Quest for Happiness
While Bhutan boasts of its unique Gross National Happiness, thousands of Bhutanese refugees search for an identity as they seek resettlement across the globe.
Many say happiness has no yardstick but Bhutan is different. This “last Shangri-La” has received great acclaim for its successful implementation of the “Gross National Happiness” indicator in the kingdom. Over the years, the tiny Buddhist nation, perched high in the Himalayas, has become famous for building a developmental agenda around its happiness index.
The Bhutanese government has been so overwhelmed with the GNH that Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley, during his visit to the United States late last year happily stated, “In Bhutan even the street dogs seem to be smiling.” Article 9 of Bhutan’s constitution puts it simply: “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”
However, the refugee crisis that the kingdom has faced for long flies in the face of any claim that the Bhutanese are a happy nation as the country has generated one of the highest number of refugees in the world in proportion to its population.
Let’s take a quick look at the facts: By the 1980s, Bhutan’s minority Nepali-speaking population, most of which lived in the south of the country, had grown to represent around one-third of Bhutan’s 600,000 people, causing then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to start a “One Nation, One People” policy to evict, deport and strip many of of them of their Bhutanese citizenship. The campaign ended with the expulsion of more than 100, 000 of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa community through beatings, torture and murder committed by the Royal Bhutan Army. This lasted until the early 1990s.
Nepal houses some 60,000 Bhutanese refugees in seven UN camps in the southeast of the country. It has recently announced that it will reduce these camps to two. The evicted have lived in huts made from bamboo and plastic for nearly two decades. Analysts say that with the newly announced intentions of the Nepalese government, the living conditions for these families may deteriorate further.
After repeated rounds of dialogue between Nepal and Bhutan that failed to resolve the crisis, UNHCR, with the support of the International Office of Migration, started a third country resettlement program in 2007. Today, the refugees are spread across the world in search of identity, citizenship, security, an apology from the establishment and an opportunity to go home.
While these refugees start their lives from scratch in foreign lands, the refugee camps in eastern Nepal are feared to have become breeding grounds for militancy. A handful of Maoist militant groups are said to have developed in the camps that are feared to have handmade explosives, pistols and Communist literature with which to wage their insurgency. Analysts say that they may soon acquire much more capacity through recent alliances with two Indian separatist groups: the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the United Liberation Front of Assam, operating in the restive Indian states of Sikkim and Assam, which share an unfenced border with Bhutan. Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy Director for Human Rights Watch, says the insurgents are still too weak to launch an effective revolution. But other analysts say the alliance with militant Indians, the continuing relocation of refugees and recruiting forays into Bhutan are worrisome signs.
There are also reports of violence in the camps between those who insist on unconditional repatriation and those who want resettlement in other countries. A place to call their own, stable means of livelihood and a secure future is all that the refugees, languishing in these camps, seek. In such an environment, happiness seems to be a rare commodity. Huma Iqbal is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia Magazine. She writes on socio-political and developmental issues of the region.