order to take over political power."[26] Crediting to this assertion raises problems similar to that of the "Greater Nepal" concept in terms of identifying leadership with the ability to influence and exploit long term patterns of migration. Further, while democratic reforms in Bhutan would likely lead to a weakening of consolidated Drukpa power, the timing of events indicates that the human rights activism and politicization of the southern Bhutanese were more a reaction to increasing pressure to assimilate than a proactive power grab.

Yet to argue that generations of migration were not politically orchestrated is not to argue that demographic forces do not pose a serious threat to the traditional society of northern Bhutan. The Bhutanese: "saw Sikkim lose its sovereignty and become a Nepali dominated state in India 17 years ago, watched apprehensively as Darjeeling erupted into anarchy and violence in a Nepali-led struggle for political autonomy during the late 1980s, and can hardly have been unaware of the Democracy Movement which reduced the status of Nepal's King Birendra to that of a constitutional monarch in 1990 ... " [27] Leaving aside the perceived spectre of ten million Nepalis waiting at the border, with the growing internal Nepali population it is understandable that the Drukpa elite of Bhutan to feel some trepidation for their continued privileged position.

Numbers alone, however, can give a misleading impression of pressures on the various cultures of Bhutan since "[s]ettlement by Nepali Bhutanese in areas outside of southern Bhutan, while not specifically forbidden, in fact is still effectively discouraged." [28] Each of the three main ethnic groups of Bhutan live in geographically separate areas and maintain distinct cultural patterns, and recent attempts at integration have been largely ineffective. The rare visitor to southern Bhutan would certainly not get a strong taste of Drukpa culture, and most visitors to Bhutan, who are restricted to the north, remain unaware even of the existence of a distinct culture in southern Bhutan. Perhaps because of this geographic separation, and the fact that southern Bhutanese for the most part settled in previously uninhabited areas, the relations between the ethnic groups have been uncharacteristically positive on a subcontinent tom by communal conflicts. The flight of refugees is integrally linked to ethnicity, yet not charged with racial animosity. The issue is more of cultural assimilation than ethnic extermination. Bhutan is not an Asian Yugoslavia or Somalia where popular ethnic conflict bubbles openly to the surface. Policy decisions which have resulted in the present situation are largely centralized, and there is room for reconciliation between the peoples of Bhutan. Unfortunately, as time goes by, positions harden in reaction to propaganda and opportunities for negotiation may fade.

Nationality, The Core Issue

 


Questions of nationality and methods employed to determine citizenship form a backdrop for all other issues and events in southern
Bhutan. Bhutan's first attempt to define its citizenship came with the Nationality Law of Bhutan in 1958. This act was updated in 1977 and again in 1985 (all of these acts are reproduced in full in Appendix 1). The government attributes great significance to these laws as "all that stands between overwhelming demographic pressures and the survival of the Bhutanese people as a distinct political and cultural entity." [29] Surely these laws are important, but the texts of the law are relevant only to the extent they influence implementation. The variance with which Bhutan has interpreted and applied nationality policies makes practical political realities outweigh the niceties of legal analysis. Still, since attempts to implement these laws are an integral part of the crisis, an understanding of the migration from southern Bhutan is not possible without some review of the laws. Although such a review of the laws raises more questions than answers, it is also necessary since the laws provide part of the framework for political decisions which may determine the fate of the refugees.
 

Acquiring Citizenship, as Written

 


The 1958 law states "any person can become a Bhutanese national" and provides three avenues. First, through a father who was a Bhutanese national at the time of the child's birth. Second, through a petition to an official appointed by the King if the applicant had been resident in
Bhutan for more than ten years and owned agricultural land (or served satisfactorily in Government service for at least five years). Third, a woman married to a Bhutanese national could petition the official to be enrolled as a Bhutanese national. The last two of these three methods required an oath of loyalty. Growing cultural concerns are reflected in the 1977 act which added the requirements of knowledge of the Bhutanese language and Bhutanese history, and increased the residency requirements to 15 years for government servants and 20 years for all others. The act specified the loyalty oath in more detail, including reference to the three elements of King, Country and People, or tsa-wa-sum. Foreigners married to Bhutanese were not considered citizens, but had to apply as other foreigners, removing the third category of the 1958 law. Children of mixed marriages became citizens only if the father was a citizen.

The 1985 act provides for citizenship by birth, by registration, or by naturalization. A person whose parents are both citizens of Bhutan is a citizen of Bhutan by birth. A person permanently domiciled in Bhutan on or before 31st December, 1958, and whose name is registered in the census register maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs is a citizen of Bhutan by registration. Eligibility for naturalization requires residence of 15 years for government employees and those with one citizen parent, and 20 years for others, with this period of residence registered in the records of the Department of Immigration and Census. Naturalization also requires proficiency in spoken and written Dzongkha and a good knowledge of the culture, customs, traditions and history of Bhutan. Applicants must have no record of having spoken or acted against the King, Country or People in any manner whatsoever, and must take an oath of allegiance. The government reserves the right to reject applications for naturalization without assigning any reason.

The laws of Bhutan and its neighbors do not form a seamless web and the combination creates vast potential for statelessness. For one simple example, Nepali citizenship by descent comes through the father, as was the case in Bhutan's laws until 1985. [30] Now that Bhutan requires both parents to be Bhutanese, the children of Bhutanese fathers and Nepali mothers are apparently citizens of neither state.

Losing Citizenship Under Bhutanese Laws:
A Prescription for Statelessness

 


By the 1958 law, a person could lose citizenship by becoming a national of a foreign country, renouncing Bhutanese nationality, leaving agricultural land to live outside the kingdom, or engaging in activities or speaking against the King or the people of Bhutan. Citizenship obtained through presentation of false information could be cancelled, as could citizenship granted to someone who was imprisoned for more than one year within five years of the grant. The 1977 law limits comment to revocation of citizenship based on acts or speech against the King or government, or presenting false information when applying. The 1985 law is only slightly different from its predecessor, terminating the citizenship of anyone acquiring the citizenship of another country, acquiring citizenship through fraud, or showing disloyalty by act or speech in any manner whatsoever to the King, Country and People of Bhutan. It adds that children who leave the country without the knowledge of the government lose citizenship even if both parents are Bhutanese, and spouses and children of someone acquiring another citizenship may retain their own Bhutanese citizenship.

The provisions of the later act prevail over conflicting earlier provisions, but the status of uncontradicted provisions is unclear. For example, the 1958 provision for losing citizenship for the abandonment of agricultural land is never repeated but never expressly overturned and presumably it survives as law. These laws have great potential for creating statelessness. Under these laws, dissidents accused of anti-national activity can be stripped of citizenship, but that certainly does not obligate other states to grant citizenship. Similarly, if the 1958 clause stripping citizenship from all those who abandon agricultural land is literally applied, without consideration of the myriad reasons the southern Bhutanese had to flee, every resident of the camps can be "legally" declared a non-national. Such an interpretation of Bhutan's nationality laws would run counter to international norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' guarantees of the rights to leave one's country and return, and to not be arbitrarily deprived of nationality

Ambiguities and the First Census

 


Ambiguities in the way the laws have been interpreted and divergence from the laws as written began early. In practice, it is unclear what affirmative actions were required, or even possible, in the implementation of the 1958 law which the government now claims was "passed to confer Bhutanese citizenship to all Nepali settlers in southern Bhutan at that time." [32] No certification process followed the law although village headmen kept some forms of census records, mostly for the purposes of assessing taxes and conscripting labor. Was the passage of the law considered enough to confer citizenship, with or without affirmative applications?

The government asserts that "[o]ne of the specific aims of the 1958 Nationality Law was to grant citizenship as a Kidug (welfare) and a once-and-for-all measure to all Nepali settlers in southern Bhutan who had applied ... That is why those Nepali immigrants who came to Bhutan after 31 December 1958 did not apply for naturalisation under the 1958 Law." [33] The inclusion of naturalization and spouse provisions in the 1958 law seem to belie this interpretation. Although adopted in 1958, the text of the law itself makes no distinction between those arriving before 1958 and those arriving later. Presumably someone immigrating to Bhutan in 1954 would not have been eligible for citizenship until ten years later in 1964. A 1964 arrival would have been eligible in 1974. If the aim of the law was a one-time-only grant with a 1958 deadline, that aim is not found in the language of the text. Variance between the language of the acts and their practical application is compounded by terms like "can become a Bhutanese national", "may be enrolled", and "may apply". Such terminology leaves ambiguous the distinction between eligibility for citizenship on paper and actual grants of citizenship in reality. Given the ambiguous application process and absence of citizenship certificates, on a practical level it seems the 1958 law was not of great consequence for the average illiterate farmer, and life went on as usual.

A more rigorous approach was taken to implementation of the 1977 law through the first national census from 1979 to 1981. Teams of census officials from the Department of Registration were sent throughout the country. Following the census, citizens were issued passport-like documents entitled "Citizenship Identity Cards" (see front cover). According to the Nepalese government, 66% of the residents in the camps have citizenship cards or photocopies of cards that were confiscated in Bhutan. [34] The government of Bhutan first charged that the census was tainted by widespread abuse [35] and now adds that the cards are being forged. [36] As it turns out, having a card that said "The Holder of this Card is a Bhutanese Citizen" on the first page meant little when the 1988 census rolled around.

The First Days of the 1988 Census

 

The government of Bhutan informed Amnesty International that "the purpose of the census currently underway is to identify Bhutanese nationals in southern Bhutan." [37] The census is taking place only in southern Bhutan, officially utilizing the new 1985 law. Census teams place people into one of seven categories:

F I Genuine Bhutanese
F2 Returned migrants (people who had left Bhutan and then returned)
F3 "Drop-out" cases - i.e. people who were not around at the time of the census [this
categorized is to be phased out]
F4 A non-national woman married to a Bhutanese man
F5 A non-national man married to a Bhutanese woman
F6 Adoption cases (children who have been legally adopted)
F7 Non-nationals, i.e. migrants and illegal settlers [38]

Categorization is to be done by a "committee of 12 persons, including three village elders." [39]As implemented, the village elders were allowed little or no role and very few southern Bhutanese were included on the census teams. Adding to the stress of the census was the unclear consequences of being classified in the various categories, leaving people uncertain of their fate. Officially, the 1988 census implements the 1985 law, with its three methods of attaining citizenship: by having two Bhutanese parents, by registration of residence since 1958, or by naturalization. In practice, naturalization has not been an option and previous determinations of citizenship are not accepted. That leaves registration and "confirm[s] what has become the fundamental basis for citizenship: residence since before 31 December 1958." [40] The government dismisses charges that the 1985 law is thus retrospective, describing it rather as a liberalization since citizenship by registration "waives the requirement of the 1958 Law for 10 years residence in Bhutan and ownership of agricultural land." [41] Of course, by now a person qualifying for registration has resided in Bhutan for over thirty years and such a waiver should not be necessary. Both the hypothetical 1954 and 1964 arrivals mentioned above by now would have met the residency requirements for naturalization under either the 1958 law or the stricter 1977 law, yet only the 1954 arrival would qualify by registration. Here again the distinctions between eligibility for citizenship and grants of citizenship are important and unclear.

Concerns were raised in 1988's 67th Session of Bhutan's National Assembly concerning the retroactive impact of the 1985 law concerning the derivative citizenship of spouses and offspring where the new law's application had its greatest impact. For example, if a foreign wife arrived in Bhutan in 1959 and is not recognized as a citizen under one of the earlier laws, she fails under registration. This would leave all her children with only one Bhutanese parent, making them and any future generations non-nationals. The King gave assurance that the "provisions of all three Acts for the relevant period under which each was in force must be honored" so that, for example, "children of Bhutanese men married to non-nationals prior to 1985 would be automatically eligible for citizenship." [42] In practice, denials of citizenship in situations similar to the above example are commonly reported by those in the camps.

The Bhutanese government initially claimed that "[a]ny documentary evidence whatsoever, (land ownership deeds or documents showing sale/gift inheritance of land, tax receipts of any kind, etc) showing that the person concerned was resident in Bhutan in 1958 is taken as conclusive proof of citizenship." [43] Those without documents "are verified by three village elders." [44] In screening arrivals to the camps, the government of Nepal reports that, in addition to the 66% with citizenship cards, 12% of those seeking asylum in the camps have land documents and 17% have other documents such as tax receipts. [45] Recently, Bhutan reproduced some of these tax receipts which had been displayed in an earlier refugee publication, adding the caption, "This is the kind of document produced by the people in the refugee camps as proof of their Bhutanese citizenship. Payment of property tax in itself is hardly proof of Bhutanese citizenship for there were many illegal immigrants in Bhutan who had acquired property." [46] The latter statement is more in line with the strict attitude towards proof reported by refugees.

Refugees report impossibly strict standards for accepting documentation. Some report rejection for slight spelling differences, or because middle names are spelled out on one document and left to initials on others. Others report having documents from years before and after 1958; but not 1958, and being rejected as "F2", i.e. returned migrants. Those who had moved from one part of Bhutan to another had exceptionally difficult obstacles to overcome. Even in a modernized society where paper-trails are a more pervasive part of life, documentation dating back to 1958 would be a stiff requirement. Under the demanding conditions imposed by the census teams, the requirement is impossible for many southern Bhutanese. After the events of September 1990, citizenship became even more difficult to acquire and much easier to lose.

Integration or Assimilation?

 


Since the 1950s, the government of Bhutan has made some clear efforts to integrate southern Bhutanese into a social and political mainstream. Some examples include standardization of tax structures throughout the country, development projects in southern Bhutan, and recruitment of southern Bhutanese into the civil service, police and army. [47] These programs contributed to the strong ties the refugees feel for Bhutan, including among many a continued reverence for the King. Many of the leaders of refuge organizations were civil servants who were slow to believe reports of government actions in southern Bhutan, and still attribute the problems to a small cadre of elite rather than the people of northern Bhutan. But not all programs for integration are as simple inclusion in the government service, and many cut deeply into the cultural heritage of the southern Bhutanese. The 'One Nation, One People' policy of the government stresses the need for a "distinct national identity", but does not envision forging this identity to encompass the diversity of the nation's cultures. The government is on record that the culture of the north need not form the basis of the national identity, [48] but in practice many policies impose Drukpa cultural elements at the expense of others. The line between integration and assimilation can be very fine, and the following policies must be viewed against the backdrop of the ongoing census in southern Bhutan.
 

Driglam Namzha--Legislating Culture

 


With deep roots in the Drukpa culture ranging back to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the early 1600s, the drigiam namzha, or code of traditional values and etiquette, encompasses "[s]uch virtues as respect for the teacher, the sovereign, parent, elder; the institution of marriage and family; civic duties and behavior that keep together the strands of the Bhutanese social fabric." [49] Beyond institutionalizing the particular value system of the Drukpa culture, it "stipulates how people should conduct themselves at different types of occasions (ceremonial, official, informal, how to send and receive gifts, how to speak to superiors, how to serve and eat food and refreshments during public occasions, how to greet, etc.)" [50] As implemented, the driglam namzha includes a national dress code, requiring that gho be worn by men and kira by women. Just as the driglam namzha is not new, debates over its implementation also are not new. During the 1979 National Assembly: ".. [m]ost of the members agreed and consented that the National Dress must be worn during the National Assembly.

However, the member of Samchi and a few members from southern Bhutan expressed the inconvenience in wearing the national dress... [and] requested that they be exempted from wearing the national dress, as they felt they would be criticized by some members of their society." [51] Even in these earlier debates on the driglam namzha, the dress code aspect dominated discussion. The King issued a royal kasho (decree) on January 16, 1989 implementing driglam namzha as part of the promotion of the distinct national identity and the 'One Nation, One People' theme of the Sixth Five-Year Plan. The kasho itself did not strictly define national dress as the gho and kira, but the government insisted on the "unavoidable necessity for a small country like Bhutan to have an easily recognisable type of dress." [52] In practice, "a man not wearing a Gho and a woman not wearing a Kira were to be fined Nu. 100 each and 50 percent of this amount was to go to the police as incentive." [53] In southern Bhutan where the gho and kira are not the traditional dress and are ill-suited to the climate, widespread abuse accompanied the admitted "provocative manner in which [the driglam namzha policy] was implemented by overzealous functionaries." [54] Refugees report on the spot collection of fines (or in the alternative, imprisonment) if caught without the national dress in virtually any location outside their homes.

Intensifying the feelings of discrimination based on this policy is the view that southern Bhutan is especially targeted since it "would appear that the dress code is enforced more strictly in Chirang [a southern district] than in the capital." [55] Such a conclusion is born out by debate during the 1992 National Assembly session noting " [i]t was mostly in the capital city, Thimphu, that the policy on Driglam Namzha and national dress was not being observed... In particular, it was the children of high ranking and influential people in Thimphu, including some of the high ranking and influential themselves." [56] Complaints of lax enforcement of the dress code in Thimphu led to the drafting of a national Dress Act clarifying the law and stiffening penalties. Yet this act, written largely to ensure enforcement of the driglam namzha in Thimphu reluctantly was set aside by the Assembly in the face of strong opposition from the Home Minister. [57] In addition to highlighting the disparity between enforcement in the north and South, this discussion, complete with numerous asides about the reappearance of banned television antennas in Thimphu, also indicates the traditional society in Bhutan is under pressure from forces of modernization as well as the forces of growing ethnic populations

Language Policy

 


Dzongkha is the official national language, although the King has noted that some of "our people faced great inconvenience in learning Dzongkha" [58] and the Foreign Minister concedes "all of us speak the Nepali language." [59] The official newspaper publishes Dzongkha, Nepali and English versions; the National Assembly provides simultaneous translation into Nepali; and the government radio broadcasts in four languages, including Nepali. In general, "life would be difficult for any Bhutanese, other than members of the monastic community or residents of farflung northern districts, who could not speak rudimentary Nepali." [60] Language is perhaps the area of the most significant impact of the southern Bhutanese culture on the average Drukpa, and the use of Nepali has repeatedly come under fire in the National Assembly. [61]

English has been the medium of instruction in schools since 1961 and until 1989 both Dzongkha and Nepali were taught as separate subjects, although Nepali was not taught in schools throughout the north. In 1989, Nepali was dropped by the schools, ostensibly as an educational decision, in part because: "Dzongkha is taught as a second language, the inclusion of a third language, Nepali, puts the child in southern Bhutan at a considerable disadvantage... [and it] was concluded that Nepali is the national language and lingua franca of another country and not an ethnic language... Furthermore, the Nepali language was only serving to accentuate the dichotomy of two distinctive national cultures…" [62] This argument goes well beyond purely educational motives, demonstrating the influence of the 'One Nation, One People' ideal. In light of the ongoing census exercise the decision to drop Nepali was understandably perceived as a strike against southern Bhutanese culture.

Marriage Incentives and the Marriage Act

 


In 1988 the government reported 11,442 marriages between Bhutanese and non-nationals during the preceding 20 years. [63] A breakdown of statistics on these marriages is not provided, yet it is safe to assume that a good percentage involve southern Bhutanese. Given the strict cultural and caste restrictions on marriage, spouses are commonly sought outside home communities, often in Nepal or India. A longstanding approach of the government to discourage such foreign marriages and promote integration is an incentive (raised to Nu. 10,000 in 1989) for intermarriage between southern and northern Bhutanese. [64] Opposite this incentive stand stiff penalties for marriage to foreigners laid out in the 1980 Marriage Act. Under this act, a Bhutanese citizen who marries a foreigner is denied government assistance in the form of land, seeds, loans, livestock, and health benefits. If working for the government, promotion is denied from the day of marriage, and removal from service is mandatory for workers in the defense department or Foreign Ministry. All assistance from the government for education is denied and any expenses incurred to the day of marriage must be refunded.

Refugees contend this act is discriminatory because of the disparate impact on Southerners due to the large proportion of the foreign marriages from their communities. Further, they charge that the act is only implemented in the south, citing northern high ranking officials with foreign spouses who have received promotions and foreign postings in spite of the law. [65 ]The King suggested that non-nationals married to Bhutanese... could be granted special resident permit [sic]. They would also be entitled to health, education and other social benefits extended to citizens of the country. [66] There are no indications that any such permits have actually been issued.

No Objection Certificates

 


The government of Bhutan states "to ensure that all bona fide Bhutanese children received the first preference for admission in schools, a No Objection Certificate was made essential" and these "would not be issued to those students who have been involved in anti-national activities and to children of illegal immigrants." [67] No Objection Certificates were also required "for the release of cheques to farmers for the sale of their cash crops." [68] The government explained "the money due to the owners of these cash crops is merely frozen and not confiscated" and "will be released once the current disturbed situation is resolved." [69] Refugees report that No Objection Certificates were virtually impossible for southern Bhutanese to obtain. The impact of No Objection Certificates is still strongly felt by refugee farmers who had to flee before collecting payment for years of work, or by students who lost years from their education.
 

Green Belt

 


The government introduced a project to create a one kilometer wide belt of forest along the border, "probably for security reasons rather than for environmental ones since Bhutan is already richly-forested." [70] The government's plan, involving the displacement of thousands of people from some of the most fertile land in Bhutan, was not met with favor from international donors and was quickly dropped
 

The Beginnings of Protest

 


In April, 1988, two southern Bhutanese members of the Royal Advisory Council submitted a cautiously worded petition to the King outlining southern Bhutanese concerns about the census. The petition reported "Census Teams are questioning the people with undue threats," "Citizenship Identity Cards already issued have been confiscated," village elders "are not permitted to testify the credentials of their village people," "illiterate and simple village people are being coerced into signing documents, the contents of which are not known to them," and "the people believe that this is not a routine exercise as it is made out to be." [71] The cabinet declared the petition seditious, focusing the blame on one of the authors, Tek Nath Rizal. Rizal was removed from office, arrested and held for three days. His release was secured after signing a confession and an agreement not to meet with more than three people at one time. Faced with constant surveillance and insecurity, Rizal left Bhutan for Nepal in July, 1988. [72] Refugees report that seven people from Chirang who had been involved in the drafting of a separate petition to the King were arrested, held for up to three days, and later harassed through tactics such as being denied trade permits and refused participation in district meetings.

In July, 1989, a small group of dissidents in Nepal formed the Peoples Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) to address the human rights situation in Bhutan, and elected Rizal as chairperson. [73] The group published several booklets which were distributed in Bhutan and subsequently declared seditious. In October, 1989, Ratan Gazmere, a lecturer at the National Institute of Education, was arrested as "one of the main persons responsible for printing and distributing seditious pamphlets" and accused of various anti-national activities such as having "some students refuse to wear 'ghos' and 'kiras' during the winter vacation and instigate the people in villages to follow their example." [74] Gazmere was not alone, and from October to December 1989, "a total of 45 people were arrested for their involvement in the writing of 'seditious pamphlets', among them Tek Nath Rizal who along with Jogen Gazmere and Sushil Pokhrel was arrested in Nepal on 15 November 1989 and handed over to Bhutanese authorities." [75] Most of these prisoners were released on January 19, 1990, and the remaining six, adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, were held incommunicado without trial. Five of these six were finally released after periods of detention ranging from 26 to 28 months, and Rizal is still imprisoned. [76]
 

Anti-national Activity" and Mass Arrests

 


Amnesty International reports that "[u]nrest at government policies regarding national integration and the application of the Citizenship Act became widespread in southern Bhutan from early 1990 onwards." [77] The Bhutan Peoples Party (BPP) was formed in June, 1990, and, together with the Student Union of Bhutan (SUB) and PFHR, organized demonstrations and protests in September and October, 1990. Some of these rallies resulted in violent conflict between the dissidents and the authorities. Reports of government violence sometimes were highly exaggerated by refugees, such as the reported massacre of 300 people at a September, 1990 demonstration at Charmachi Bridge in Samchi. [78] But in spite of the hyperbole in some cases, reports of government shootings cannot be dismissed. Many refugees received medical treatment for severe injuries and bullet wounds, and refugees report the names of 19 people killed by government gunfire during the months of September and October, 1990. [79]

The government alleges increasingly violent activity by "anti-nationals", or ngolops. Reports include murders of census officials, attacks on government facilities, and looting of local homes. Most of the schools in the south were converted into army barracks and health services were severely limited. In addition to those claiming abuse by security forces, Amnesty International interviewed victims who report abuse by opposition groups, including forced donations to the BPP. [80] The issue of terrorism is considered separately and in more detail in a later section below. Following the September, 1990 demonstrations, raids by the army on southern Bhutanese homes became common. People frequently were beaten and questioned on participation in anti-national activities. Rape was widely reported. Many were detained, for periods ranging from a few days to a year, in prisons or the local schools which were converted to army barracks and jails. Amnesty International reports that the "total number of people arrested since early 1990 for suspected involvement in opposition activities runs into thousands." [81]
 

Assessing Claims of Violence and Torture

 

Several refugee groups have documented arrests and mistreatment witnessed in Bhutan or reported by those arriving in the camps. The varying parameters defining their documentation result in varying figures. The Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB) documents 509 cases of male torture victims and 64 cases of female torture victims including 37 victims of rape; the Association of Human Rights Activists (AHURA) reports the names of 845 males and females who were imprisoned in Bhutan and now reside in the Jhapa camps; the Kathmandu-based Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT) works with rape victims and reports 138 victims presently in the camps; and Save the Children Fund (SCF-UK) indicates 387 refugees seeking specialized treatment for the effects of violence. [82] Amnesty International's report includes numerous accounts of witnesses and survivors describing torture, rape, and deaths in custody. [83] A 1993 report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture cites numerous allegations of torture which are not confirmed or denied. [84] Similarly, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions did not have enough information to reach a conclusion concerning 185 alleged executions. [85] The government of Bhutan denies torture and claims refugees are "carefully tutored by the BNDP and HUROB cadres" and taught to "narrate horrendous tales of torture, rape and other fabricated excesses by Bhutanese security forces." [86]How reliable is the reporting of torture in Bhutan?

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) commissioned a study conducted by sociologist and social worker Cindy Dubble to evaluate the extent of the problem and assess the needs of victims of violence in the camps. After correlating the various lists of victims, Dubble interviewed a random sample of 100 men from a composite list of 850 reported male victims in the camps, and 38 women out of 150 reported rape victims. [87] Through in depth interviews, consideration of corroborating evidence such as medical reports, and cross-checking for consistency between interviews, Dubble verified torture in 95 of the 100 reported torture cases. [88] The more personally and culturally sensitive issue of rape was less easily verifiable, with Dubble confirming rape in 63% of the cases and violence (though not strictly rape under a formal definition) in 21 % of the cases. The remaining cases were confirmed as victims of violence, yet determinations concerning rape were inclusive. [89] Victims universally suffered severe beatings and most were kept tied or in handcuffs. All report horrendous conditions of confinement in small or crowded spaces with inadequate sanitation facilities and minimal, or purposely polluted, food. Common forms of torture include the wearing of shackles welded onto the victims' legs, solitary confinement, and exposure to severe cold weather. A frequent interrogation technique involves placing thick boards above and below the victims thigh, tied at one end. During questioning a guard stands on the top board, putting unbearable pressure on the leg. Many methods of torture involve degrading behaviors, such as being paraded naked or being made to imitate animals and combat each other in mock "bull-fights" for the guards' entertainment. This list is far from exhaustive and detailed statements of victims of torture are found in most publications on the refugee situations. [90] Dubble's report includes a thorough listing of commonly used methods of torture, sorted by the various places of detention where they are practiced. Her list includes the names of perpetrators who were recognized or known by their victims. [91]

Women face special problems as survivors of rape and torture. For many men, surviving torture was traumatic, yet for Hindu women who are raped, trauma can be compounded with great shame and stigmatization. Some women report rejection by husbands and families, while others are afraid to talk about their experiences for fear of rejection. Other victims have had to deal with pregnancies and children resulting from rapes. Some special services are provided in the camps for victims of violence. SCF-UK provides medical services and CVICT, in conjunction with AHURA, initiated a program providing counseling for rape victims and medical treatment in Kathmandu for some torture victims. A group of refugees have started Bhutanese Refugees Assisting Victims of Violence (BRAVVE), an income generating project teaching tailoring skills to victims. Programs like BRAVVE are a good model and other such projects should be developed. But a broader population of the camp also needs such programs, and when these programs are mainstream all can participate without continuing identification as a victim.

Terrorism in Southern Bhutan

 


Since February 1990, the government of Bhutan has reported anti-national activity and terrorism in southern Bhutan. Early accounts were mild, such as harassment of people wearing the national dress. Charges soon became more serious, such as the beheadings of government and census officials recounted by Amnesty International. [107] Since that time, government publications and the government newspaper Kuensel have kept up a steady barrage of accusations and graphic photos of victims, almost all of whom are ethnic Nepalis. The crimes now attributed to terrorists cover a wide range, from robbery to murder to destruction of government facilities and bridges, though simple robbery is still the most commonly reported crime. [108] Other crimes attributed to terrorists are more unusual, such as Kuensel's report that "[a]nti-nationals felled and stole more than 200 hardwood trees from the Jhari Forest Plantation, Samchi, on February 2, 1993." [109] While some reports of anti-national activities are credible, virtually no crime in southern Bhutan is not attributed to terrorists. Amnesty International concluded "what seem[] ordinary criminal acts [are] reported as being the responsibility of 'anti-nationals' despite the apparent lack of evidence to confirm that political opponents of the government, rather than common criminals, were responsible." [110] Further, some terrorist charges are simply not credible. For example, Amnesty International "concluded that the individual crimes for which [the six prisoners of conscience] were held responsible were all committed... six or more months after they were detained." [111] Bhutan charges that " [m]ost of the terrorist raids are being carried out by terrorist groups sent from the refugee camps in Nepal." [112] There are numerous cases of persons registered in the camps being arrested in Bhutan and charged with terrorism. [113] Refugees do not deny violence in southern Bhutan, but claim it is carried out by security forces or common criminals taking advantage of the situation in southern Bhutan. Some villages are nearly empty and the remaining families are isolated and vulnerable. In some cases, refugees report Assamese criminal gangs from India who hire a local southern Bhutanese guide to identify the remaining families likely to be rich targets. Others attribute individual attacks to personal revenge against informants. Some claim that refugees simply return to see relatives.

In most cases, the only evidence of terrorist connections is the reported confession of captured perpetrators, which are dubious given the conditions of detention documented above. Still, given the earlier documented political motives of some crimes, it is definitely probable that some of the reported crimes are politically motivated. Independent verification of terrorist charges has not been possible since access to southern Bhutan is limited. For example, Bhutan did not allow Amnesty International to visit Chirang district in southern Bhutan "for security reasons" [114] and denied a request to visit Bhutan from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. [115] Objective assessment of the extent of anti-national activity in southern Bhutan and alleged political motivations behind acts of violence will not take place until wider access to southern Bhutan is allowed.

Southern Bhutan Today

 


As mentioned above, southern Bhutan is not accessible to the outside world and descriptions of current conditions come from recent arrivals to the camps in Nepal and government publications. Needless to say, these tell divergent stories. The focus of Bhutanese government reports is on anti-national activities. Kuensel and the debates of the National Assembly give the impression of growing popular sentiment against the southern Bhutanese, but these sources may reflect official bias. Refugees report that arrests have decreased or changed in nature. Such a conclusion is confirmed by Dubble's random sample of victims, showing a peak in arrests in 1990 and 1991 (see above). It is not known how many prisoners are still held. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been allowed to visit some, but not all, places of detention in Bhutan since January, 1993. Prisoners released in 1993 report "conditions in those prisons visited by ICRC during 1993 have improved." [116]

A common theme among the stories of new arrivals includes being arrested without charge for a short period and forced to do intense labor. Victims are then released, after being told to emigrate or they will be re-arrested for longer periods. Having personally experienced arrest, and aware of the more pronounced abuse suffered by earlier victims, most " choose" to leave. For some such a decision is reinforced by feelings of isolation in near empty villages. Those who relied on community irrigation schemes or cash income from occasional employment with a rich neighbor cannot maintain their old ways and have added incentive to join their communities in exile. The government reports that 60 schools have reopened in southern Bhutan. [117] HUROB claims that only 24 have reopened and those only for "children of security forces, government officials, National Assembly members, and other persons of influence." [118] If true, the current situation would be a continuation of the earlier officially announced policy of the government by which "schools will only admit the direct children of the government employees, security forces and public officials in active service." [119] The National Assembly in 1992 debated 16 proposals for the resettlement by northerners of land vacated by southern Bhutanese. [120] These proposals were partly justified as a counterpoint to an unsuccessful plan two years earlier to provide incentives to southern Bhutanese who settle in the north. The assembly resolved to develop a suitable resettlement plan, coordinating with all concerned departments. Resettlement of the lands vacated by fleeing southern Bhutanese would be a major complication to any future repatriation. [121]
 

In the Refugee Camps

 


According latest UNHCR figures, 84,245 people are registered in the rows of small huts in the eight camps in Jhapa and Morang districts of southeastern Nepal. There are actually five sites, with the largest being divided administratively and considered separate camps. The largest grouping is found in the three Beldangi camps with 42,670 people, a population approached by only one town in the district. [122] Camps are run by UNHCR Project Monitoring Officers, government of Nepal Camp Managers, and a small group of Nepali police. Much of the day-to-day operations and record keeping falls to the semi-elected Camp Management Committees. UNHCR's major implementing partners are Save the Children Fund (SCF-UK) for health and Lutheran World Service (LWS) for most other aspects such as food and housing. Camp residents are provided bamboo and sheet plastic to build their own huts. Refugees are supplied rations of rice, lentils, vegetables and kerosene for cooking. Some of the camps, such as the Beldangi camps, have a planned appearance, with long rows of huts and latrines. Others, such as Sanischare and Timai, are more scattered, revealing themselves as the earliest camps, established more as a squatters settlements than as organized camps. Maidhar, the earliest camp, built on the floodplain of a river and subjected to severe flooding during the monsoons, has been closed and the residents relocated to other camps. In some areas locals have capitalized on the presence of the refugees by establishing rows of small stores just outside the camps to cater to the basic needs of the refugees which are not met by the camps such as soap, tea, milk, etc.

Each of the camps have schools now, though they are crowded and run on several shifts with few supplies. Attendance at the schools is excellent, as there is little else for children to do. Health services are better than in the average Nepali village. An SCF-UK worker reported a recent survey of children in Beldangi identified only 1.9% as malnourished. There are still complaints that the food is not enough, or the kerosene provided for stoves does not last the month, or especially that the plastic sheets provided for roofing rip easily and leak. The camps are far from luxurious, with small huts housing large extended families. But in general, the struggle for basic survival faced in the last few years is over. Now the challenge of physical survival takes a back seat to the challenge of maintaining a semblance of society despite the breakdown of normal circumstances. As the likelihood of a long stay dawns on refugees, the prospect of empty days weighs heavily. This idle population has proven a fertile breeding ground for political organizations adding to tension in the camps. There is a small income generation program organized by Oxfam which teaches women to knit and provides materials and small incentives for finished products. Such programs are badly needed for a wider segment of the population, especially for youths who are no longer in school.

 

Relations with Local Communities

 


With the refugee camps forming some of the largest concentrations of people in eastern
Nepal, interactions between the local population and the refugees are unavoidable. [123] Relations range from excellent at Goldhap Camp to strained and angry around Sanischare Camp. Conversations with people of the surrounding communities inevitably include complaints about refugees leaving the camps to find work outside, often for low wages which undercut the daily wage demands of the locals. A common practice of refugees leaving the camps to work is giving their ration cards to those who stay behind. This means there are surpluses of some of the staples provided by UNHCR which find their way onto the local market, depressing prices. UNHCR has instituted spot checks to identify missing persons and pull ration cards of those not in the camps. Prices of those items not provided by UNHCR, such as milk or eggs, are not immune from influence and have greatly increased due to demand from refugees. Locals also report that house rents have increased astronomically due to the influx of aid agencies and their workers. On the other hand, quite a few individuals have profited from the boom in contracts for construction, building materials, and other supplies.

Social effects also are acutely felt. Locals complain of increased theft, prostitution and robbery. Some of these are due to the refugees, but other incidents are readily blamed on the refugees who provide a convenient scapegoat for local social problems. The Sanischare Camp, which is located closest to a Nepali bazaar town predictably has the most friction between refugees and locals. Lutheran World Service is hoping to coordinate a series of projects sponsored by a variety of donors to develop projects to offset or mitigate the impacts of the refugees on the local population. Suggestions from the local communities range from building schools to water projects to roads. Some communities already have benefitted indirectly, such as Goldhap village which would have waited a long time for a road if not for the presence of a refugee camp. As screening increases the number of people who are refused assistance in the camps, local relations may see more strain. Those refused assistance are still free to enter Nepal and they likely will stick close to their relatives in the camps. This population is technically not allowed to spend the night in the camps, so they may attempt to squat on local or government land as the original flows of refugees did. This presence, adding to the population of homeless Nepali nationals such as the 4,000 households squatting near Timai camp would surely become a factor in local politics.

Organizations in Exile

 


The proliferation of human rights groups and political parties among the refugees has created more rivalry than cooperation, yet it is increasingly important as it is also increasingly confusing. A full account of the various parties and human rights groups is beyond the scope of this paper but some understanding of the situation is important. The groups play an influential role in the camps and rivalries among groups are as likely to upset a smooth solution as is the reluctance of the government of Bhutan. The refugee situation has spawned human rights and political activists of a variety of agendas and missions. The animosity between some of the groups leads not only to inefficiency in supplying relief, but also to discord and violence in the fragile society established in the camps. There are already conflicts concerning who speaks for the refugees, and what the voice of the refugees should say. As the governments of
Nepal and Bhutan meet to discuss the future of the refugees, there surely will be different reactions to any proposals emanating from the talks.

As noted above, Tek Nath Rizal and a small group of dissidents formed the Peoples Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) in July, 1989. The Bhutan Peoples Party (BPP) was formed in June, 1990 and, along with PFHR and the Students Union of Bhutan (SUB) organized the mass rallies beginning September, 1990. In September, 1991 the leadership of PFHR voted to change its name to the Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB) and distance itself from its former links with the BPP, its youth wing, the Youth Organization of Bhutan (YOB), and politics in general. In the process they thought to dissolve PFHR, yet PFHR was soon revived by a handful of members and an infusion of personnel from the BPP leadership. Shortly thereafter, the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP) was formed by persons with close ties to HUROB. HUROB has tried hard to distance itself from the BNDP, but rightly or wrongly is often associated with the party. The Association of Human Rights Activists (AHURA) was formed next by later arriving refugees who saw the other human rights groups as too closely tied to political parties. A third political party, the Bhutan Congress Party (BCP), was recently formed in May, 1993 by a handful of defecting BPP members, but it has yet to do much more than announce its existence. The array is confusing not just to outsiders, but also to many of the refugees who are simple farmers with no experience or interest in active participatory politics.

The original PFHR was initially responsible for much of the camp management and HUROB assumed these duties after it split from the BPP. The split left HUROB with a considerable role in camp management which was resented by the BPP, which works hard to promote an active image in the camps. In explaining the decision to split, HUROB founders cite the need to distance themselves from politics and policies of the BPP which they did not feel were strong enough in renouncing violence. The BPP is clearly the group most often linked to violence by the government of Bhutan. Claiming non-violent principles, the BPP has been somewhat slow to disassociate itself from charges of violence within Bhutan. According to some, the failure to make strong denials is in order to enhance their image as a party which is active in Bhutan. Different visions of membership provide perhaps the greatest distinction between the operating styles of the groups. For example, the BPP envisions itself as a populist movement and touts its history of concrete action in Bhutan. A recent project was the dissemination of a publication on the refugee situation in the Dzongkha language in Bhutan. The BPP is the most active recruiter of members in the camps and much of the political activism in the camps initiates with it. HUROB and BNDP, in contrast, do not see themselves as membership organizations, but as a rather small cadres of former government officials and professionals. HUROB's approach has been one of documenting violations in Bhutan and actively lobbying on the international front, declaring that it will work first for return through avenues such as internationalization of the issue, then the time for politics will come and the parties can take over. As a later arrival on the scene, AHURA also has a small membership and has made independence and political non-affiliation guiding principles. Issues of personality, background and class also play a role with groups like HUROB, BNDP and AHURA composed primarily of former high level civil servants, in contrast to the broader membership sought by the BPP and its affiliate PFHR.

The leaders of the various groups and parties frequently criticize each other on both policy and personal issues. For instance, accusing the BNDP of "sit and wait" policies aimed at a return to the old status quo in Bhutan, the BPP stays in the limelight through frequent media contact and a strong presence in the camps. Other groups respond that contrived media attention is counterproductive when planned events like the BPP's long awaited satyagraha (peaceful non-cooperation protest) in Bhutan are repeatedly announced but not implemented. [124] On more personal levels, leaders of the groups trade rumors about each other and recent reports from the camps indicate that one group has just initiated a signature campaign against leaders of a rival group. Leaders accuse each other with charges such as involvement in incidents in the camps, not having a strong claim to Bhutanese citizenship, or being more interested in personal advancement than in helping refugees. Such infighting among refugees damages the credibility of all the groups and obscures the fact that they share many common goals. The rivalry between groups is not just a game played among intellectual exiles, and it has serious consequences for the prospects of peace in the camps and peaceful resolution of the refugee problem. In the past year, two murders in the camps were linked to political activism and there are numerous incidents of threats and intimidation towards other refugees and aid personnel. The government of Nepal and UNHCR have moved to reduce political activities in the camps and has increased the presence of police in the camps. A unified front, or at least constructive and peaceful working relationship among the groups, is important not just for the sake of a secure atmosphere in the camps. If the talks between Bhutan and Nepal lead towards a solution at some point in the future, contradictory reactions by the various groups to any proposals are likely to increase tensions in the camps and may compromise efforts to secure a return to Bhutan.

A Committee for Categorization

 


The journey down the slow road of quiet diplomacy reached a milestone on July 18, 1993 when the governments of Bhutan and Nepal announced the intention to form a joint committee to seek a "speedy and durable solution to the problem of the people in the refugee camps in eastern Nepal." [125] The committee will be at the ministerial level and be composed of three people from each government. The official task that so far has been announced for the committee is to "determine the different categories of the people claiming to have come from Bhutan in the refugee camps of eastern Nepal." [126] This committee is strictly bilateral with no role as yet envisioned for India or UNHCR. The Joint Secretary of the Home Ministry of Nepal describes this categorization as a simple prospect, stating, "Those who are Bhutanese citizens go back to Bhutan, those who are Indian citizens go to India, and those who are Nepalese citizens stay in Nepal." [127] Factual determinations aside, it is doubtful that establishing categories will be so straightforward. The government of Bhutan has often discussed the various categories of people in the camps, and a recent list included: "illegal Nepali residents in Bhutan; imported Nepali labourers who were claiming to be Bhutanese nationals by virtue of having worked in Bhutan; dissidents, many of whom had committed criminal and terrorist offences in Bhutan; Bhutanese nationals who had emigrated legally after renouncing their citizenship and selling all their properties; and people from other parts of the region including Nepal itself, who had never even set foot in Bhutan." [128] In an earlier listing in Kuensel, another category was included, that of "Bhutanese nationals who had left of their own free will in response to the inducements offered by the dissident groups in Nepal." [129] Bhutan tacitly acknowledges the presence of genuine refugees, agreeing it "would accept full responsibility for all bona fide Bhutanese nationals who had been forcibly evicted from Bhutan." [130]

Elaboration on this last category of "bona fide Bhutanese refugees" also could easily include subcategories such as: those forced to sign "voluntary" agreements before leaving; those accused of anti-national activities; those who lost nationality because a relative was accused of anti-national activities; those who served terms in prison over a year in length; those who fled before facing the census; those who lost citizenship through retroactive application of citizenship laws, etc. Given that Bhutan denies the existence of cases such as would fall into these categories, factual issues will be a major stumbling block for resolution of many cases. Setting up a modality for sorting the refugees is a daunting task and the prospect of individual adjudication of claims to Bhutanese citizenship, each complete with problems of verification, is over-whelming. Any individualized process would be incredibly slow. To even attempt such a process without active assistance from UNHCR would be evidence of the lack of any intention to succeed. Even if categorization is accomplished, it may be no more than a ploy to delay for years while commitments concerning return for those in various categories are unclear. For example, if a category for "dissidents" is established as Bhutan suggests, what is to be their fate? Under existing Bhutanese law, a genuine Bhutanese national can lose citizenship for anti-national activities, but this does not make that person a citizen of either Nepal or India. Bhutan is certainly not eager to accept the return of dissidents, and without some guarantees of safety many dissidents are not eager to return.
 

Roadblocks to Resolution

 


The Home Ministry of Nepal firmly states that "it is not up to the refugees to choose their repatriation procedure. It is up to His Majesty's Government of Nepal." Refugees are sincerely grateful to Nepal for the humanitarian response of the country in providing relief, but they now resent being shut out of the process of negotiating for their futures. The faltering progress of the Nepalese government's quiet diplomacy leaves the refugees with understandably little confidence in
Nepal as a negotiator for their futures. This is especially true as Nepal's Home Ministry has been the active player, and it is more than busy dealing with the aftermath of the massive floods and landslides which recently ravaged Nepal. The ongoing communist-led demonstrations and general strikes provide further distractions as the Nepali Congress government fights for its continued existence with a slim majority in the parliament. Also, the growing tensions between refugees and locals provide incentives for the government which may not match those of the refugees. Unfortunately, though the bilateral committee may be a positive step, real solutions appear a distant hope. Even if some categorization and sorting processes are achieved, numerous issues must be addressed before any thought of repatriation is possible. These are not issues that have simple answers, and resolution of these issues, and the refugee problem, will be slow in coming. Still, the problems of future should be factored into any talks at an early stage. If not, the talks become a charade and yet another excuse for delay. Below is just a sampling of the issues to be resolved.

For starters, although refugee groups and parties call for the return of all those in the camps, few observers believe that Bhutan will agree to the return of more than a fraction of those in the camps. Any future proposals for partial return are sure to be opposed by the refugees and create further divisions among the refugee groups. Another baseline issue for the refugees that has yet to be addressed is the guarantee of human rights upon return. Without international monitoring of some sort, many refugees will not feel safe returning to the country where they suffered abuse. While there are still reports of ongoing abuse and political prisoners such as Tek Nath Rizal still are detained in Bhutan, constructive dialogue on this point is difficult. With Nepal's less than stellar human rights record, the refugees might wish for a different negotiator if the talks ever reach the topic of human rights guarantees in Bhutan. Refugee demands for democratic reforms are sure to create havoc.
Bhutan has shown no willingness to even consider reforms. Some groups see minimal reform as a future issue after return, while others demand a major overhaul as a prerequisite to return. The reconciliation of democratic reforms with Bhutan's concerns for cultural preservation will create immense complications, and consensus will not be achieved easily. Refugees want to return to the land they abandoned, but fear that Bhutan will try to scatter them throughout the north. Even if Bhutan does not resettle the southern lands and allows return there, issues of compensation paid to those fleeing will arise. If any of those in the camps are unable to return, issues of assistance settling in Nepal or India may complicate resettlement. Recent reports from Bhutan indicate that the government has initiated a signature campaign in southern Bhutan calling for those who left to not be allowed back. The pressures a southern Bhutanese may feel when presented with such a petition are enormous, but the very existence of such documents will complicate return. Compensation issues also arise in the context of accountability for those who committed human rights violations. Bhutan has yet to admit violations, and is not likely to do so. Yet reconciliation without some acknowledgement or accountability will leave unresolved tensions. Other issues include the fate of refugees not in camps, extradition of some refugee leaders sought by Bhutan, accountability versus impunity for human rights violators, etc.
 

Motivations for Compromise

 
The issues discussed above are important to keep in mind, but any talk of resolving them would be premature, since solutions are not around the comer. Any movement towards a solution of the refugee situation will require compromise on all sides. As yet, there is little indication that the government of Bhutan is ready to soften its stance on recognizing the claims of nationality by refugees in Nepal, despite pressure from many angles. Sources of pressure on Bhutan include growing international media attention, concerns of international donors and withdrawal of aid, the diplomatic talks with Nepal, activism by the refugees both inside and outside Bhutan, and India. Of these sources of pressure, most agree that India is the key to any solution, although its role might not be very open. As the regional superpower, and the country which landlocks both Bhutan and Nepal, India has tremendous influence in the area. Nepal was reminded of this during its 1989-90 trade and transit dispute with India. Bhutan is equally vulnerable, receiving 70% of its foreign aid from India. Bhutan is further bound by a 1949 treaty to be "guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations." [131] Since all the refugees in Nepal got there by crossing through about 100 kilometers of India, and would return the same way, any solution without Indian approval is unlikely. Also, a common claim of Bhutan is that many of those in the camps are really from India, again leaving a solution in India's absence impractical. As yet, India has not adopted positions openly or made clear use of its influence to promote a solution.

In spite of the lack of public statements on its position, many believe India is active behind the scenes. Some attribute the entire problem to a conscious policy set in motion by India, perhaps seeking to destabilize either Nepal or Bhutan or both. Others see the hand of India in Bhutan's changed stance on talks with Nepal or in Nepal's sudden reversal of its decision to internationalize the issue. Still others deny an active Indian role, attributing India's inaction to its comfortable dealings with the Thimphu regime on issues such as the sale of cheap hydropower. The level of India's activity to date is unclear. What is clear is the need for India to become active, openly or behind the scenes, since this is the most realistic route to creating the kind of pressure needed to bring about a settlement. In the meantime, continued attention and publicity on the international front is needed to keep pressure on Bhutan and prompt India into positive action. International donor agencies are uniquely positioned to apply pressure on Bhutan.
 

Looking Ahead

 


The issues outlined above will not be resolved easily and the prospects for quick solutions are dim. For refugees in Nepal this means the challenge of living in exile and struggling to hold together their families and society under trying circumstances. For southern Bhutanese in Bhutan this means continued insecurity and exposure to the threats of violence and deportation. For all there is the continuing fight to have the government of Bhutan recognize legitimate claims to nationality and legitimate claims to live according to one's own culture. The contrast between the image of Bhutan as shangri-la and the reality of southern Bhutan is hard for many to accept. Yet Bhutan has a long history of strong action to protect its borders from perceived threats of invasion. The fierce passion of the northern Bhutanese in protecting their culture is not in itself the problem. It is the manifestation of this cultural protection in the denial of the human rights of the southern Bhutanese that must be condemned. The government of Bhutan cannot make the simple equation that advocating for the rights of the southern Bhutanese is the same as advocating for the extinction of the Drukpa culture. Hope for the future lies in the belief that in Bhutan there is room for both the northern and southern cultures. Diversity is not a luxury reserved for large countries and can be an aspect of Bhutan's distinct national culture.

 
 
Human Rights Reports
Amnesty (AI) Reports
View all AI Docuemts
Human rights violations
Forcible exile
Eastern Bhutanese
Nationality
 
 Others Reports
US Human Rights Report
EU Resolutions
Habitat FFM
Cultural Cleansing
Crisis of Identity
Death List

 

 

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