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.

Southasia - - Region - By Huma Iqbal

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.

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