HMG, RGOB & GOT: The triumvirate of inaction and Bhutans refugee crisis

When New Delhi and Thimphu fail to act, that's to their perceived benefit. When Kathmandu fails to act, that's to its detriment, and to that of the refugees.

Not since 1991, when the exodus of Lhotshampa refugees to Nepal was at its peak, have events in Bhutan made such headlines in the region's press. It is true that the so-called sweeping changes, in King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's own words, "to promote even greater participation in the decision-making process" caught many Bhutan-watchers off-guard. However, it should not be forgotten that the announced changes fail to acknowledge, or even address, the ongoing plight of the over 93,000 Lhotshampa (Southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin) refugees, who have been living in camps in South Eastern Nepal since being expelled from their country.

Fortunately for the refugees and the precarious situation of human rights in the mountain kingdom, not everyone is convinced that there have been substantive changes within the Bhutanese polity. A draft resolution on the Bhutanese refugee problem was prepared by a coalition of non-governmental organisations for the 50th Session of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which met in Geneva from 3 to 28 August 1998. While the resolution was ultimately withdrawn owing to intense lobbying by the Bhutanese delegation to block its acceptance, a Chairman's Statement calling for "negotiation in good faith" was approved and read before the Sub-Commission on 19 August.

While the Chairman's Statement carries less weight than a resolution, it is nevertheless significant for several reasons. To begin with, it represents a consensus text, which means that it was negotiated and agreed to by all 26 experts who make up the Sub-Commission. It is also notable because it recognises the human rights implications of the Royal Government of Bhutan's resettlement policy on lands formerly belonging to the refugees. Finally, in his closing remarks, the Chairman called for further consideration of the Bhutanese refugee issue at the next (51st) session of the Sub-Commission in August 1999.

The Chairman's Statement hurts the Thimphu government on the international front and bolsters sympathy for the refugees. This has been a modest achievement for the refugees' cause, given the otherwise dismal picture. The stalemate in resolving the refugee crisis continues, meanwhile, due to the failure of His Majesty's Government of Nepal (HMG) to come up with a clear strategy for itself, coupled with the obdurate stand of Bhutan in the bilateral talks, India's silence, and the well-intentioned but weak pressure applied by the international community. A new strategy for resolving the Bhutanese refugee problem is clearly long overdue, but for reasons that will be made self-evident, at the moment the impetus for further progress in the Bhutanese refugee impasse rests almost entirely with Nepal.

For the moment, the Government of Nepal is alone in its attempt to find a solution to the refugee problem affecting the country's southeastern districts of Jhapa and Morang. To continue to profess faith that the bilateral talks with Thimphu will eventually lead to progress is futile. Instead, a complete change of course and a multi-faceted plan of action is recommended.

Officially, HMG must bring forward a draft resolution seeking United Nations' intervention on the Bhutanese refugee situation at the next session of the UN Commission on Human Rights which meets in Geneva in March 1999. Once the draft resolution is on the table, a debate will be generated which will create pressure on the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) to shift from its present intransigent position. Thimphu is very aware that its international position seems quite unassailable today only because Nepal's diplomacy has been played at such a low key.

Also, the Nepali government should consider referring a formal inter-state complaint to the International Court of Justice at The Hague on the limited issue of determination of citizenship of refugees in the UNHCR-administered camps of southeastern Nepal. This process is likely to expose the inaccuracy of RGOB's position that the majority of the refugees are illegal migrants from India or elsewhere who have come in to the camps as free-loaders.

Finally, Kathmandu must send an articulate special envoy of ministerial rank to all European Union (EU) and North American capitals, as well as to Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi. The envoy must have a clear brief based on two previous recommendations: the draft resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights and the complaint submitted to the International Court of Justice. The Chairman's Statement on the Bhutanese refugee situation read before the 50th Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities could also be a useful lobbying tool.

No real progress has been made in the Bhutan-Nepal bilateral talks since the first joint ministerial talks held in Kathmandu in October 1993, when a categorisation scheme for identifying and classifying the refugees was agreed to by both sides. In fact, it is widely acknowledged that RGOB achieved an important diplomatic victory over HMG by getting the latter to agree to the categorisation scheme. Not only was it seen to strengthen the Bhutanese argument that many people living in the camps were not Druk citizens (which it has asserted from the very beginning of the crisis), but it also enabled Thimphu to successfully hold up the negotiation process on four other issues. There is no doubt that the Bhutanese side has been the stronger negotiator in the bilateral talks.

The Government of India (GOI) has been tellingly silent on all negotiations on the Bhutanese refugee issue. This is interesting, for Article 2 of the 1949 Treaty of Friendship states that "the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations". Despite the fact that tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees streamed through its borders in the early 1990s and today reside only an hour's drive from the Indo-Nepal border, India has thus far not exercised its right to offer advice, something that could have helped resolve the crisis. Why it has not done so has been the subject of much speculation and debate, although it is explicitly clear that India has taken sides with Bhutan for economic and geo-political reasons.

India provides substantial economic assistance to Bhutan. In fact, as a percentage of Bhutans GDP, GOI's aid has been as high as 59 percent (1983/84). Similarly, India plays a large part in financing Bhutan's five-year plans. The New Delhi government is contributing almost one-third out of the total outlay of BTN 30 billion (c. USD 700 million) in the current Eighth Five-year Plan (1998-2003) of Thimphu. India has also committed an additional BTN 4 billion in development subsidies, and this year contributed 31 percent of Bhutan's budget.

Moreover, in spite of King Jigme's efforts to reduce economic dependence on India, the bulk of Bhutan's trade still remains tied to India. These economic ties obviously serve to strengthen the political alliance between the two countries, albeit at the expense of the human rights of the Lhotshampa and, in a different context, of the larger Druk population.

Bhutan's total hydro-electric power generation potential is over 40 billion kWh, and India has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with it for planning and constructing various large-scale hydro-electric projects, and for receiving energy at a relatively low cost from them. Bhutan recognises India's need for electric power and is not averse to taking advantage of this dependency. In 1997, Bhutan increased the tariff for the sale of Chhukha power to India by 100 percent, from BTN 0.50 per unit to BTN 1.00 per unit. Over the past couple of years, Bhutan has signed three major hydropower agreements with India: the BTN 15 billion Tala hydro project; the BTN 2.56 billion Kurichu project; and the BTN 4 billion Dungsam project.

Strategic reasons also underlie India's continuing silence. In 1965, Thimphu signed a joint defence agreement with India and agreed to deploy the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT); the 1962 Indo-China border war underlined to Indian strategists the need for a friendly dispensation in Thimphu. The Indian Border Roads Organisation maintains the roads in Eastern Bhutan. This is because India is only too aware that Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state over which China claims sovereignty, has Bhutan on its vulnerable flank.

The need to keep in check China's influence in the region and to maintain a buffer state along this part of the Himalayan frontier makes India reluctant to criticise Bhutan. It is also cognisant of recent attempts by China to gain influence over Thimphu, and would prefer not to do anything significant and risk losing this important diplomatic and economic ally. After all, India's Defence Minister, George Fernandes, has said that China is India's "potential threat number one", and that the "underplaying of the Chinese threat could create a lot of problems for us [India] in the near future". And as a security analyst in Kathmandu writes, "No issue epitomises Indian security perception more than the Chinese threat."

Toothless pressure

While the European Parliament, in March 1996, passed a resolution calling on the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to come to a solution that would allow for the repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees, it did not yield any progress. That effort was well-intentioned, but it lacked the necessary "teeth" and hence failed to soften the position of the RGOB. The Nepali government did little to follow up on the resolution and, a year later, members of the European Parliament, in the face of meticulous lobbying by Thimphu, appeared to have second thoughts about their earlier position. In the meantime, a delegation of European parliamentarians paid an official visit to Bhutan, where they received the customary warm welcome from the Druk state machinery. King Jigme appears to have sent the parliamentarians back convinced that the refugee problem had been blown out of proportion by parties with vested interests.

The international community appears to have no intention of imposing economic sanctions and/or making reductions in development assistance to Bhutan as a way to force Thimphu to improve its stance on the refugee problem and its human rights record. As reported in Kuensel, Bhutan's only newspaper, 31 bilateral and multilateral donors, financial institutions and NGOs have pledged almost USD 459 million to assist Bhutan in its Eighth Five-Year Plan. Therefore, at least over the short term, investment, engagement and development partnerships, rather than the threat of sanctions or the withdrawal of foreign aid, appear to be the international donor agencies' policy with regard to Bhutan.

According to expatriate sources in the Bhutanese capital, the RGOB has, in fact, already carried out a study of the worst-case scenario in the event of aid cuts. Apparently, it has concluded that it can do without donor money if human rights groups are successful in influencing the aid policy of the West. While it remains doubtful whether Bhutan can survive economically in the long run without massive amounts of foreign aid and assistance it receives annually, the mere fact that such a calculation was made reveals the resolute position of King Jigme's government on the issue of Lhotshampa refugees.

And so the Bhutanese refugee problem approaches its eighth year with no end as yet in sight. While the Chairman's Statement to the members of the United Nations Sub-Commission is a positive (and long-overdue) sign of international concern and support for the refugees, it is important that the momentum created from this development not be lost, as happened with the European Parliament resolution in the past.

Unable to count on India for the diplomatic muscle that might well force the Royal Government of Bhutan to soften its position on the Lhotshampa refugees, His Majesty's Government of Nepal has little choice but to devise a new strategy for its dealings with Thimphu. The three recommendations listed above may not yield instant results, but at the bare minimum they will move the issue into a wider arena, which is long overdue.

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