By Jogen Gazmere
Bhutan, referred to as ‘the Last Shangrila’, is a tiny Himalayan country sandwiched between the two giants, India and China. It has a total area of 48,000 sq km and a population of around 800,000.
- Politically, Bhutan, until 1907, was a theocracy ruled by the incarnations of reverend lama called Shabdrung. On December 17, 1907, Governor Ugen Wangchuck of Tongsa province abolished theocracy and established absolute monarchy in Bhutan. Since then Bhutan has been ruled by the Wangchuck lineage of absolute monarchs.
- Until 2008, there was no Written Constitution, no Bill of Rights and no Rule of Law in Bhutan.
- Ethnically, Bhutan is a nation of immigrants, with social, cultural, lingual and religious diversity and plurality.
INCEPTION OF CURRENT CRISIS
- The current crisis started in Bhutan in 1988, when King Jigme Singhe Wangchuck, the 4th monarch, launched a campaign to transform Bhutan into a monolithic state politically, socially, culturally and religiously.
- He embarked on such self-serving and ill-conceived political campaign, when the global waves of democracy, in 1990s, had begun to strike the shores of totalitarian regimes forcing their erosion, by and by.
- To legitimise his campaign, the King, through his rubber stamp parliament, passed a legislation called ‘Tsa-Wa-Sum” – a political trinity comprising of King, Government and Country. Any Bhutanese found to be ‘thinking, speaking or acting’ against the ‘Tsa-Wa-Sum’ was liable to death penalty.
- Next, he enacted a new retroactive Citizenship Law and implemented through a revised census policy in 1988, and began to disenfranchise tens of thousands of bona-fide Bhutanese citizens.
- Still next, he decreed ‘One Nation One People’ policy suppressing cultural plurality in Bhutan and imposed ‘Driglam Namza’ requiring all Bhutanese to mandatorily adopt the culture, tradition, language, costume and religion of King’s tribe of Tibetan origin.
LAUNCH OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT
- When the King singled out Southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin and began to deprive their citizenship and culture, the Royal Advisory Councillors, representing southern Bhutanese appealed the King for intervention and justice. Instead of redressing the grievances, the King arrested and imprisoned Tek Nath Rizal, one of the Royal Advisory Councillors.
- The Southern Bhutanese continued to seek justice by launching a peaceful Human Rights Movement in 1989.
- When human rights leaders and activists were raided, arrested and imprisoned by the Royal Government, Democracy Movement was launched in 1990 to seek political change in Bhutan.
- Crushing the call for democracy in Bhutan, the King imposed ‘Army Rule’ resulting in rampant raid, arrest, detention, torture, rape and extrajudicial killings in southern Bhutan. This telling saga of governmental savagery is very well documented in the reports of early 1990s published by Amnesty International, US States Department, Human Rights Watch and other regional human rights organizations.
ENMASS FORCIBLE EVICTION
- As a prelude to mass forcible eviction, the Bhutanese Home Ministry issued a circular on 17 August 1990 stating that “any Bhutanese national leaving the country to assist and help the anti-nationals shall no longer be considered as a Bhutanese citizen. It must also be made very clear that such people’s family members living under the same household will also be held fully responsible and forfeit their citizenship.”
- After the suppression of Democracy Movement, the King in 1991 moved a motion in the parliament and passed a resolution to evict southern Bhutanese from their traditional homeland.
- The Royal Bhutan Army was remobilised to spread terror in southern Bhutan. With the increasing incidences of arrest, detention, torture and rape, the situation in the village aggravated. Under extreme pressure and duress, the southern Bhutanese were finally coerced into signing voluntary migration forms and summarily evicted from Bhutan.
BHUTANESE REFUGEE CRISIS
- Unanticipated by Nepal, the Bhutanese refugee exodus began to balloon in eastern Nepal towards the end of 1991.
- UNHCR was called in by the Nepalese Government to provide relief to the refugees.
- By 1994, seven camps were established by UNHCR to house over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees.
- Several thousand remained scattered in North Indian states, eking out their own living.
ATTEMPTS FOR CRISIS RESOLUTION
- Out of the three options adopted by UNHCR to resolve the refugee crisis, such as Repatriation; Host Country Settlement and Third Country Resettlement, the Bhutanese refugees voluntarily embarked on a repatriation campaign in 1995.
- Appeals were sent to the King to allow the return of refugees to their original homes and farms in Bhutan.
- Several ‘Peace Marches to Bhutan’ were organized by the refugees. But all attempts were eventually scuttled and crushed by the Royal government.
- Next, peaceful Democratic Struggle was initiated from exile under the leadership of Rongthong Kuenley Dorji, a prominent leader from eastern Bhutan.
- Thousands of Sarchhops, the Eastern Bhutanese, including the Buddhist monks were arrested, imprisoned and tortured in 1997.
- When all peaceful political means proved futile, the disillusioned youth in exile formed the Communist Party and has launched armed struggle in Bhutan. The effect of this armed struggle has been felt vividly with the increasing rate of violence in Bhutan.
THIRD COUNTRY RESETTLEMENT
- For the last 17 years, Bhutanese refugees have been spending a traumatic life in the refugee camps.
- Until few years back, they were hoping against hope that the Bhutan Nepal Joint Ministerial Level Committee would ultimately pave way for their return to Bhutan.
- But with the escalating violence, both within the refugee camps and inside Bhutan, and the ‘zero possibility’ of repatriation due to deadlock after 15 rounds of the bilateral talk, many Bhutanese have accepted the option of Third Country Resettlement offered by the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherland, New Zealand, Norway and United States.