The paradox of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who had been languishing in the UNHCR-supported seven refugee camps in Nepal for over two decades stood in sharp contrast with the Gross National Happ-iness (GNH) so vehemently promoted by Bhu-tan and so graciously appreciated by the development community including donors, academics and governments in developed countries. The Bhutanese refugee population stands close to one sixth of Bhutan’s controversial population figure ranging from anywhere between 600,000 to 1.2 million. The irony is stark when seen through the lens of compassion imbedded in the Buddhist philosophy of love for all human beings that is supposed to be the central theme of Bhutan’s development philosophy.
The Bhutanese refugees are victims of the policy of “One Nation, One People” followed by Bhutan that does not tolerate non-Buddhist and non-Drukpa population. They became refugees after they had been forcefully evicted from Bhutan beginning in early 1990s and mostly between 1992 and 1993. The struggle of refugees for dignified repatriation had been a journey of despair and hopelessness for so many years. Not a single refugee could return home. Finally, there seems to be some
light at the end of the tunnel as they are being settled by some core group of countries including the US, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Doubtlessly, the concept
of GNH is a political maneuver used by the rulers in Bhutan to divert world’s attention away from this huge human crisis deliberately created for its policy of demographic containment in the country. The happiness being promoted is only for a select group of elite ruling class and high officials and it disregards the well being and living conditions of the majority of Bhutanese and more so of those that do not fall within the political paradigm of Drukpa race and Buddhist religion.
Above all, the UNHCR’s support to Bhutanese refugees in Nepal—from feeding them to helping in their resettlement—is commendable. It is also imperative for us to recognise and appreciate the willingness of these eight countries to settle and give them the right to dignified lives as human beings. It is one of the biggest tragedies that Bhutan does not want to accept the fact that they are Bhutanese refugees. The Bhutanese government has begun to declare openly and shamelessly that these refugees are illegal immigrants. Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley’s recent interview to Aljazeera is a testament to this fact. One day, Bhutan must take full responsibility for this human holocaust, but the authorities do not seem to have thought about the long term costs to the reputation of Bhutan as a peace-loving country. Instead, Bhutan blames UNHCR, bilateral agencies, Nepal and other donors for looking after the refugees and giving them some hope. The refugees are the people who had converted the malaria-prone thick forest of Southern Bhutan into productive agricultural lands, contributed free labour in setting up infrastructure and when the fruits of development started coming, they were evicted. The countries where the refugees have resettled would benefit tremendously in the long run as these people are honest, hard working and would be dedicated citizens in any country the decide to call home.
In fact, more developed countries ought to come forward and be part of the resettlement process. The countries that are accepting
small numbers may like to consider an increase as more and more refugees in the camps
are coming forward to register for third
country settlement. UNHCR, resettling governments, International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and other donors would do well to involve more Bhutanese in the process as they would have a better understanding of the needs of their countrymen. There are many Bhutanese settled in the developed countries who can be of great assistance.
In the end, UNHCR, IOM and the resettling governments need to be commended for upholding international law and giving hope to these people who have suffered a lot. For its part, Bhutan, if it really claims to have a democratic government, needs to urgently reassess its human rights record and the treatment of its citizens. It is imperative for Bhutan to respect the principles of compassion Buddhism upholds and embark on development efforts based on this principle and international human rights covenants. It cannot forever run away from the truth.
(The author teaches development studies at the Menno Simons College, University of Winnipeg, Canada)
Posted on: 2010-09-08 08:52