Need for meaningful dialogueOver a quarter century ago, a large portion of the population of Bhutan was exiled by their government.
Over a quarter century ago, a large portion of the population of Bhutan was exiled by their government. The “Lhotsampas” and their supporters were driven out of Bhutan for reasons of ethnic cleansing. To this day, the Bhutanese government and the people they drove out have failed to come to an agreement. They pay no heed to each other and march to their own beats. For the displaced, this long impasse is exasperating, and for the Bhutanese government, it has become a constant irritation. The accusations and rhetoric should come to an end, and a new era of unity and friendship should begin. It is time for forgiveness and compassion, and for practical solutions that will benefit both the exiled populace and the Bhutanese government.
Both sides have squandered their time slinging mud at each other, making no effort to reach an agreement. This has meant misery for thousands of Bhutanese, both inside and outside Bhutan. Bhutan’s reputation as a peace-loving Buddhist nation has been tarnished. Resettled Bhutanese have not let up on their heated claims that Bhutan’s handling of human rights abuses led to the refugee crisis. Bhutan still refutes this claim and defends its national integrity and security.
A new approach
So far, there have been three conventional approaches to resolution: dignified repatriation (to Bhutan), local integration (in Nepal), or third country resettlement. The first two strategies have failed, and third country resettlement has been the primary form of resolution. No one has come up with any other alternatives yet. What we need is ‘reconciliation’ so we can build a consensus on shared interests. This process depends on the flexibility and eagerness of both Bhutan and the exiled Bhutanese. We must not let the history of conflict stand in the way of this goal.
The monarchy in Bhutan does not stand in the way of reconciliation; however, nationalism is a barrier and a categorically dangerous form of patriotism. The dominant Drukpa culture devalued the Lhotsampa culture. Certain policies were adopted that marginalised the Lhotsampas, to the point where even citizenship was denied to them. The current prime minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, holds the view that the people in the refugee camps in Nepal are “destitute people from Nepal and India,” and not from Bhutan. However, international human rights reports prove otherwise.
After the painful exodus from their homeland, thousands of Bhutanese ended up in refugee camps in Nepal. They left Bhutan for a number of reasons: fear of persecution, being directly pushed out by the government due to involvement in the democratic movement, family disintegration, and torture of them or their family members. The testimonies of these victims and reports from international human rights organisations contradict Bhutan’s assertions.
Fond memories of homeland
Even after 27 years, the exiled Bhutanese still hold vivid memories of their life, land and neighbourhoods back in Bhutan. One old man shared his affable and fond relationship with the fourth king. He said that the king used to come to his village and play games with him in the paddy fields. At the end of their games, the king used to give the old man soap to shower with. They shared their meals and sometimes the king helped him to do some of his lighter chores. He says that the memory “revisits me every day. Now it all seems unreal, a dream unfulfilled.”
The blame game did not work in the past, and it will not work now. It has caused daily
suffering and pain due to a lack of reconciliation. The Bhutanese government must acknowledge the pain felt by the Lhotsampas, and both parties must try to see one another through goodwill, love, compassion, respect and understanding. We must not be hung up on who is right and who is wrong. Peace-building efforts should take place within Bhutan, and the wounds of the exiled Bhutanese should be healed.
For this to happen, all parties must sit together and hold meaningful dialogue.
Budathoki, a resettled Bhutanese human-rights activist, is pursuing a Master’s in International Relations at Norwich University, US