Will Democracy in Bhutan Resolve the Refugee Crisis?

Dr. Satish Kumar

Bhutan’s King is to hand over power to the elected government in 2008. First ever new Constitution, drafted in March 2005, aims to set up a two party democracy after a century of absolute monarchy put in place with British help in 1907. Leaders of Bhutan’s political parties set up in exile (in neighboring India and Nepal) have welcomed King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s announcement to abdicate the throne in 2008.

However, they are sceptical whether the move toward democracy will sort out the lingering repatriation problem of more than a lakh of refugees of Nepalese origin. Most of these refugees, who started leaving Bhutan since 1989 after a crackdown on “non nationals” are sheltered in seven camps in eastern Nepal’s Jhapa and Morang districts.

The issue of citizenship of Bhutanese origin has grown into a wider movement for democracy, a large number of whose supporters were thrown into prison. A large chunk of them flew to India and Nepal. Their future under Monarchy remains uncertain. Now the new hope is based on the democratic set up of government and its strength, which would be placed in 2008.

Bhutan is located in the eastern Himalayas bordered by India in the south, east and west and by the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China in the north. Bhutan shares about 1075 km of land boundaries with its neighbours - China 470 km, India 605 km. It is a nation of immigrants and a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic society. There are three main ethnic, religious and linguistic groups – Ngalongs, Sharchops and Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas. Besides there are a dozen smaller groups, which include Khengs, Brokpas Mangdepas, Kurteopas, Doyas, Adivashis and Tibetans.

The Ngalongs are the ruling group who control the monarchy and the government and dominate the economy. The King and all the high government officials belong to this ethnic group. They live in the north-western region, speak Dzongkha language. Until 1972, Nepali-speaking Southern Bhutanese Lhotshampas were not allowed to own properties in the Ngalung dominated areas. Even in-country migration was restricted for them. They were restricted from traveling to the northern areas.

A thoughtful strategy was chalked out to segregate the Nepali Speaking Lhotshampas community. The Marriage Act was enacted in 1980 and was forcefully implemented in 1988. This discriminatory law imposes a number of denials of benefits to those who married non-Bhutanese wives. The Lhotshampas who married non-Bhutanese wives did not have the right to stand for election to the National Assembly, they were denied promotion in civil services, denied training and fellowships and medical treatment abroad. This posed enormous problems for the Lhotshampas. Both the Citizenship Act and Marriage Act, while being racist and discriminatory against Lhotshampas, were made all the more unpalatable due to the high handed manner of its implementation and explicit expression of the Government desire to eliminate as many Lhotshampa citizens as possible. In conformity with the Acts, a totally biased and manipulative population census was carried out in all the districts of southern Bhutan to deliberately evict the Lhotshampas.

All Lhotshampa people who participated in the peaceful demonstrations were immediately reprimanded. Arbitrary arrest, degrading treatment, loot, plunder, and rape of innocent women and burning down of their houses had become the order of the day. The security forces Royal Body Guards and the government officials indiscriminately arrested tortured and imprisoned innocent villagers. Entire villages were razed to the ground by the government security forces. Many were killed in police custody under torture. The government of Bhutan confiscated citizenship and property documents and also forced many of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas to sign papers written in Dzonkha, the content of which the southern Bhutanese could not read or understand, renouncing the Bhutanese citizenship.

However, the new constitution is silent on the future of the nearly 112,263 refugees sheltered in Nepal’s camps who were thrown out of the country following the enactment of the Citizenship Act. 1985. Political parties, which are active in exile, have come to understanding that the question of democracy is inextricably linked with rehabilitation of the refugees.

India’s concern in Bhutan is based on the peaceful systematic change and non-interference of other powers, especially China. In 1958, China had not only claimed Indian Territory, its maps also showed 200 sq miles of Bhutanese territory as part of Tibet. It was at this defining moment that Nehru said in the Parliament that any attack on Bhutan would be considered an attack on India.

Refugee issue is also linked with the concept of Greater Nepal. Rest of communities in Bhutan are scared of a grand design of Greater Nepal that consists of Nepalese population of Sikkim, Gorkhaland, Southern Bhutan. This fear creates unbridgeable chasm among the different communities of Bhutan. At this juncture India can play a decisive role in repatriation of refugees living out side of Bhutan. But it all depends on the good will of king and the strength of the imminent democratic set up.

Author Note
Dr. Satish Kumar teaches Political Science at MMH College in Uttar Pradesh, India.