The Ethnic Statement on Bhutan: Who Will Upset Whose Applecart?

Druk Yul, the Kingdom of Bhutan, is within striking distance of what all South Asian countries want-development But now it has an unsettling refugee problem on its hands.

Less than a decade ago, Bhutan, the last lamaist Buddhist monarchy in the Himalayas, was considered the ideal locale in which the Sri Lankan government and rebel Tamil militants might negotiate a solution to their violent ethnic conflict. Within a couple of years, however, Bhutan itself had turned into another theatre of ethnic strife, this one pitting the dominant Buddhist communities in northern Bhutan against an immigrant Nepali Hindu community in the southern third of the kingdom. The situation quickly became a stalemate, and for the past five years it has remained the most significant political issue in the country, although it tends to be treated as a problem of law and order.

If one reads the proceedings of Bhutan´s Tshongdu (National Assembly) and speeches by its members, one rarely finds a forward-looking statement that rises above populism and xenophobia. Nor has there been an honest effort to identify issues affecting the body politic. However, the Tshongdu is handicapped as a forum for dissenting voices, and structural reforms in the style of representation are badly needed. Visitors to Bhutan are told that political reforms are on King Jigme Singye Wangchuck´s agenda but that he is unsure about the timing of their introduction and his subjects´ response.

The Tshongdu and most of the national fora are located in Thimphu, the capital. District development councils continue to operate out of district headquarters, but under the benign gaze of the bureaucracy, and village groups appear to suffer from "development fatigue". But, in what seems to be a step in the right direction, villages have been grouped into blocks (geong) for developmental purposes, and it is said that the most important recent development has been ´democratisation´ at the block and village levels. This means that villagers and the gups and mandals (heads of village councils) are now deciding their development priorities without the dzongda (district commissioner). It has reached the point, according to reports, where bureaucrats are now resigning their posts and contesting elections to the Tshongdu. Southern Bhutan, however, is totally paralysed structurally, and development priorities have been adversely affected, if not shelved.

In 1994-95, the Bhutanese government netted revenue worth Nu 1,686 million. That was a mere 1.7 percent short of the expenditure that year. Electricity, trade and tourism contributed two-thirds of the total revenue and were the most paying sectors in descending order. The top six dzongkhangs (districts) in order of revenue were Chukha, Thimphu, Samtse (Samche), Samdruk Jongkhar, Paro and Sarpang (Sarbhang), which contributed 96 percent of the income. It is instructive that four of these districts are in southern Bhutan, a predominantly Nepali-speaking (or Lhotshampa, meaning southerners) territory. The rest of the 14 districts in the northern and interior areas provided a mere 3 percent to the exchequer, and required a higher rate of investment and expenditure.

Despite the overall rosy picture, the finance minister is candid in acknowledging that there are dark clouds hovering over the national economy. While project and programme implementation has been satisfactory, development activity—particularly in the southern districts— has been hampered by frequent riots and what are said to be acts of militancy by Lhotshampa dissidents. Similarly, progress in trade and industry continued to be disrupted, as all major commercial and industrial centres are located in southern Bhutan. The government has had to engage a large number of security personnel to protect industries, service facilities and forests, as well as people´s lives.

The controversial claim that Bhutan has only about 600,000 bone fide subjects has helped the country achieve another miracle. The Human Development Report issued by UNDP lists Bhutan among the least developed countries. But by adjusting the claimed population figure, per capita income, literacy and life expectancy, Bhutan´s ranking went up from 162 to somewhere around 130. Bhutan, however, is one of the few countries in which statistics do tell lies. And the reality is that the social development undertaken is far more significant than the achievement rates indicate.

Closing Ranks

By tradition, Bhutan is a Buddhist monarchy in which the Drukpa community has been ethnically dominant; it is also a country in which predominantly Hindu Nepali-speaking immigrants have been living for nearly a century as subsistence farmers in the southern foothills. In other words, this Lamaist kingdom has a sizeable immigrant population strategically located in a frontier zone over which the centre may not have complete control. The land-hungry Lhotshampa farmers have actively contributed to the economic development of Bhutan, turning the "negative" southern area into a vibrant zone of prosperity. Many of them were educated and sent abroad on scholarships, after which they returned to fill responsible government posts. They took advantage of the state policy of ethnic assimilation in which cash grants of Nu 5,000, later increased to Nu 10,000, were given by the government to encourage inter-ethnic marriages. This provision stands withdrawn now.

But when the Drukpa establishment saw a threat to the monarchy, the religion and the laws of Bhutan, it required the Lhotshampa to accept the national traditions and be incorporated into the system. This resulted in an ethnic flare-up leading to the flight of thousands of the Nepali-speakers to refugee camps in Nepal, including many who left government positions.

The argument goes on about the future return of the Lhotshampas. What face will returnees show to those left behind in the camps and to those who did not leave Bhutan in the first place? Will the government rely on them again to fill responsible posts? Will the Lhotshampa in Bhutan, who have been subjected to violence by the dissidents, accept them again? And can those who left the country willingly—sometimes against the pleas of state functionaries—even be termed refugees?

In the face of a worldwide uproar in favour of the refugees, the Bhutanese establishment, from King Jigme to the least significant functionary, closed ranks and made a concerted effort to counteract what they claimed was Nepalese disinformation. Cabinet ministers, High Court judges, articulate members of the Tshongdu, senior bureaucrats, and above all, the king himself, worked aggressively to explain their point of view. They prepared reports and statistics, sent delegations to various fora where the refugee issue was debated; invited scholars, journalists, jurists, and concerned opinion leaders to Bhutan; welcomed representatives of UNHCR, the refugee agency, as well as dignitaries from the United States, India and other countries; and engaged in talks with His Majesty´s Government of Nepal to try to resolve the deadlock.

The effort has paid off. The Bhutanese have successfully portrayed themselves as victims of a Nepali conspiracy, as people who had nothing to hide and whose only objective was self-preservation. The diplomatic offensive mounted by the small Bhutanese establishment has been so effective that despite the uproar, the refugees have been left with no significant support voice in world fora.

Withdrawal Syndrome

Bhutanese policy makers do not hide their rejection of some Western ideological and cultural concepts. At Bhutan´s stage of national development, they feel, Western concepts of representative democracy, competitive party systems, consumer culture, and standards of human rights, as well as activities of NGOs (church-sponsored or otherwise) could pose a serious threat. They say that the economic growth required for the welfare of the population needs political stability, and they fear religious plurality will go against the grain of age-old Bhutanese traditions in which life revolves around the institution of religion. Such ideological underpinnings have resulted in a kind of withdrawal syndrome.

The Bhutanese, who have developed a sense of confidence in their ability to handle the ethnic conflict in their own way, believe the talks with Nepal (seven in all, with Kathmandu governments of all hues) have deflated the issue. Once the talks were underway, it became a game of numbers. The Bhutanese accept that some of the refugees will return to Bhutan, but many of them will remain in Nepal; some may opt for India, although India is not officially involved in the negotiations. Bhutanese officials hasten to add, however, that those who do return are certain to face social, economic, cultural, and even administrative problems. They are also worried about the role of the international NGOs that have been active in the refugee camps.

In Thimphu´s perspective, the refugees in the Jhapa camps are deserters, and not the victims of any state-organised eviction. In support of this view, officials cite an account of the departure of Lhotshampas from Dorokha block in Samchi district in April 1994 on the eve of the third round of Bhutan-Nepal negotiations. After 44 families (269 members) had filed papers to leave Bhutan, officials advised them not to leave and reminded them that under Bhutanese laws they would lose their citizenship if they emigrated.

The king issued an edict (sasho) to the dzongda instructing them to "meet with all the families who have to emigrate, and do your utmost to persuade them not to leave the country". Those who withdrew their applications and returned to their villages would be exempt from all rural taxes for three years. Just five families and two individuals decided to stay back in Bhutan and the rest left for the Jhapa camps. Unlike in the past, most of them were Brahmins by caste. It is an odd experience to watch an 180-minute-long videocassette prepared by the government which shows a persuasive state establishment, represented by the Samchi dzongda and superintendent of police, on the one hand and the impassive but determined heads of the households from Dorakha Block.

Those Who Stayed

It seems that dissident violence has continued against the loyal Lhotshampas, especially those with official status. In some of the villages, these officials cannot spend nights in their own homes. In the first half of 1995, in Sarpang district alone, dissidents are said to have committed as many as 440 crimes against Lhotshampa—murder, kidnapping, rape, assault, and damage to property.

One can see barren, overgrown paddy fields, deserted villages, and crumbling houses all over southern Bhutan. While they do fear the violence from former neighbours now in the refugee camps, the loyal Lhotshampa are losing faith in the Bhutanese system as well. Although the king, the royal family, and a number of higher officials have been sympathetic to the Lhotshampa who have stayed, many Drukpas do not hide their pleasure at the plight of the Nepalis who remain behind.

From the two southern districts of Samchi and Sarpang, with an estimated population of 45,000 and 50,000 respectively (and less than ten percent Drukpa inhabitants), as many as 40,000 Nepalese have fled to the refugee camps. These refugees were more from the newer villages than from the larger and older settlements.

The village of Taklai in Sarpang is today totally deserted. The inhabitants have moved en masse to the refugee camps or elsewhere because the living conditions became difficult or because the overall atmosphere became too intimidating. It did not matter that this area had one of the most developed small irrigation projects in the southern Duars. The Lhotshampa abandoned their properties and rushed to the camps, obviously in the hope that quickly enough they would come to Bhutan on their own terms.

Once they left, even if temporarily, households were looted—of roofing sheets, tiles, doors, windows, wooden beams and frames—by thieves, bullies, businessmen or unscrupulous officials. All over these southern districts, one can see long stretches of fields unattended for some seasons side by side with patches of well-cultivated paddies and orchards. The economy of southern Bhutan is completely stagnant.

Naturally, King Jigme is under heavy pressure to allot the fallow land to his loyal Lhotshampa or to the morethan-loyal Drukpa. There is another powerful lobby which seeks to cash in on the current international environmental emphasis by converting these agricultural lands, developed by the sweat of generations of Lhotshampa, back to the original jungle. This is not something that will be hard to do in the tropical sub-Himalayan terrain, where regeneration is swift. It is to King Jigme´s credit that these deserted lands have not been usurped by aggressive lobbyists of any kind. However, this also leads to speculation that the Drukpa establishment at the highest levels expects some of the refugees to return to Bhutan.

Those left behind in the villages, often from families which are now divided, are living under a sense of panic, fear, uncertainty and continuous harassment. The officials are invariably cold to them; the fugitive relatives are hostile; and they are scared to even venture out to the fields because of fear of attacks. Worst of all, many of them are considered spies by both sides—the Drukpa establishment as well as the refugees. They cannot even be hired as labourers, because the contractors prefer to bring in cheap and pliant workers from India (and Bangladesh). The economy is paralysed, so far as the Lhotshampa of southern Bhutan are concerned.

No Meeting Ground

For the Bhutanese authorities, the ethnic conflict represents a problem of law and order, and left to themselves, they would handle it in their own way. In the viewpoint of those who have left, the real issues facing the kingdom are not illegal immigration, anti-national activity, or terrorism as claimed by the government, but rather the establishment of political pluralism, democracy, and protection for human rights. The two sides are as far apart as it is possible to be in their perception.

The Thimphu view is that the Lhotshampas have abused the royal trust reposed in them. The Lhotshampa know that Druk Yul was a Drukpa country, with its own king, court, language, religion and laws. The immigrants must accept the national traditions and make an effort to be a part of this Bhutan. Once they do not accept the system and withdraw from it, they cease to have any claim for Bhutanese indulgence. Interestingly, there are a considerable number of articulate senior bureaucrats, not necessarily of Drukpa extraction, who hold such views. The Lhotshampa having showed their hand, an aggressive policy of Bhutanisation is now being pursued. This may be seen in the discontinuation of Nepali and Sanskrit teaching in the schools, cancellation of cash incentives for inter-ethnic marriages, and the changing of the Nepali placenames back into Dzongkha: Samchi—Samtse, Sarbhang—Sarpang, etc.

Meanwhile the leaders of the refugees in the camps show signs of desperation. Nothing is going in their favour. The international support base for their cause is shrinking. They appear to be far from happy with the patronage they received from their ethnic brethren, i.e. the Nepalis of Nepal and their government. They are also terribly upset with the coldness with which the world fora have received their appeals. They are equally puzzled and distraught at the lack of response from the Indian media and political system. Despite their proverbial factionalism and inability to arrive at consensus among themselves, the refugee leaders have tried to do what is possible and logical; to educate the world and Indian public on their plight.

On the diplomatic front, the Bhutanese continue their aggressive and sophisticated lobbying. The refugees have had successes in getting media coverage in India, but the fact that they are divided into a dozen advocacy groups and political parties considerably weakens their clout. As far as the government of Nepal is concerned, the collapse of one government after another has meant changing faces and lack of continuity in the delegations which have met the Bhutanese side over the refugee issue.

The latest round of Nepal-Bhutan talks, in April, were led by the foreign ministers of each side, whereas all the earlier rounds were held at the home minister level. Meanwhile, the Indian authorities remain dismissive about the possibility of a role in resolving the conflict.

Political Ferment

The continuing diplomatic deadlock has given birth to some movements in the sultry camps in southeast Nepal. Their patience having stretched to the limit, the refugees have started to become restive. Despite continuing factionalism among their ranks, they have managed to cultivate a section of Indian human rights and democratic movement protagonists. Additionally, they have appealed to the sensibility of their ethnic Nepali-speaking cousins in Sikkim and in the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal. When the refugees fled Bhutan, they came by way of this region, known as the Duars, and they hope that the Indian Nepalis of this region will help facilitate the reverse journey to the Dragon Kingdom.

The political churning among the refugees has led to formation of two new groups, in addition to the political parties and human rights groups that already exist. These are the Bhutanese Coalition for Democratic Movement (BCDM), a political forum, and the Appeal Movement Coordination Council (AMCC), a human rights action group. After holding rallies and press conferences in Kathmandu, Delhi, Calcutta, Siliguri and elsewhere, they decided to march from their camps in Nepal to Bhutan across Indian territory to petition the Bhutanese king.

The BCDM is an umbrella organisation of political parties, youth fora and student organisations demanding drastic democratic changes in the body politic of Bhutan. The AMCC has appealed to the King for restoration of democratic rights and an early repatriation of the refugees, failing which they propose to file cases against the Royal Bhutan Government in Bhutanese courts. Apparently, while the former views the problems of the Bhutanese refugees as originating from a political crisis leading to arbitrary deprivation of subjecthood, the latter regards the issue as basically that of the violation of human rights.

Since January, the refugees have been staging demonstrations on the borders of Nepal and India at Kakarvitta across the Mechi river with their ethnic supporters from India and Nepal. The district administrations of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri have declared their assembly and march to Bhutan illegal and imposed prohibitory orders. This has forced the refugees to squat on the borders and court arrest. Close to two thousand people have been arrested and sent to jail. The in-custody death, in June, of one of the detainees gave the marchers cause for demonstrating against Indian authorities. At the same time, support from ethnic Nepalis is becoming more evident with a five-day strike having been called in late June in Darjeeling.

Cutting across political affiliations, the Congress, CPM, Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League and other political parties from Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri have expressed solidarity with these stateless persons. The state govern¬ment of West Bengal, which bears the brunt of the refugee march to Bhutan, has approached New Delhi for more forces immediately. It has also demanded that the central leadership find a resolution to this political problem, as it is not an internal problem of the state.

Meanwhile, King Jigme, in a state visit to New Delhi in March, sought to underscore the mutual interests that held India and Bhutan together. The Indian Home Min¬istry approached Bhutan to initiate an extradition treaty to handle the Bodo insurgents, who use the Bhutanese jungles for sanctuary. Economic ties were further strengthened with the signing of agreements on the Tala hydro-electric project and the Dungsum cement plant. And, no one has missed Bhutan´s enthusiastic espousal of India´s candidature to the United Nations Security Council.

Even as the refugees take the pitch of their agitation higher, the Thimphu government´s approach seems to be to ignore the refugees altogether, and go above their heads to concentrate on deepening ties with New Delhi.

In Shavian tradition, when there is a conflict between the monarch and popularly elected ministers, the monarch wins handsomely every time when personal ability and good sense are all equally divided, thus, upsetting the populist applecart. The wise king defeats the pompous, vain and arrogant populists. In the case of Druk Yul, who, indeed, will upset whose applecart, the Bhutanese royalists or the populist Lhotsamphas? The answer is anybody´s guess, as the Bhutanese diplomatic offensive continues while the refugee activism in the Duars seems to gather steam.

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