Bhutan's ethnic cleansing
Published 01 February 2008
Bill Frelick examines the plight of Bhutan's stateless ethnic Nepalese. Read alsoMichael Hutt's background to the upcoming Bhutanese elections.
Bhutan¶s image as an otherworldly and harmonious kingdom was rocked on 20 January by coordinated bomb blastsin the capital, Thimpu, and three other locations. The bombs caused minimal damage but generated politicalshockwaves at a time when the Himalayan state is struggling to transform itself from an autocratic monarchy into ademocracy. The second-round of Bhutan¶s first-ever elections, scheduled for 24 March, will test whether its embraceof democracy will include its entire people. The answer may determine whether change ultimately will be ushered intoBhutan by the ballot or the bomb. Although Bhutanese police initially listed Nepal-based exile groups as their top bombing suspects, their suspicionswere based more on their knowledge of historical grievances than forensic evidence. A hitherto unknown group, theUnited Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, claimed responsibility, saying that Thimpu¶s changes were cosmetic and wouldnot benefit all Bhutanese. Though such bombings are never justified, the alarms they sound should not be ignored.This salvo should warn the government to be inclusive in its experiment with democratization. To start, it needs toaddress a blot on Bhutanese history that remains unresolved.In the late 1980s Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population as a demographic and cultural threat.The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixthof the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion. After a campaign of harassment that escalated in the early 1990s, Bhutanese security forces began expelling people,first making them sign forms renouncing claims to their homes and homeland. ³The army took all the people fromtheir houses,´ a young refugee told me. ³As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly,happily, that I was not forced to leave.´Today, about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutaneseauthorities have not allowed a single refugee to return. In 2006, the US government, seeing an impasse, offered toresettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees. Processing has been slow to start, and the first refugees are not likely todepart until March. After 17 years of deadlock, the coincidental synchronization of elections in Bhutan and resettlement of Bhutaneserefugees to the United States plays into the fears of some refugees, who believe the US is conspiring with Bhutan tokeep ethnic Nepalis from repatriating and asserting their rights. These refugees insist that return to Bhutan is the onlyacceptable solution and they are increasingly intimidating refugees who want to accept the US offer - throughbeatings, burning huts, and death threats.Even if the Bhutanese government were to respect their right to repatriate under international law, its treatment of theethnic Nepalis who still live in Bhutan suggests that the basic rights of returnees cannot be guaranteed.