It is a rare occasion when the Kathmandu government can be roused to strong action in its dealings with Thimphu on the issue of Bhutanese refugees who started streaming into Nepal 10 years ago. So it came as a surprise that a letter late January from the Bhutanese foreign minister briefly threatened to turn into an angry exchange of missives.
It began with the visit to Thimphu in early December by Nepal’s Home Minister Govinda Raj Joshi as special emissary of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (who also handles the foreign ministry). During Joshi’s visit, it was agreed that preparations would be made in January for the resumption of bilateral refugee talks. Accordingly, on 15 December 1998, Joshi sent a letter to the Bhutanese foreign minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, with a proposal to set the date and agenda of the meeting. Thinley’s reply, sent on 26 January, astounded Nepali officials for what they perceived to be its unwarranted comment on Nepal’s internal affairs.
Thinley wrote that Thimphu had been concerned with the political developments in Nepal (i.e. changes due to the nature of Nepal’s coalitional politics whereby the ruling Nepali Congress replaced its partner in government days after Joshi’s letter had been despatched), and of what effect they would have on the Eighth Ministerial Joint Committee meeting. What particularly irked the Nepali foreign ministry was Thinley’s statement that “in the light of the fact that the new coalition government seems to have taken upon itself the singular mandate of holding the next elections… it may not be appropriate to hold our proposed ministerial meeting until after the elections.” The Nepali government responded in terms that were the strongest ever since the beginning of the Bhutanese refugee problem. The foreign ministry dashed off a letter signed by Joshi to Thinley which said that both governments must “exercise caution not to allow an entirely constitutional and domestic matter to concern either of us come in the way of a bilateral process geared to resolving the Bhutanese refugee problem”.
For good measure, the letter added: “You may note [that] solving this problem amicably is Nepal’s priority and enjoys national consensus across the broad political spectrum.”
Ever since the refugee imbroglio began, Nepali diplomacy has mainly been a reaction to initiatives taken by their Bhutanese counterparts. Perhaps Nepal’s biggest blunder was during the 1993 meeting in Thimphu when the Nepali team led by then home minister (later prime minister) Sher Bahadur Deuba agreed to classify the refugees into four groups: bonafide Bhutanese who have been forcefully evicted; Bhutanese who emigrated; non-Bhutanese; and Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. This classification left pro-democracy Bhutanese leaders dumbfounded for the sheer arbitrariness it entailed. No actual progress has been made since and an estimated 100,000 refugees continue to languish in the camps, nearly a decade since most of them exited Bhutan.
In March, the very man many refugees hold responsible for their flight from Bhutan presented his credentials to King Birendra of Nepal as the new ambassador. Dago Tsering, Bhutan’s homespun home minister throughout the refugee crisis, is also Thimphu’s ambassador to Delhi and is based there.
One Kathmandu foreign ministry official said, “Tsering’s appointment as ambassador was perhaps a little too obvious an attempt to stick Nepal’s nose in the mud.” Meanwhile, when asked about Thinley’s letter by Thinley, apparently all the new ambassador could say was that it was “wrongly worded”.