Shaking Up Bhutan

In December 2006, King Jigme Singye of Bhutan made headlines by suddenly abdicating and handing the throne to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Geshar. He has also pledged to grant some measure of democracy to his subjects by holding democratic elections in 2008. The king has not, however, explained the motivation behind his precipitate action.

As expected, this news dazzled the international community. But Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal have not been impressed. To Ratan Gajmer, one of their leaders, the king’s announcement was “just pulling wool over the eyes of the international community about democratization and election propaganda.”

Pressures for change have been building up both inside and outside Bhutan. Bhutanese citizens have been clamoring for democracy and freedom. Nearby Nepal is contemplating the future of its monarchy and passing through its own democratic transformation. The Bhutanese king appears to have wanted to grant his people limited democracy before they, like the Nepalis, actually take to the streets. His plan is to introduce a guided, two-party democracy under a new constitution that has long been in the making.

But the king hasn’t said anything about the resolution of the refugee problem, which belies Bhutan’s promotion of itself as a tranquil and happy kingdom.

Refugee Situation

The dragon kingdom of Bhutan boasts of having a high “gross national happiness.” Many Bhutanese do not share this opinion. They contend that a country with one-sixth of its population living abroad as refugees could not have a high level of happiness.

Tek Nath Rijal was once King Jigme Singye’s advisor. Jailed and tortured for nine years for his human rights activism, he has chronicled in his autobiography Nirvasan (Exile) how the king crushed an incipient movement for democracy and human rights to tighten his grip on power. First the government in Thimpu restricted the Nepali community’s rights to movement and property. Then it imposed the Tibetan ruling clan’s language, dress, and culture on other communities, which constitute almost two-thirds of Bhutan’s population.

Protests broke out in the 1980s, and Thimpu cracked down hard. The government changed the citizenship law in 1988, stripped the protestors of their citizenship, and evicted them from the country. Since the majority of the evictees were of Nepali origin, they went to Nepal, and others followed suit under duress or out of fear.

Today, nearly 120,000 refugees–almost one-sixth of Bhutan’s population–live in Nepal. Most live in the camps operated by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Many have lived there for 16 years. Local Nepalis blame the refugees for depressing local wages, damaging the environment, and promoting social ills around the camps. The international community has begun to show donor fatigue over their maintenance.

No solution to this problem is yet in sight. Bhutan has been telling its development partners that, to preserve its ethnic identity, it cannot take the refugees back. It has been telling Nepal that a formula should be found for refugee repatriation and has held 15 rounds of ministerial talks since 1993 for that purpose. The only concrete achievement of this bilateral process has been the completion of a joint verification of refugees at one of the 12 camps. The verification found that more than 76% of refugees were eligible to return without further documents or investigation. Bhutan has evaded formal ministerial talks ever since.

America Bound?

The United States announced in October that it would accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees from the UNHCR-administered camps over a 3-4 year period. Bhutanese refugees have appreciated this humanitarian gesture. Thimpu has heaved a sigh of relief in the mistaken belief that the refugees would grab the American offer without further ado. But the Bhutanese government seems to have forgotten that the refugees who choose to settle in America might finance a robust anti-monarchy campaign in Bhutan so that their compatriots back home can enjoy some of the same freedoms as they have in their adopted land.

Local assimilation and third-country relocation should be used as options for those refugees who see no prospects of returning home for long or who might face extreme risks on their return. But assimilation or relocation should not be selective. Selectivity tends to be detrimental to the larger interest of refugee communities. It often robs them of their best and brightest who could mobilize public opinion to secure their return and drive change in their home countries.

More broadly, repatriation should remain the principal plank of resolving most refugee crises. There are nearly 21 million refugees around the world, most of them living in poor countries. These countries cannot locally integrate refugees without suffering major economic setbacks and political costs. Third countries are interested in relocating only a fraction of that refugee population, if at all, and often do so selectively. So, local integration and third-country relocation are not necessarily desirable options.

External Role

According to a 1949 bilateral treaty, India is responsible for Bhutan’s foreign and defense policy. India is also the first country of asylum for these refugees, as Nepal and Bhutan do not share common borders. But India has refused to help find a solution to the problem, perhaps out of fear of pushing Bhutan into China’s embrace. The refugees complain that India allows the Bhutanese to take a trip from Bhutan to the camps in Nepal but not back again.

A peaceful South Asia is in the best interest of the United States. But the region has been far from peaceful. Countries from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka are in the grip of conflict. The India-Pakistan confrontation continues to cast its dark shadow over the region. And the strategic contest between China and India, both rising powers, remains a huge source of discomfort. Washington has either stayed out of South Asian problems or not tried hard enough to make a difference. But that seems to be changing now. The growing extremism, terrorism, and radicalization of refugees in the region seem to have stirred America to pay closer attention to the Indian sub-continent.

The U.S. offer to accept Bhutanese refugees has produced mixed reactions. On one hand, some educated and skilled refugees are happy that they will be able to chase the American dream. On the other, the majority is worried that a selective relocation will dash their unmitigated hope to return home and build a democratic society in Bhutan. Also, Nepal will still be left to manage an ongoing problem. It will have to deal with the remaining half of the refugees until other countries step forward to relocate them. And it must contend with the influx of new refugees lured by the prospects of third-country relocation.

King Jigme Singye has stepped away from his monarchical perch without resolving the refugee crisis he created. With its newfound weight in New Delhi after the recent U.S.-India nuclear deal, Washington should lean on India to use its influence with Bhutan to pave the way for the repatriation of refugees before they, out of frustration, turn into a serious threat to peace and security. This solution will allow the refugees to return home in dignity, weaken the monarchy’s grip on power, and advance democratic values and institutions in Bhutan.

Murari Sharma, former Ambassador of Nepal to the United Nations, has co-authored the book Reinventing the United Nations, due out in January 2007. He was actively involved in Nepal-Bhutan negotiations on refugees.