Nepal – the country of the Buddha and the Mt. Everest

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without – Buddha

Bhutan dashes refugees’ home-coming dreams

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on April 17, 2011

KATHMANDUThousands of Bhutanese refugees living in miserable conditions in Nepal, India and elsewhere had their hopes of being able to return to their homeland dashed on Saturday as Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley said they would have to prove again that they were bona fide Bhutan citizens.

Thinley, who had arrived in Kathmandu Friday on a three-day visit, headed back for Thimphu on Saturday after talks with Nepal’s Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal on regional as well as bilateral issues. Over 105,000 Bhutanese refugees languishing in closed camps in Nepal since their eviction in the 1990s and almost 30,000 more living in India as well as members of the diaspora now scattered all over the world, had been heartened for a brief period after Thinley had agreed, on Nepal’s prodding, to resume talks to enable them to return home.

But the refugee euphoria vanished on Saturday when the Bhutanese premier refused to acknowledge them as citizens, instead alluding to them as “people in the refugee camps”. He also said his government is asking Nepal to undertake a fresh “examination” of the camp residents to see how many were bona fide nationals. “… Whether or not they are Bhutanese refugees is a subject of discussion,” he said.

This is the same ploy the Buddhist kingdom used in 2000 to stall the homecoming of the refugees, who comprise nearly one-fifth of the Bhutanese population. Despite an international outcry, Bhutan sought to categorise the camp residents into genuine citizens, those who had surrendered their citizenship voluntarily, non-Bhutanese and criminals. Bhutan insisted only the first category had the full right to return to Bhutan and understandably, the verification gave the certification to only a small percentage.

Fifteen rounds of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan broke down after what Thinley said were “unfortunate developments”: attacks by enraged refugees on visiting Bhutanese officials in 2003. Since then, the Druk kingdom has refused to resume talks despite a change in guard with its fourth king, Jigme Singye abdicating in 2006 in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel.

Thinley said while Bhutan appreciated eight western governments offering a second home to the people in the camps, there was no need for international intervention and no need to involve India in the repatriation talks.

Bhutanese refugee leaders have been petitioning Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh repeatedly, seeking his help. With India being Bhutan’s largest trade partner, it can pressure Bhutan, the refugees say. They also point out that India allowed them in the 1990s to traverse across Indian territory and go up to Nepal.

However, the bridge connecting India and Nepal was blocked by Indian security forces in the late 2000s, when the refugees tried to stage a return march.

Dismissing the call, Thinley said by virtue of its special relationship with Bhutan and Nepal, India allowed the nationals of both countries to travel on its territory. That, he said, was no cause to seek India’s involvement in the repatriation talks.

In 2006, the US and other western governments, seeing no progress in the repatriation talks and fearing violence in the seven refugee camps, persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle abroad — in the US, UK, Norway, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Denmark. Almost 40 percent of the over 105,000 refugees living in Nepal have already left for eastern shores and the UN refugee agency, that runs the camps, hopes to help more resettle in third countries in the days to come.


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