Tue, Oct 16, 2018 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Lhotshampa: Bhutan’s not-so-happy evicted minority

AFP, BELDANGI REFUGEE CAMP, Nepal

Bhutanese refugee schoolgirls ride a bicycle in the Beldangi refugee camp in Damak, about 300km southeast of Kathmandu, Nepal, on Aug. 10.

Photo: AFP

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan, often described as a “Shangri-La” where happiness is equated to wealth, is holding elections this week, but the Lhotshampa people, driven out of the small kingdom in the 1990s, will not be voting.

The Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa were branded as immigrants and stripped of citizenship rights when the then-king introduced a “One Nation, One People” policy in 1985.

The edict made following the customs of the Buddhist majority mandatory, banning speaking Nepali and wearing traditional Lhotshampa dress.

Those who resisted where labeled “anti-nationals,” arrested and subjected to brutal treatment including rape and torture, according to Amnesty International.

The security forces made detainees sign declarations saying that they would leave Bhutan voluntarily as a condition of their release. About 100,000 — one-sixth of Bhutan’s population — fled, ending up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

One man who left Bhutan was 68-year-old Bhumpa Rai, who was serving as a royal doctor when the king’s edict was promulgated.

“They humiliated us... They said that we are not Bhutanese and chased me and my people from the country,” Rai told reporters.

The king offered him protection from the Draconian rules, introduced under the pretext of promoting “national harmony.”

However, Rai decided to join other Lhotshampa and left Bhutan, becoming a refugee in Nepal.

“They treated people of Nepali origin like enemies. I cannot respect them anymore, although I admit that I used to clean their wounds. I was their doctor,” Rai said.

Rai is one of just 7,000 people who remain in the camps in Nepal. The majority have been resettled by the UN in third countries, including the US, Australia and Norway.

However, the UN program ended in late 2016 with those remaining refusing resettlement, because they say it absolves the Bhutanese authorities of what they did to the Lhotshampa.

Switzerland-sized Bhutan — sandwiched between regional giants China and India — has long resisted outside influences, with televisions only allowed in 1999.

The country’s fight against Westernization is often seen as a source of its mystic draw, along with its pursuit of “gross national happiness” — made an official policy in 1998 — over economic gains.

It only swapped absolute monarchy for constitutional monarchy in 2008 and this week’s elections — due to wrap up on Thursday — are the country’s third.

Bhutan still describes the Lhotshampa as immigrants, justifying its nationalistic laws as essential for cultural identity and political stability, according to the think tank Freedom House.

The refugees in Nepal do not expect the elections to bring any change.

“The election results in Bhutan will reflect what the monarchy wants. Its decision won’t come in our favor,” said 80-year-old Durga Prasad Sharma — an outspoken pronouncement that would be unheard of inside Bhutan, where self-censorship is rife and the monarchy still revered.

Sharma fled Bhutan in 1994 with a bounty on his head after he joined a political party demanding rights for the Lhotshampa.

Such political parties are now banned under the constitution, which states that all parties have to promote national unity and are barred from using ethnicity or religion to attract voters. Parties also have to field candidates in all 47 constituencies.

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