Though they fled or were forced out of Bhutan more than 18 years ago, Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalis have yet to return.
Altogether, more than 103,000 people of ethnic Nepali origin in Bhutan left that country in the 1990s after new citizenship laws were implemented. Many ended up in sparse refugee camps in Nepal.
The Bhutanese government says the majority of the refugees were illegal immigrants.
In the past few years, several thousands of refugees have resettled in the West — but thousands more still remain in the Nepalese camps.
Don Duncan is a freelance print and radio reporter and videographer who has reported from Afghanistan, France, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Nepal, Spain and the United States. He writes at World Politics Review about the situation of Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalese minority.
Bhutan’s Radicalized Refugees
When Matimya Moktan, 41, saw her husband Manbahadur standing unannounced in their doorway after a nine-year absence in prison, her heart sank.
“I was sad to see him back here again,” said Matimya, one of more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in United Nations-administered camps in eastern Nepal. “I had hoped I would see him again in Bhutan, but his standing back in our doorway meant we may never get back there,” she adds, seated in the corner of the family’s dark wattle-and-daub hut in the Beldangi I refugee camp, five kilometers outside the Nepalese town of Damak.
Manbahadur returned following nine years spent in a Bhutanese prison for having illegally re-entered the country and staging a protest demanding the return to Bhutan of his people, Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalese minority that was expelled in 1991.
Sandwiched between Communist China and largely Hindu India, tiny Buddhist Bhutan, with its population of a mere 600,000, has been given to fits of ethnic and cultural protectionism throughout its history. An impressive necklace of cliff-perched fortresses — or Dzongs — that dot the country’s mountainous perimeter testify to past efforts.
By the 1980s, when the ethnic Nepalese bloc mushroomed to represent one third of the kingdom’s population, Bhutan responded with a “one nation, one people” policy that at once bolstered the majority Drukpa culture by mandating its traditional dress and language for all, and restricted the rights of the ethnic Nepalese population. After a series of civil rights protests by the ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Bhutanese citizens, the state clamped down — hard.
“We left because we were scared that they would imprison us, that they would beat us, that I would be raped,” Matimya told World Politics Review. In the weeks leading up to her family’s departure from Bhutan in 1991, she says, the army had begun to take women away from their houses.
This was just one tactic in what human rights groups say was a widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing of a minority population that claims to have arrived in Bhutan as early as the mid-1800s. Other tactics, say the refugees, included torture, beatings and the destruction of property.
But in today’s Bhutan, which in March made the transition from a century of absolute monarchy to become the world’s newest democracy, another narrative prevails.
“Deep inside, they know they never belonged to this country,” says Bhutanese Prime Minister Dorjee Y Thinley in his office in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu. What is labeled elsewhere as an ethnic cleansing of Bhutanese citizens is seen in Bhutan as the “regularization” of an illegal immigration problem that had been left unbridled for decades. “They are refugees not of Bhutan, but of the ecological degradation, political upheavals, economic deprivation and insecurity in Nepal,” Thinley says, referring to Nepal’s 10-year civil war that ended in 2006.
For almost two decades, the fate of these refugees has been suspended between these two versions of events.
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