Lhotshampa go home

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kathmandu has officially broached the subject of third-country resettlement for the more than one lakh Lhotshampa refugees from Bhutan, who languish in seven camps in southeastern Nepal. For the first time ever, an officiating foreign secretary of the Nepali government has concurred that the idea can be considered for certain 'vulnerable' refugees, and will be allowing UNHCR to conduct a critical census of the camp's residents.

Ever since the Lhotshampa were discovered on the banks of the Mai River by a UNHCR official back in 1991, these refugees have been afforded international protection. Whereas other previous Nepali-speaking evictees from Burma and Meghalaya had to fend for themselves, the unpoliticised peasantry driven out by the government of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Druk Yul have been provided food and shelter through the support of the UNHCR and the World Food Programme, supported by various governments and INGOs such as the Lutheran World Federation. But the support has begun to dip in recent years, with education of refugee children suffering, and their rations becoming more meagre.

Thimphu has continuously conducted a farcical yet eminently successful diplomatic exercise to keep the Lhotshampa refugees from returning. While succeeding in depopulating a significant portion of its southern hills of the Lhotshampa inhabitants, a massive roadblock arose with the quick recognition of the evictees as refugees by the UNHCR. But after that initial setback, Thimphu has, over a series of 13 talks, stalled any repatriation – sometimes proposing a meaningless refugee-categorisation exercise, another time conducting a sample verification from which it withdrew on the excuse of disorderly conduct by the refugees. All the while, Bhutan has been aided by the continuous political turmoil in a Nepal saddled by commoner politicians new at diplomacy, a Maoist insurgency and, in the latest instance, a royal regime that for its own reasons had incipient sympathies for the Royal Government of Bhutan's actions against the Lhotshampa.

Fair game?

On the face of it, the call by the UNHCR representative in Kathmandu, as well as by the recently visiting UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner, for third-country resettlement seems a humanitarian response to a crisis that has gone on for too long. If Nepal and the international community are unable to do anything over 16 long years to provide a return to Bhutan with dignity (so the argument seems to go), should not the agency at least try to seek refuge elsewhere for the refugees? There are several questions that need to be asked on this score. Most critically, what do the refugees themselves want? While it would seem logical that many refugees would want to opt – like so many citizens of Nepal would, if asked – for resettlement to a European country, there are some interesting results in conversations with the refugees themselves. A recent series of interviews by the Nepali Times weekly also revealed that the refugees, whenever asked, all preferred to return to their homesteads in Bhutan.

There is also the question of how many of the displaced would really be welcomed by those Western states that have shown concern for the plight of the Lhotshampa. It must be kept in mind that the Lhotshampa have been eminently un-fashionable as refugees – just some more Nepali speakers in a sea of Nepali-speaking humanity of Southasia. Even UNHCR's own public information bulletins and pictorials have over the years tended to neglect the Lhotshampa of Jhapa and Morang districts, so it is not possible to take at face value the assurance of any significant number to be repatriated. The rest, supposedly, are to be settled in India and Nepal, with not even a tiny fraction being allowed back home to the hill terraces of Chirang, Sarbang or Samdrup Zonkhar (where many of the fields are said to have converted to jungle).

Against the on-the-face-of-it humanitarian argument of third-country resettlement is the fact that such a policy would provide success – a decade-and-a-half late for King Jigme's policy of uprooting and making stateless a full seventh of his kingdom's population. He and his Oxford-accented bureaucracy would thus be rewarded for malice, cruelty and – there is no other word for it – racism. Even more importantly, this capitulation by Nepal and the international community would suddenly make vulnerable Nepali-speaking communities all over the Indian landmass, and in particular in the Indian Northeast, which has already seen more than one instance of evacuation. Indeed, Indian citizens of Nepali origin are today nervously eyeing the international – and Indian government's – response to the call for third-country resettlement. The message that would go to sons-of-soil movements in India (and Bhutan itself) is that the Nepali-speakers are fair game for cleansing.


The initiative for the resolution of the Lhotshampa crisis must come from Nepal, the host country. Fortunately, today there is a democratic government in Kathmandu. Although a bit unstable because of the unfinished business of making peace and writing a new Constitution, that government must use all the energy and self-confidence it derives from the People's Movement to push the refugee issue to the front-burner. In the coming months, as some stability is achieved in the polity, the Kathmandu government must – for both humanitarian reasons and Nepal's internal security – engage Thimphu in a way that its attempts of subterfuge and prevarication will not succeed.

It is also time for Kathmandu to bring New Delhi formally into the picture. For a long time, the Kathmandu politicians have tried to shake Bhutan out of its obduracy by threatening to internationalise the issue, by raising it in the United Nations. It would be much more effective to `Indianise' the Lhotshampa refugee matter. The fact is that India is an interested party in the Lhotshampa issue, because the refugees used Indian territory — freely available to them — to enter Nepal. To return to Bhutan, the refugees would again have to cross Indian territory. Thus far, New Delhi has pushed back whosoever has wanted to march to Bhutan from Nepal, across the Mechi bridge at Pani Tanki. India is also an interested party, for the simple reason that it holds the key to the Bhutani gate.

It has been continuously unclear why India chooses not to use its considerable leverage on Thimphu to take back the refugees. We now believe that it is because of an extreme lack of consideration for the largest number of refugees presently existing anywhere in Southasia, outside the Afghans in Pakistan. The refugees would even be forgiven for believing that this neglect reflects a prejudice against Nepali-speakers. There are also those who believe that Bhutan's willingness to share its hydropower resource with an energy-starved Indian electricity grid has New Delhi holding off on an arm-twisting vis-à-vis the refugees, as also is the use of Thimphu as a steadfast supporter in international fora.

However, the most likely reason for this standoffishness on the Lhotshampa is the long-held Indian tradition of not acting against a regime in the 'sensitive' Himalayan rimland, unless the force of circumstances dictate some action. 'Don't fix what ain't broke,' has been New Delhi's attitude. Geopolitically that may be so, but there are more than a lakh broken lives whose deprivation will at some point stick on the diplomats and politicians of Delhi as well. Let them ask one question — what would an M K Gandhi or Nelson Mandela have said about the Lhotshampa refugees?

Kathmandu must move to make the status quo untenable. It must ratchet up its public diplomacy and engage New Delhi in order to resolve the Lhotshampa refugee issue — not through any kind of resettlement, but through repatriation to the home country, with appropriate guarantees given for the continued stability of the Drukpa state. Nepal must therefore promptly trilateralise the issue, and seek Indian presence in a three-way meeting between Thimphu, Kathmandu and New Delhi. It is time to send the Lhotshampa home. Nobody should suffer this much for speaking the 'wrong' language, or wearing the 'incorrect' dress.

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Himal Southasian