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Bhutan's gross national shame

1990s pogroms against ethnic Nepalese still cast shadow over Bhutan's 'happiness'

<p>Lok Prashad Sharma holds his Bhutanese ID card at his home in the Beldangi refugee camp in Nepal (Photo by Francis Wade)</p>

Lok Prashad Sharma holds his Bhutanese ID card at his home in the Beldangi refugee camp in Nepal (Photo by Francis Wade)

  • Francis Wade, Damak
  • Nepal
  • July 14, 2014
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Amrita Shankar was witness to one of the great but untold pogroms of the latter 20th century. It was March 1992 when her mother woke she and her siblings shortly after midnight. “A candle was lit and we ate food,” she recalls. “Mother was crying and the kids were told not to ask questions.”

Her small village lay just inside Bhutan, three hours from its southern border with India. They set off under the cover of darkness. “We walked to the top of a nearby mountain and there were so many other families gathered there. We continued in the dark down to a riverbed and there were more families.” Amrita was nine at the time, and unsure of where she was heading, nor the forces that propelled her. “We slept in the open and then crossed the riverbed, and some people went to look for any guards.”

They reached the border with India. Unbeknown to them, some 100,000 others would cross that border in the early 1990s, victims of a mass expulsion of one-sixth of Bhutan’s population. “We stood by the road running along the border and people waved braches to say it was clear. Then two or three people would dash across the road.” On the other side was India.

For several years there had been a growing sense of unease about their life in Bhutan. Amrita’s family, like tens of thousands of others, were ethnic Nepalese who had migrated to the Himalayan kingdom several generations before. For decades they had provided a key source of labour in the country’s fertile south, but attitudes in the palace were changing. Fearful of simmering unrest as a result of continued immigration from Nepal, the autocratic King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1985 introduced a new policy, known as the "One Nation, One People Act", that altered the definition of a Bhutanese citizen.

Although cloaked in the language of national unity, it was clearly targeted at the Nepalese. Historical evidence that Nepalese had first settled in Bhutan as far back as the 17th century was papered over and propaganda began to circulate warning of a pending societal breakdown caused by “immigrants”. Orders were issued that the entire population should wear traditional Bhutanese dress, while the mother tongue of the Nepalese was banned in schools. A nationwide census three years later stripped those of Nepalese origin of their citizenship, laying the foundations for their expulsion.

For Amrita, who has spent the past 22 years in the Sanischare refugee camp in southeastern Nepal, the images from that night in March 1992 remain vivid. After waiting five hours, she and her family made the dash across the road into India, where they stayed for a week. “On the other side it was so hot, and the water we drank was contaminated so that some babies died.” They were then put into trucks and driven two days across the mountainous Indian divide that separates Nepal from Bhutan before arriving at the border. She remembers the ferocious winds and rain of the southern plains of Nepal, “something we’d never seen in Bhutan”.

What happened in the early 1990s was, by proportion, one of the world’s largest pogroms in living memory. The 1988 census divided the population into seven categories, ranging from “genuine Bhutanese” to “non-nationals – migrants and illegal settlers”. In between were legally adopted children, “non-national” men who had married Bhutanese women, and vice versa. Those deemed illegal and placed in category seven were ordered to leave immediately. They didn’t fare much better upon arrival in Nepal, where the government considered them to be Bhutanese and has since continually denied them citizenship.

Lok Prashad Sharma, 44, scours his room in the Beldangi refugee camp in Nepal for his ID card – a poignant but painful reminder that he was once a citizen of Bhutan – but now ultimately useless. He had grown up in Samchi district in the southwest of the country, spending the first three decades of his life in the same area where his grandfather was born around the turn of the 20th century. In 1990 he joined a sweeping anti-government protest movement whose calls for respect for Nepali rights had gained far-reaching support in Bhutan’s south. The government and security forces then began a campaign of violence against protestors, some of whom responded with attacks on police.

“The army drove its trucks right into the protesters,” Lok recalls. “They took girls to army barracks and raped them. Either side of me I saw my friends shot dead.” He remembers soldiers arriving in his village, rounding up and arresting intellectuals and threatening to bayonet those who stayed after being ordered to leave. Entire communities were vanquished. A 2003 Human Rights Watch report on the violence said that those left behind when their families fled the country were targeted by security forces and “often punished or threatened, including with arrest, because the whole family was labeled ‘anti-national’.”

One man who had insight into the inner machinations of the palace at the time is Dr Bhampa Roi, who practiced as a doctor in southern Bhutan and was close to the royal family. “People get power and become over-confident,” he says from behind his desk in a clinic in the southern Nepalese town of Damak. “They think subjects aren’t human, that they are slaves.”

Like others, he experienced the growing hostility towards ethnic Nepalese in the early 1980s. “We were forced to wear certain haircuts, and job promotions for Nepalese were delayed.” He remembers the story of one councilor from southern Bhutan who complained to the king about the concerning developments. The man was arrested, held for five days and tortured, and then upon release fired from his post.

To this day, the government of Bhutan, now overseen by King Wangchuck’s son, King Jigme Khesar, refuses to allow those expelled to return. Nearly 100,000 have been resettled in third countries from the camps in Nepal. Others refuse to leave, adamant that they will one day be able to return to their homeland. Among the great crimes of the 20th century, Bhutan’s pogrom barely gets a whisper. In its place, the kingdom has earned itself the top spot on a Gross National Happiness Index, devised by King Wangchuck himself – a bitter irony for Bhutan’s forgotten people.

“Whoever believes this hasn’t learned a thing,” Dr Bhampa says of the index, which applies the criteria set out by King Wangchuck to measure levels of happiness globally. It prompted the UN to adopt a resolution tabled by Bhutan entitled "Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development", which received backing from 68 countries, and which in 2012 led to the opening of a secretariat in Bhutan. It even inspired the UN to appoint March 20 as World Happiness Day.

In short, Bhutan has become the world’s brain room for the development of happiness, and to its credit, literacy rates have shot up and the government’s development agenda over the past few decades has been a South Asian success story. But still, that bestowment angers the thousands who have spent the past two decades in camps abroad.

“One-sixth of the population are refugees, while those who visit Bhutan are very controlled,” says Dr Bhampa. “If they went to all areas they would question the Gross National Happiness. But nobody dares say they’re unhappy.”

‪For Amrita, any hope of returning to see her homeland has already faded. Later this year she will board a flight to Kathmandu for four days of "training" about day-to-day living in the US before flying half way around the world to begin a new life. She doesn’t feel that people need to visit Bhutan to see contradictions to the Gross National Happiness Index results. The two remaining camps provide a far more telling story.

“Compare the refugee camps to Bhutan,” she says. “You decide for yourself whether you think it’s a happy country.”‬

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