Democracy in Bhutan is not for 108,000 refugees

Democracy in Bhutan is not for 108,000 refugees

Nava Thakuria

On 1 January 2008, Bhutan, a kingdom of nearly seven hundred thousand people, got its first elected National Council.

When Pakistan, Burma and Nepal are bleeding on their ways to achieve a democratic regime in their countries, the ‘Shangri-la’ has shown a different picture, where a monarch comes out for a democratic set up in his kingdom. The initiative is depicted as a path-breaking attempt for the Buddhist kingdom to transform Bhutan from a hundred years old absolute monarchy to a multi-party democracy.

But the challenges of the new democratic regime in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, will lie in dealing with various national concerns, more precisely resolving the Bhutanese refugee issue that is haunting the government for the last 17 years, even though many western countries including the US had stepped in to support those Nepali speaking refugees.

The Bhutanese refugees (mostly Nepali-speaking) are taking shelter in western Nepal and still craving to go back to their native villages in Bhutan. They were driven out after they protested the passage of a law in the 1980s that arbitrarily cancelled their citizenship. As many as a sixth of the Bhutanese population, most of them living in the south of the country, fled Bhutan in 1990. They have been living in refugee camps in Nepal since then.

The Nepal government raised the issue with Bhutanese authorities in 15 rounds of unsuccessful and inconclusive diplomatic-talks. Not a single refugee has returned to Bhutan so far. India, being the friendliest neighbour and biggest aid donor to Bhutan, has kept out of the dispute, arguing that it was a bilateral matter between Nepal and Bhutan.

The landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, surrounded by Tibet (now under Chinese territory) and Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, went for its first polls on 31 December 2007 to form the upper house of Parliament.

The chief election commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi called a successful attempt to transform their kingdom to a democracy.

Unlike India, there were no election posters or noisy public rallies in the constituencies before the election.

The security was a major concern for the kingdom during the polls. The Bhutan government sealed the border with India for 36 hours to prevent unwanted elements from outside. The Electronic Voting Machines, supported by India, were used in the poll process and observers from India, the US and few other countries including a team of UNDP (based in Thimphu) monitored the election.

Currently there are two political parties in the fray. The People's Democratic Party, headed by the former agriculture minister, Sangay Ngedup, and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, led by the former home minister, Jigmi Y Thinley.

Significant enough, the offer of transformation from monarchy to democracy came form the Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself and that too not because of any popular uprising.

After the general election paves way for an elected Prime Minister (with a council of ministers) in 2008, the Bhutan king would become the ceremonial head of state, where the parliament will possess the power to impeach even the king by the support of two-thirds majority in the Assembly.

"But the new Druk democracy will find it difficult to resolve the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees issue, who have been denied to access the poll process," argued a Thimphu based journalist.

Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres admitted that 'it was difficult to see any immediate solution' to the Bhutanese refugee issue. The UNHCR Representative in Nepal said that 'UNHCR prefers to help refugees go back to their home countries when they can do so in safety and dignity, however, in this case, the only option currently available is that for resettlement in a third country for those refugees who wish to make this choice'.

Meanwhile, the US government has shown interest to resettle approximately 60,000 refugees from the camps. Similarly, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also come forward expressing their wish to take a share of refugees for resettlement.

Suhas Chakma, the Director of the Asian Human Rights Centre, stressed that the international community must be mindful of the implications of any resettlement process without any written commitment from Bhutan. It would be tantamount to supporting ethnic cleansing policies by the Bhutan government. He warned that if Bhutan can get away with 108,000 refugees, the situation of the remaining ethnic Nepalis in southern Bhutan could be untenable as they might also be forced to renounce their citizenship or leave Bhutan.

Kuldeep Nayar, a senior Indian journalist expressed his concern over the apathy towards the Bhutanese refugees. He had a word for the King of Bhutan: 'he is really taking honest steps for a democratic system in Bhutan, he should call all those citizens of Bhutan who are staying in refugee camps since last 17 years, back to the country before the scheduled election in 2008'.

In a time, when the international communities are crying against the tyrannical rule under the present regimes in Burma, Pakistan and the pro-democratic activists have stepped up their voices in Thailand, Nepal, Tibet and also in Bangladesh, the development in Bhutan came as a positive reassurance for various democratic organizations and political analysts of the globe.

(Nava Thakuria is a senior journalist based in Assam, India)

Published in:

The Seoul Times, South Korea (7 January 2008)

Scoop Independent News, New Zealand (9 January 2008)

Central Chronicle, Madhya Pradesh, India (11 January 2008)