It seems serious, though you can never quite tell about this sort of thing. Certainly the early October announcement by the United States that it is willing to take in almost 60 percent of the Bhutani refugees languishing in Nepal is some of the most serious rhetoric to arise from the 16-year-old issue in a long while, if not since the very beginning of the ordeal. The news was followed by reports that several other countries, including Canada and Australia, have offered to take in smaller numbers.
The refugees themselves are taking the sudden development very seriously indeed, although for seemingly diametrically opposed reasons. Following the US announcement, secretaries at six of the seven refugee camps in southeast Nepal publicly lauded the offer, assuring naysayers that the Thimphu government could still be effectively pressured by refugees who resettle abroad. Others, particularly several high-profile refugee leaders, including onetime prisoner of conscience Tek Nath Rizal, have long warned against such resettlement offers for the possibility of splintering the refugee cause. They decry the US offer, and UNHCR for being amenable to the idea. Rizal believes that such initiatives provide tacit approval to Thimphu’s early 1990s expulsion of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa, and he has accused the US along with the international community of “working to defend the Bhutanese king”.
Rhetoric aside, we agree with that stance, in part. There is strength in numbers and there is the possibility of dispersal of the issue as refugees are resettled. Thimphu would surely benefit from third-country resettlement, which smacks as an unfair release of the guilty party. At the same time, 16 years worth of unity has done little to comfort the 106,000 Lhotshampa, who continue to wait in declining conditions on borrowed land with little future. Now could be the time to graciously accept the situation as a critical humanitarian one, rather than simply as a political one. As foreign governments – most notably the US – draw up policies regarding the Lhotshampa, they must take care to clarify to Thimphu that it would be absolutely unacceptable for the royal government to see the partial or complete emptying out of the camps in Jhapa and Morang districts as a green-light to fill them back up, with the depopulation targeting the remaining Lhotshampa in Bhutan, thought to number a little more than those in the camps.
Even though we feel the injustice that would be caused by resettlement letting Thimphu off the hook in terms of having to face a complete repatriation, even more important is the need to salvage the humanitarian situation. With Nepal as the aggrieved state unable to force India to bring its influence to bear on Thimphu, it is better to consider the resettlement offer now that it has been made credibly.
The tenacity of the US on the Lhotshampa issue deserves a salute, not only for deciding on this current step but for a decade of taking real interest in the situation of the Lhotshampa at a time when India in particular has been decidedly lukewarm. Himal continues to stand by previous editorials in these pages, which have argued that the ideal way for this issue to have played out would have had the Kathmandu government successfully tri-laterilising the issue by bringing in New Delhi. But if matters go a different route, particularly with the Nepali government currently grappling with its own massive internal issues, India is not let off of the hook. Policymakers must now move to assure that similar depopulation actions are not triggered against other Nepali-speaking communities in India’s Northeast by the fact that resettlement seems to come so ‘easy’ for them.
Rizal and others are now anxiously awaiting the 16th round of bilateral talks between Kathmandu and Thimphu, tentatively slated for 21 and 22 November, saying that Washington DC, Kathmandu and UNHCR should hold off making any decision on resettlement until after the summit concludes. And indeed, with the sudden movement on the refugee issue in international circles, the Bhutani government may surprise everyone and see the issue in a new light. But given the track record of the previous 15 meetings, it is best not to build hopes on that one.