Be­hind the Cur­tain

Be­hind its scenic beauty and Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness, Bhutan hides a dark se­cret

Southasia - - Contents - By Shahzeb Na­jam

It is the land of the Thun­der Dragon; an an­cient realm where the rice is red, buy­ing cig­a­rettes is il­le­gal and ghosts and witches stalk the his­tory books. This is the Bhutan that tourists know — one of the most ex­pen­sive desti­na­tions in the world. But be­hind the catchy phrases, such as Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness is more im­por­tant than Gross Na­tional Prod­uct, and the coun­try’s ob­vi­ous rugged beauty, lies a dark se­cret of op­pres­sion, per­se­cu­tion and forced ex­pul­sion.

Like most mod­ern na­tion-states, the King­dom of Bhutan’s 670,000 peo­ple con­tain a patch­work of eth­nic groups. The Nga­longs of the western moun­tains and the cen­tral Bhutanese, with whom they have in­ter­mar­ried, form the elite of this land­locked na- tion. They are a mi­nor­ity along­side the Sharch­hops (Eastern­ers) and the Lhot­sham­pas (South­ern­ers). The Lhot­sham­pas are the last group which, ac­cord­ing to Michael Hutt, Pro­fes­sor of Nepali and Hi­malayan Stud­ies at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies, has borne the brunt of the state’s per­se­cu­tion and, be­fore the cri­sis, con­sti­tuted one-third to one-half of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion of Bhutan.

But why the Lhot­sham­pas? The an­swer lies in a con­flu­ence of re­li­gion and lan­guage. In this deeply Bud­dhist na­tion, the pres­ence of a large group of Nepali-speak­ing Hin­dus was seen as a threat to the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal or­der. The Lhot­sham­pas orig­i­nally set­tled in what were, dur­ing the late 19th cen­tury, un­in­hab­ited south­ern reaches of Bhutan. They came on the in­vi­ta­tion of Bhutanese con­trac­tors, keen to open up the re­gion for cul­ti­va­tion. By the 1930s, ac­cord­ing to records kept by Bri­tish colo­nial of­fi­cials, the pop­u­la­tion of Nepali ori­gin had reached a re­spectable 60,000.

In 1958, the Cit­i­zen­ship Act was passed, grant­ing for the very first time, full cit­i­zen­ship to the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of South­ern Bhutan. De­vel­op­ment pro­grams, mod­erni­sa­tion drives and hy­dro-elec­tric power projects were im­ple­mented across the na­tion. How­ever, the law pro­hib­ited south­ern Bhutanese to per­ma­nently set­tle north of cer­tain lat­i­tudes, ef­fec­tively re­duc­ing in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the north­ern­ers and south­ern­ers to a bare min­i­mum. On the other hand, so­cial

ser­vices, ed­u­ca­tion and the de­vel­op­ment of the econ­omy meant that by the 1970s, many Lhot­sham­pas has risen to oc­cupy in­flu­en­tial posts in the bu­reau­cracy.

By the 1980s, the gov­ern­ment of Bhutan, see­ing the rise of the South­ern­ers as a threat to the sta­tus quo, struck back. The Cit­i­zen­ship Act of 1985 was used as the ba­sis of a cen­sus ex­er­cise in the south­ern dis­tricts of the king­dom. Lhot­sham­pas who could not pro­duce ev­i­dence of le­gal res­i­dence since 1958, were stripped of their na­tion­al­ity. An­other law was passed, forc­ing all who ven­tured out to wear the north­ern tra­di­tional dress, or risk fines and im­pris­on­ment. The Nepali lan­guage was banned from school cur­ric­ula.

Pre­dictably, public demon­stra­tions took place against these mea­sures. In re­sponse, the gov­ern­ment branded all who took part as ‘anti-na­tion­als.’ It is es­ti­mated that up to two thou­sand of the many ar­bi­trar­ily ar­rested were tor­tured. Only a hand­ful were ac­tu­ally charged or stood trial; the vast ma­jor­ity lan­guished for months in prim­i­tive con­di­tions. Even­tu­ally, the King of Bhutan de­clared an amnesty and most were re­leased, but they dis­cov­ered to their hor­ror that their houses had been de­mol­ished and their fam­i­lies had fled the king­dom.

The first refugees ar­rived in In­dia to find that they were not per­mit­ted to set up per­ma­nent camps and were sub­se­quently shut­tled off to east­ern Nepal. Re­pres­sive mea­sures con­tin­ued, re­sult­ing in a steady stream of refugees. It is es­ti­mated that 80,000 are cur­rently liv­ing in UNHCR-AD­min­is­tered camps. None of those who lost their homes, cit­i­zen­ship and liveli­hood have been al­lowed back. Many claim that they were co­erced into sign­ing ‘vol­un­tary mi­gra­tion’ cer­tifi­cates. Nepal and Bhutan have met six­teen times to dis­cuss a res­o­lu­tion to the cri­sis, with­out mak­ing any head­way. In­dia, the third party in this dis­pute, main­tains that this is purely a bi­lat­eral is­sue be­tween the two na­tions, ef­fec­tively sid­ing with Bhutan, which re­jects Nepal’s call for in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment in the talks.

Lhot­sham­pas who didn’t leave the king­dom, face height­ened dis­crim­i­na­tion to­day. Many have lost their lands to a re­set­tling cam­paign that gives south­ern land to land­less north­ern­ers. Rel­a­tives of ‘anti-na­tion­als’ have been dis­missed from the civil ser­vice and an­nual cen­sus ac­tiv­i­ties con­tinue, re­clas­si­fy­ing Lhot­sham­pas from F1 (full Bhutanese) to F7 (non-na­tion­als). Of­ten, mem­bers of the same house­hold are placed in dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. To ac­cess school, health­care and ob­tain busi­ness li­censes, a ‘ No Ob­jec­tion Certificate’ is re­quired, stat­ing that nei­ther the bearer, nor their fam­ily, were in­volved in the democ­racy move­ment or other ‘anti-na­tional’ ac­tiv­i­ties.

Re­cently, the King ab­di­cated in fa­vor of his son, Jigme Wangchuck. It is un­known what, if any, im­pact this will have on the sit­u­a­tion. 35,000 refugees re­side out­side the camps, with­out any UNHCR pro­tec­tion or sta­tus in the coun­tries where they live. South­ern Bhutanese who re­main in Bhutan, face an un­cer­tain fu­ture with con­tin­u­ing per­se­cu­tion and the pos­si­ble ex­clu­sion from the emerg­ing demo­cratic process of­fered in the new con­sti­tu­tion.

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