For the first time since Bhutanese refugees set foot on Nepali soil exactly a decade ago, a group of Bhutanese officials drove into the refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in southeast Nepal this January. The euphoria and excitement generated by the joint verification team’s visit among the nearly 100,000 refugee population housed in UNHCR-administered camps was palpable. And the refugees may rightly have cause to exult—after ten years in exile they see some light at the end of the tunnel. But is this first glimmer of hope likely to lead to early, or even eventual, repatriation? Moreover, if the refugees do make the journey home, will they be allowed to pick up the pieces from where they left, or will they be expected to start all over again elsewhere? Even as the refugee community savours the moment, surely many among them are wondering whether this is finally the home stretch or yet another instance of the Bhutanese government skillfully tiding over a difficult time in the negotiations.
The establishment of the joint verification team seven years after it was first mooted and the actual visit to the camps come in the wake of a resurgence of concern in the international community over the problem of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Much as Bhutan may publicly claim otherwise, recent diplomatic initiatives have certainly contributed to the sudden conciliatory tone adopted by Bhutan, which has by now developed the diplomatic technique of prevarication to perfection against a hapless Nepali side led by bumbling politicians.
The continued presence of armed Bodo militants in the kingdom’s southern forests and the rejection of persistent Indian pleas to allow their forces inside Bhutan to flush them out of hiding, has also had an impact on Indo-Bhutan relations, and has had its ramifications on the Bhutanese approach to the bilateral talks with Nepal. The framework of Indo-Bhutan understanding and equations in the Nepal-Bhutan dialogue may have been further altered with recent developments in this regard, particularly the killing of Bhutanese nationals in India (attributed by India to Bhutan-based National Democratic Front of Bodo Land and to India-friendly Bodo Liberation Tiger Force by Bhutan). (see Himal, February 2001)
Whatever the reasons behind Thimphu’s sudden change of stance, the refugees are not complaining. Indeed, surprising all observers, Bhutanese officials were warmly received in all the camps. Despite concerns over their security there were reportedly even scenes of warm hugs between old friends. The visitors assured the refugees that the government was willing and eager to repatriate all Bhutanese very soon. The fact that the Bhutanese have assigned a fluent Nepali speaker to deal with the situation, till this assignment the director of tourism, is also taken by some to show Thimphu’s conciliatory tilt.
The actual verification process is to start soon once offices are established in Jhapa in February/March. So does this mean the problem of Bhutanese refugees, who have languished in these camps for a decade now, is coming to an end? Has the beginning of the end finally begun? As much as the refugees and their well-wishers wish this were true, it will be good to be aware of what may yet be dark clouds behind the silver lining.
Foremost on the minds of concerned observers is the uncomfortable question of categorisation of camp residents into one of four categories—people who have been forcibly evicted, people who have emigrated, non-Bhutanese, and people who have committed criminal acts. The acceptance by the Nepali side of these categories, during one of the bilateral ministerial meetings led by Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress, is seen as a grievous mistake, for the categorisation should have had no bearing on Nepal’s stand on the return of the refugees. The categorisation, and what to do about it, will be a major sticking point in the incipient repatriation exercise should Thimphu want to put a brake on the proceedings. Indeed, if the Bhutanese side does not drop its insistence on this sticky and messy issue, the verification exercise cannot be expected to go far. (Unless, of course, Nepal is willing to go by anything that Bhutan says.)
Should the categorisation hurdle be crossed somehow and there is agreement that simple verification to determine whether or not a person is a Bhutanese is sufficient, and that those found to be Bhutanese nationals will be repatriated, the next difficulty lies in finding a place for repatriation. Because, despite repeated concerns expressed over the Bhutanese government’s resettlement of other people on land belonging to refugees, the resettlement programme continues and, tellingly, even overlapped with the visit of the Thimphu government delegation to the camps. This could either mean that the current Bhutanese goodwill is suspect or that they have other plans to resettle the Jhapa and Morang returnees. The comments by a visiting Danish delegation to Bhutan that their government stood ready to help the repatriation of refugees, in Bhutan, Nepal or a ‘third country’ is significant.
The stubborn manner in which the Bhutanese authorities have continued with the resettlement of northern Bhutanese on land the refugees left behind (although ofcourse the claim should be verified) is disconcerting for more than one reason. If, on the one hand, it creates doubts about Bhutan’s sincerity of purpose, in the longer term it means that Bhutan will have succeeded in creating a problem she did not have and others are grappling with elsewhere to solve—violence in a mixed community. For, if the authorities are hoping that offers of compensatory land in the north is one way of making sure refugees do not return (in the past, southern Bhutanese have rejected government offers to shift them to the north, or alternatively the government made such an offer knowing it would be refused), they might be in for a surprise.
Ten years in humiliating exile have reinforced the refugee community’s resolve to return home—anywhere where they have a right to call home. And if the refugee leadership is wise, it will not use this offer as an excuse to stop people from returning. Indeed, if they are vengeful, they will encourage returning refugees to settle outside of their traditional homeland in the south because such a move will give Bhutan what the rulers claim they wanted to avoid in the first place—domination of the north by southern Bhutanese.