Does the West have the responsibility to advocate the rights of Nepali-speaking populations still languishing in Bhutan?Photo: Flickr / Ed Shipul
Does the West have the responsibility to advocate the rights of Nepali-speaking populations still languishing in Bhutan?
Photo: Flickr / Ed Shipul

Finally becoming citizens

The personal and political implications of third-country resettlement and naturalisation for Bhutan’s refugees.

(This article is a part of the web-exclusive series that complements our latest print quarterly 'Diaspora: Southasia Abroad'.)

Khem Khadka was only seven when his entire family was evicted from Bhutan in 1991. His family's eviction, along with that of tens of thousands of others, was a result of the government's enforcement of the 'one nation, one people' policy, and its active opposition to ethnic pluralism. Khadka, like so many others, spent most of his young adult life in refugee camps in Nepal. His hope for a better future was, however, realised in 2007, when the United States and seven other Western countries offered the prospect of third-country resettlement. Even as his parents remained firm in their decision to await repatriation, Khadka immediately declared his interest in third-country resettlement. For him, the possibility of gaining US citizenship was preferable to remaining stateless in a refugee camp in Nepal. Khadka finally made it to North Carolina in the summer of 2009, some two years after the policy of resettlement was first announced.


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According to Khadka, his 'well-defined future' was made real in September 2014, when he took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America and became a citizen for the first time in his life. He believes that it was the beginning of a new chapter for his four-member family. Khadka's family is now middle class, and he and his wife balance their lives between full-time jobs and raising two kids who are already attending pre-kindergarten school. Khadka works as an assistant department manager at a grocery store and plans on resuming his college education in spring 2015. His wife works both as a waitress and supervisor at a senior's home.

Unsurprisingly, Khadka was emotional on the day he took his Oath of Allegiance, and says it was one of the happiest moments of his life. He no longer sees himself permanently repatriating to Bhutan, whatever the Bhutanese government's policy: "Now I have a nation that considers me and my two wonderful kids as citizens. Comparatively, my kids, who by the way were born here, will have a much better future in the United States than in Bhutan." He added with pride, "History has proven that the second generation – like my kids – will be more competent and will have better skills than first-generation Americans." Many Bhutanese refugees already resettled share Khadka's optimism: most are on the threshold of financial security, and some have even started to buy homes. Above all, Bhutanese refugees resettled in the West enjoy freedom.

As of December 2014, according to the Embassy of the United States in Nepal, at least 93,000 former Bhutanese refugees have journeyed from Nepal's refugee camps to eight different countries in the West. Among them at least 80,000 were resettled in the United States alone. Thousands of Bhutanese refugees have since become naturalised citizens in their countries of resettlement. Like Khadka, many of them consider naturalisation the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. For some, it is their first experience of citizenship, while others whose citizenship was revoked in Bhutan are becoming citizens again after nearly 24 years of statelessness.

Jogen Gazmere, a former prisoner of conscience, is a recently naturalised Australian citizen. He says that after being arbitrarily deprived of citizenship and rendered stateless for almost two decades, being granted Australian citizenship provides a strong sense of security, belonging and peace. Still, Gazmere retains a strong emotional connection to Bhutan: "Despite being forcibly exiled, the love for my country of origin never ever dies. And even as an Australian citizen, I feel proud to be supporting my country of origin through various aid programs funded by my contribution as a taxpayer." Gazmere does not appear to mind the fact that this money is funding the programmes of the state responsible for his exile, though he did point out the need to make Bhutan more inclusive. "For this, the resettled Bhutanese should continue playing their roles through their respective governments in respective countries of resettlement," he says.

While the younger generation – born and raised inside refugee camps in Nepal – might eventually become estranged from their country of birth, many first-generation refugees like Gazmere and Khadka continue to identify with Bhutan. A large chunk of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees continue to be ambivalent about their identity. Those born in Nepal's refugee camps often refer to themselves as Nepalese, while others actively assert their Bhutanese identity. For many, naturalisation in the West offers a solution to identity issues.

Thinley Penjore, former president of the exile-based Druk National Congress-Democratic, now lives in the United States, though is yet to be naturalised. According to Penjore, "People resettled in most part of the world prefer to claim themselves as Nepalese rather than as Bhutanese." Anecdotal evidence often supports this observation. Ironically, a nineteen-year-old Bhutanese refugee residing in the United States told a sports blog in 2013 that he dreams to play soccer for Real Madrid and make Nepal known worldwide.  

Recalibrating a relationship
As a corollary to naturalisation in the West, there has been a shift in the dynamics of political activism on Bhutanese refugee issues. Some resettled refugees have argued that naturalisation ended their right to support Bhutan's freedom movement – a cause these refugees peacefully voiced for more than two decades. Many refugees formerly engaged in political activities aimed at repatriation have been quiet after resettlement, and have even ceased lending their solidarity to such campaigns. Within this context, the younger generation may choose to move forward by ignoring their past, while others may begin to see Thimphu in a more sympathetic light, owing to Bhutan's limited democratic reforms.

There is significant disagreement among the diaspora on the merits of Bhutanese democracy. While Gazmere believes democracy has been established in Bhutan, even if it requires further consolidation, Penjore argues that the country still has a long way to go. According to Penjore though, the role of the diaspora in hastening democratisation is necessarily limited: "There is a need for the movement to continue, but a political movement for democracy or rights to liberty cannot be fought from outside the country. It should come from inside the country, where the citizens belong."

Former refugees who still have a strong sense of belonging to Bhutan are likely to continue to engage with the country in various ways. A small group of former refugees, for instance, have already started lobbying for the recognition of what they call Non-Resident Bhutanese (NRB) status. While the Bhutanese government is yet to address this officially, it is clear that seeing this demand materialise may be difficult given Bhutan’s consistent denial that these people have any claim to Bhutanese citizenship. In many instances, Bhutanese leaders have termed these refugees ‘terrorists’.

Bhuwan Gautam, one of the advocates of NRB and a recently naturalised American citizen, says that his group is working hard to consolidate its lobbying efforts, which currently focus on the governments of Bhutan, Nepal and India. Gautam says, “To me, being a naturalised citizen is the refund of my arrears of forfeited rights, along with compound interest that brings jubilation to rejuvenate, forgetting the moment our parents were obliterated permanently from where they originally belonged.” Countries that have given new homes to these refugees may, however, be reluctant to back the idea of NRB until Bhutan provides credible assurances concerning the rights of returnees. It is unlikely that these countries will trust that the rights of those who fled Bhutan might be guaranteed upon repatriation or national reconciliation.

Gautam is not alone in dreaming of a renewed and positive relationship with Bhutan. Lisa Napoli, a foreign ‘insider’ on the issue and author of the popular travelogue Radio Shangri-La, hopes that over time dialogue and understanding is fostered between Bhutanese in Bhutan and those who were displaced. “My dream would be to see a summit of young people, some from Bhutan, others now relocated, all born after the events in the late 80s, who come together to learn their shared and disparate histories. Inevitably, two people will fall in love and bridge the divide,” she says. For Napoli, it’s both exciting and moving to see Bhutanese refugees become naturalised citizens in their countries of resettlement.

Shirking responsibility?
Many former refugees agree that the process of naturalisation is advantageous for their future. But questions remain as to whether Western countries find it more convenient to offer citizenship rather than advocate the rights of refugees – Bhutanese, in this case. The West offered the option of third-country resettlement because they believed repatriation to be unrealistic. But do they have the responsibility to continue working towards the rights of those still awaiting repatriation and to safeguard the fundamental rights of those Nepali-speaking populations still languishing in Bhutan?

Douglas Hall, a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, has been helping Bhutanese refugees since they started resettling in the state. Hall says, “It is easier for some Western countries like the United States to offer a new home and citizenship than it is to effect any change in Bhutan’s internal policies.” Though this may hold merit, US pressure is critical given the region’s diplomatic deadlock on the issue. Over the years, Nepal and Bhutan have engaged in more than a dozen failed bilateral meetings, while India, the only regional actor other than Bhutan that could resolve the issue, has been mute.

Rather than pressure the Bhutanese government, Western countries, including the United States, have been remarkably silent on a number of issues related to repatriation. In a statement issued on 10 December 2014 concerning the resettlement of a family that took the total number of resettled refugees to 80,000, the Embassy of the United States in Nepal failed to highlight the rights of a chunk of refugees still in camps awaiting repatriation. This is an indication that the United States perceives resettlement as the only durable solution, and has possibly given up on persuading Bhutanese leaders to change their policies.

This perception has long been dominant. In the fall of 2007, prior to the formal announcement of the resettlement programme, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey told the media that Bhutanese leaders, including the fourth king, were most gracious in thanking the United States for taking a major step in trying to solve the stalemate. Although no words concerning the fundamental rights of the remaining Nepali-speaking population in Bhutan were disclosed, one can only hope that the meeting was also aimed at warning Bhutan against further eviction of the tens of thousands of Nepali-speakers living in Bhutan without citizenship. Without international pressure, the possibility of a second round of evictions from Bhutan cannot be discounted.

Hall thinks that the US should exert pressure, but suspects that Bhutan would be unreceptive. He also argues that resettlement provides Bhutanese refugees the opportunity to attract attention to Bhutan’s poor human rights record. This opportunity has not gone unnoticed. In November 2014, community leaders from ten US states flew to Washington, DC for a congressional briefing supported by Hindu American Foundation, an Indian-American advocacy organisation based in the US. The delegates of this congressional briefing called it ‘Bhutan Advocacy Day’ and met with officials of the US State Department tending to Southasian affairs. According to one participant, the delegates also raised the issue of repatriation, and received positive assurances from officials.

Durable solutions
As Khadka moves on after finally becoming a naturalised American citizen, the wish of his parents to return to Bhutan from the refugee camps in Nepal will probably go unaddressed. Given the fact that Western countries are motivated only to resettle these refugees, Khadka’s parents will likely be left in limbo. They have only two options – either be resettled or continue to stay in camps. The latter option provides no solution, and although the former is achievable at this time, they seem not to prefer it. While Khadka and others in the diaspora secure their futures, Bhutan must consider the merits of a national reconciliation package that recognises these refugees as the country’s citizens. Such a package would not only allow for the repatriation of those wanting to return, but would also pave the way for Bhutan and those it exiled to work together for the prosperity of the country.

~ T P Mishra is majoring in international studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. A recently naturalised American citizen, Mishra is also former chief editor of Bhutan News Service.

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