Bhutan is at the threshold of democracy as it is going to hold the general elections on 24 March 2008. But it has so far refused to shed its racist character and racist policies. Under the wraps of the Sangrila image, Bhutan has been practicing a policy of ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Nepali community of Southern Bhutan, who are also known as the Lothsampas.
The image of this tiny Himalayan kingdom to be a resort of peace and harmony was shaken by a series of bomb explosions including one in capital Thimphu on 20 January 2008 which was followed by another small intensity explosion in the southern district of Samtse on 4 February 2008. The blasts were too weak to cause major damages but the disgruntled groups have been able to deliver their message. United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, a newly formed armed group fighting for the rights of the exiled ethnic Nepalis, claimed responsibility for the February 4th blast and warned of more such attacks if the first ever general election of Bhutan to be held on 24 March 2008 are not cancelled. The ethnic Nepalis have been demanding including of all the Bhutanese citizens including the refugees in the voters’ list.
In early 1990s, hundreds of Lothsampas were expelled from Bhutan for rising against the king demanding democracy and fair treatment. Presently, they are over 1,08,000 refugees being sheltered in seven United Nations-managed refugee camps in eastern Nepal. In June 2003, Bhutan agreed to classify the refugees into four categories: Category 1- Bonafide Bhutanese who had been evicted forcefully; Category 2 - Bhutanese who migrated on their own; Category 3 - Non-Bhutanese; and Category 4 - Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. Bhutan agreed to accept the refugees of Categories 1 and 2. Out of the total refugee population of 12,183 at Khudunabari camp which was verified, the Joint Verification Team of Nepal and Bhutan found 293 persons of 74 families under Category 1; 8,595 persons of 2182 families under Category 2; 2,948 persons of 817 families under Category 3; and 347 persons of 85 families under Category 4. But Bhutan refused to honour its own findings and did not take back any refugee till date.
Bhutan is the only other country in South Asia, besides Bangladesh, which practices a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against the ethnic minority although there is no internal armed conflict there. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, the indigenous Jhumma peoples face systematic persecution from the illegal Bengali settlers and the military and the Bangladesh government provides free ration to the illegal Bengali settlers to sustain the conflict.
The failure of the international community to pressurize Bhutan to take back the refugees has over the years encouraged the Bhutanese government to make the condition of the remaining Lothsampas untenable to force them to denounce their citizenships or discreetly leave Bhutan. The government of Bhutan has been effectively denying the ethnic Nepalis the fundamental right to acquire education and employment or other government services by refusing to issue No Objection Certificate (NOC) to the relatives of the refugees and those who had allegedly supported the pro-democracy demonstrations.
Although the last king had famously put Gross National Happiness above the Gross Domestic Product, he failed to keep a large section of minorities including the ethnic Nepalis who are largely Hindus and the Christians happy. He never treated them at par with the Drukpas.
Any dissent is considered as anti-national. The innocent ethnic Nepalis have been targeted in the name of controlling anti-national activities. At least 39 persons of Nepali origin people including school students were arrested by the Royal Bhutan Police in Samtse district on the charges of being members of Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) from 25 May – 19 June 2007. The arrested persons included women as well as children as young as 3 years old. In December 2007, the Samtse district court sentenced 30 of them to jail terms ranging from five to nine years under the National Security Act of Bhutan, 1992 and the Penal Code of Bhutan, 2004. The whereabouts of 9 others were not known after their arrests. The convicted persons were allegedly denied access to fair trial. Bhutan does not have an independent judiciary.
According to Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB), four cadres of Bhutan Communist Party Marxist Leninist and Maoist (BCP-MLM), who were Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were allegedly brutally killed by the Royal Bhutan Police in February 2008 and another eight persons have been arrested. The status of the arrested persons is not known.
The United States has proposed to resettle over 60,000 Bhutanese refugees in the US. While this is a welcome step, the proposal has also generated much debate as to whether it would mean providing the Bhutanese government a feeling that it could do without taking back its citizens who wouldn’t be accepted for third country resettlement or even expelling some more in the hope that some other countries will be willing to accept them. Indeed, before taking up any third country resettlement programme the international community must obtain a written assurance from the government of Bhutan to take back the remaining refugees with all the respect they deserve.
The 2005 census of Bhutan has already identified about 80,000 persons as “foreigners” out of total population of 634,972. Majority of these “foreigners” are said to be ethnic Nepalis. In December 2005, the Association of Press Freedom Activists of Bhutan alleged that the government of Bhutan resettled people from the ruling community on the lands of the ethnic Nepali refugees in Dagana, Punakha, Samdrup Jongkhar, Sarpang, Samtse and Tsirang.
While Bhutan is going to script history by holding its first ever general elections to elect the Lower House of Parliament on 24 March 2008, hundreds of ethnic Nepalis of Bhutan have been allegedly denied Voter Photo Identity Cards for not having No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the police. Indeed, any elections must be inclusive and fair to be deemed as legitimate and acceptable by the international community.
Only two parties - Druk Phuensum Tshogpa headed by former Home Minister Jigmi Y Thinley and People’s Democratic Party headed by former Prime Minister Sangay Ngedup – both of them are very close to the palace – have been allowed to contest the historic elections. Whichever party comes to power and rule Bhutan will oppose the repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees from Nepal as a policy.
Although the people will be given the right to have their say, the King will remain all-powerful. Bhutan’s draft constitution is nothing more than a replica of the condemned 1998 Constitution of Maldives. Today, President of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is Asia’s longest-serving leader and has ruled Maldives with iron hands since 1978. If the proposed Constitution of Bhutan is adopted without suitable changes, the King of Bhutan will enjoy the same powers as that of the President of Maldives and continue to rule the socalled democratic Bhutan with absolute authority in the name of the Parliament.
The United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) has made it clear that “any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere”. Yet, in a society which seeks to establish “one culture, one language”, racism is bound to flourish. Under the national law, such as the Bhutan Citizenship Act of 1985 every citizen of Bhutan is required to able to speak, read and write Dzongkha, the national language, proficiently and any body may be deprived of citizenship any time if he or she criticizes the King, Country and People of Bhutan “by act or speech” “in any manner whatsoever”. It is therefore difficult to believe that the people of Bhutan will enjoy the fruits of democracy at all, as there cannot be any independent media or democratic space to express dissent or opposition under the prevailing national law. In absence of any voice, racism will continue to thrive on without any check in Bhutan.
Presently, India is surrounded by sham democracies, dictators and military rulers. Therefore, the birth of yet another sham democracy in our neighborhood, emitting odor of racism, is certainly not a good news.
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