For more than 15 years, the Bhutanese government painted circles around Kathmandu’s authorities, as well as those concerned in the international community, regarding the repatriation of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa refugees. After Thimphu’s Ngalong elites noticed a ‘demographic imbalance’ in the making during the late 1980s and early 1990s these erstwhile citizens of Druk Yul were unceremoniously herded out of the country and made stateless. For long years; the Lhotshampa made up the second-largest refugee community in Southasia, after the Afghans residing in the NWFP in Pakistan. They also had perhaps the poorest international refugee profile, weighed down by the ‘Shangri-La’ image of a home country that purported to be able to do no wrong, along with the subliminal understanding among many in the international community (including India) that there was always a Nepal to take the Lhotshampa in.
Fortunately, the steadfast support of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, helped the Lhotshampa to remain together as an exile community. This also allowed the refugees to maintain their desire to go back home to their hill villages in the southern districts of Bhutan. The Lhotshampa thus became a festering sore on the ‘happy’ image that Thimphu was trying so hard to promote. With constant prevarication, the leitmotif of the Bhutanese delegations during over 17 rounds of talks with Kathmandu, the refugees remained in limbo in the hot plains of Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal.
Given the unlikelihood of repatriation to Bhutan under the ‘right of return’ principle, the refugee leaders and concerned internationals started thinking of alternatives. The one that presented itself was third-country resettlement, and it seemed that the relative docility of the Nepali-speaking refugees made them a welcome category for Western countries with policies of taking in limited numbers of refugees. In 2006, the US announced that it would be willing to take in 60,000 refugees and more if required. Canada, Norway, Denmark New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands quickly followed suit with commitments to take in smaller numbers. The process of resettlement subsequently began in early 2008 under the aegis of the International Organisation for Migration, and to date more than 25,000 have already left for their new overseas home.
This process was almost unable to get off the ground in the first place due to wrong-headed notions among some in the refugee leadership, who maintained an all-or-nothing attitude on repatriation back to Bhutan. This created needless confusion as the right of return would not be abandoned in accepting resettlement, which was urgently required as a humanitarian measure. After all, there was fear of donor fatigue in supporting the seven refugee camps in Nepal, with repatriation looking to be a very remote possibility.
Thimphu went along quietly with the resettlement exercise, thinking that for the short to medium term the closure of the refugee camps would take care of a longstanding thorn in its side. That may indeed be true, but there was always the danger that refugees in the international diaspora would be able to organise better than in the muggy camps of Jhapa and Morang amidst a Kathmandu polity that has proven quite unable to internationalise the Lhotshampa refugees issue. Also, having been unable to make a dent in New Delhi’s policy with regards to repatriation – despite a decade and more of trying – the refugee leaders were ultimately more than willing to head overseas to continue the fight.
Now, this aspect of planning by the refugee leadership seems to be evolving at pace. Of particular note is the activism that took place at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, where in early December the commissioners heard for the first time an official human-rights report presented by Thimphu (see book review, ‘Bhutanese mists’). During demonstrations held outside of the HRC, the vocal presence of resettled Bhutanese in European countries, as well as those already there as refugees/exiles, clearly made an impact on the kind of questions the Bhutanese delegation were asked in the forum.
Looking ahead, it seems certain that the Bhutanese refugees scattered from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic will create a continuous noise, which the Thimphu government will find harder to ignore than the subdued voices emanating earlier from the refugee camps and Kathmandu. It may be that there will now be more pressure for repatriation to Bhutan than ever before. The way out for Thimphu would be for its newly democratic legislators to be open to repatriation for the Lhotshampa, the bulk of whom are doubtless citizens of Druk Yulthan rather than any other Southasian country. Further, with the Thimphu government having conceded in 2003 that some of those in the camps are indeed bonafide citizens, acting unilaterally in the current situation to take in even token numbers would do much to ameliorate the bitterness that has grown over the years.
For the moment, given the options open in the West, it is likely that many will choose not to return, but the principle of right to return will have been upheld. By accepting the principle of repatriation of all who were Bhutanese citizens before their brutal ouster nearly two decades ago, Thimphu would be able to erase a blot that will otherwise remain forever in the history books of Southasia.