January 17, 2020
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The Muddle Of Nowhere

91,000 Lhotsampas languish in refugee camps as Bhutan and Nepal bicker over their status

The Muddle Of Nowhere

FAR away from the seminars on prime ministerial doctrines for a peaceful South Asia, a decade old dispute lies unresolved and largely ignored. About 90,000 "Bhutanese refugees" languish in camps in the Jhapa and Moreng districts of southeastern Nepal, supported by a phalanx of aid agencies, yet without rights of citizenship or statehood.

They sit in front of row upon row of thatched huts, weaving baskets, maintaining their cycles and attending adult education classes sponsored by the UNHCR, CARITAS, the Lutheran World Service, the World

Food Programme, the International Red Cross, Oxfam and others. They say they are the victims of "ethnic cleansing", they speak of torture, hounding and systematic genocide. Says Tsirimjip Lepcha, resident of the Pathiri camp in Moreng for the last four years: "We were confronted with a stark choice. Either stay in Bhutan and die at the hands of the King's army or flee. Now we have come to die here in these camps." These are the Lhotsampas, or citizens of Bhutan of Nepali origin, who say they were expelled from Bhutan because of the king's campaign of Drukpaisation. (Drukpa refers to the original ethnic inhabitants of Bhutan and their culture.) Says Santhi Ram Dhakal,

a former schoolteacher: "The king wants us to wear bakus (the Bhutanese national dress), to speak the Drukpa language, to follow the driglam namza, the code of conduct by which all 'pure' Bhutanese live. Although we are Hindus, we cannot practise our religion and in some instances some of us have even been forced to eat beef." In Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk is the upholder of Drukpa culture. In 1988 when the government of Bhutan began taking its first census, it reportedly discovered that a large number of its so-called citizens, ethnic Nepalis living in southern Bhutan, were in fact illegal immigrants taking advantage of the Dragon Kingdom's free education and health care. As per the Bhutanese Citizenship Law, only those resident in the country before 1958 can avail of citizenship.

At the same time, the movement for greater democracy in Bhutan began to gather momentum, led by Lhotsampas like Bhim Subba who had risen to prominence within the Bhutanese state. Kathmandu believes the Nepali population in the south was expelled because they had started to challenge the authority of the king, and that the census findings were just a pretext. For its part, Bhutan argues that the struggle for democracy had nothing to do with the fact that some of these Lhotsampas are "illegal aliens" whose population growth would soon outstrip that of the Drukpas themselves and pose a demographic threat to Bhutanese distinctiveness.

However, the refugees claim that they are valid citizens of Bhutan and have land tax and citizenship records to prove it. Says Remukanta Dhakal, a former lower division clerk in Bhutan who is now a resident of the camp: "The ethnic Nepalis of Bhutan were helping to make Bhutan a modern state. They wanted to bring a modicum of democracy to Bhutan. But the Drukpa elite is trying to resist this because they want to keep a monopoly on Bhutan's resources and so they forced us out. " Leaders of the 'democratic' movement like Teknath Rizal and Rongthong Kuenley are in jail, the former in Bhutan and the latter in Delhi's Tihar.

Says Lila Prasad Sarma, director of the refugee division at Kathmandu: "These people have been in Bhutan since 1625. Although the refugees have been divided into several categories, there is no doubt that the majority of them were expelled." A few kilometers from the small bustling town of Damak in Jhapa district are the Beldangi camps, which were set up by the UNHCR after the problem in Bhutan prompted an exodus. Black clouds boil over the horizon at Beldangi. In the grey drizzle, the little vegetable patches that the refugees are cultivating look a bit pathetic. A feeble banana tree droops over a dried up well. Says Ram Prasad Karel, an orange farmer who claims he was forced at gunpoint to leave his home in the Samdrupdzonkhar district of Bhutan: "I had 21 acres, I used to grow cardamom, oranges. But now my house is burnt and I live in one room with my family. There's no work. The foreign agencies give us rations. We live like caged animals."

THE World Food Programme provides rations that are distributed by the UNHCR: rice, lentils, vegetables and oil. Says Dinesh Shreshtha of the UNHCR: "Most of the people in these camps are unable to work. They are old and infirm or minors. Those who are able to work have found employment with Save The Children or other aid agencies as doctors, engineers and other semi-skilled employees. The young move around. Some have gone to India and some have even gone abroad. The aid agen cies have provided scholarships of study to colleges in India. In fact, Bhutan's long-term strategy is that they become assimilated into the local population, they will not have to take them back." Interestingly, Shreshtha points out that the international donor agencies have scrutinised the papers of the Lhotsampas and found that most of them are in fact bona fide Bhutan citizens.

However, the Bhutanese government inists that these inhabitants of the Jhapa camps were not expelled and that Nepal has lured them away from Bhutan to form a hostile ethnically Nepali enclave to counteract the presence of the Biharis in the terai. The king himself is said to have pleaded with the Lhotsampas to ask them not to leave Bhutan. The Lhotsampas, it is argued, have left because of the rich benefits offered to them by the aid agencies: earlier $5 a day was provided, now rations and opportunities for study are offered. Even the UNHCR admits that the standard of living in the refugee camps is far better than it is in the surrounding villages.

The residents of the camps tell a diferent story, arguing that they enjoy no privileges and did not move to Nepal voluntarily. Says Nityananda Timsinha, a student: "We are powerless. We are not allowed to organise ourselves here because the Nepal government has forbidden all political activity. I have been severely beaten. My legs were crushed between wooden planks. The only reason the Indian government is not listening to us is because of the king's friendship with India." Says Tek Bahadur Subba, a teacher in a camp school: "We may be refugees but we have our pride. Do you think we like living like this?"

Where does the truth about these 'refugees' lie? Bhutan insists they are frauds, Nepal says they are victims of human rights abuse. The case is often unfairly weighted against Bhutan because monarchies are too politically incorrect to be right about anything. Yet even the workers at UNHCR say that some of the refugees have actually benefited from their association with the aid agencies. Both governments are now agreed that not all the residents of the camps are what they claim to be. A camp supervisor says on condition of anonymity that there are several people here from India just taking advantage of the benefits of aid.

So as the two Himalayan neighbours wrangle about a dispute that goes to the heart of the character of the two nation-states—Bhutan with its fragile Buddhist-monarchical culture and Nepal with its hordes of impoverished border-crossers—one lakh people sit idle in lifeless camps, awaiting an increasingly remote solution.

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