The Lhotshampa refugees from Bhutan in the camps of southeast Nepal have finally raised some dust. Having tarried for over five years on UN HCR dole, waiting for desultory talks between Thimphu and Kathmandu to bear fruit, some refugees finally decided that they wanted to go back home.
As they crossed the Indo-Nepal frontier at the Mechi bridge in mid-January on their way to Phuntsoling, the Bhutanese border town more than a hundred km away, the government of India was, for the first time, forced to show its hand. It slapped a prohibitory order (Sec 144 Cr.P.C.) on the rallyists and arrested many, some of whom remained behind bars in Siliguri more than a month later.
New Delhi, which holds the cards on the crisis due to its influence over Thimphu, has steadfastly maintained that it desires no part in a bilateral issue between the two kingdoms. This translates as strong support for King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, whose government´s determined agenda at the turn of the decade led to the outflow of the Lhotshampa, who are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese from the country´s south. The arrest of the peace marchers was the first, and forced, act of the Indian government on the matter.
On the refugees´ side, too, this was a first. Quarrelsome factions that call themselves political parties and human rights groups have mushroomed behind myopic personalities, and a common platform has till date proved impossible. Even while one group sits in dharna at the Indo-Nepal border, for example, another group organises a rival cycle rally in Siliguri. Accusations are flying.
Fortunately for the refugees, so is the dust. Having managed at last to get coverage in the Indian national dailies, the level of public awareness where it matters has risen above zero. On 30 January, West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu wrote to Prime Minister P.V. Narashimha Rao urging him to try to resolve the problem.
Another significant development has been the support for the Lhotshampa from the Nepali-speaking populace of Darjeeling, Sikkim and the Duars, next-door to Bhutan. Partly a function of jockeying for position in the upcoming general elections in India, this should be worrisome to Thimphu strategists. At the same time, it threatens to add an unnecessary ´ethnic´ Nepali colour to a matter which should be seen as a humanitarian issue.
As far as Kathmandu is concerned, in pure theory, this is not Nepal´s problem: the Lhotshampa are Bhutanese who happen to speak Nepali. Nevertheless, 87,000 refugees are housed in Nepal, and in four years of bilateral talks, the smart and savvy Bhutanese diplomatic machinery has managed to waylay at every turn Kathmandu´s blundering efforts at securing a Lhotshampa return. Thimphu´s strategy has been to stonewall the issue while trying to undercut UNHCR´s support for the refugees. If support from the refugee agency were to dip, and the quality of life in the refugee camps were to drop below that of the surrounding Nepali countryside, people would leave the camps. The Lhotshampa would join the South Asian diaspora of Nepali-speakers, and the demographic threat to the Bhutanese state, as the Thimphu autocrats see it, would be solved.
In the fifth year of the crisis, however, thinking persons in Thimphu without a direct role in the depopulation policy must be worried. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair, the crisis has continued for much too long and has soiled Bhutan´s image as a Shangri La.
The masterful public relations of Dawa Tshering, the world´s longest-serving foreign minister, has ensured thus far that the true extent of the refugee crisis is not appreciated beyond embassies in Kathmandu. International media attention on the refugees has been lacking, and foreign assistance to Bhutan from a few carefully cultivated donor nations has, if anything, risen.
Nevertheless, even Mr Tshering´s peak efficiency has not succeeded in making the refugees disappear into the South Asian night. The longer the crisis festers, the worse it is for Bhutan´s image and, ultimately, its internal political dynamics. Even an eventual return of the Lhotshampa will not be without its problems. The peasantry that was herded out a few years ago would come back with a taste of the outside world and of politics, and with a sense of having been wronged.
This is called painting yourself into a comer.