Gross National Sadness: Bhutani Refugees

The other side of the refugee coin: There is more media coverage and outrage about 22,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal than five times as many Bhutanis. Could it be because most Bhutani refugees are not Buddhists?

By Gyan Subba

Geo-politics is all about double standards and national interest. The Americans invade Iraq, ostensibly to restore democracy and get rid of Saddam, but everyone knows it is about oil.

India backs Nepal’s democracy movement, but is in bed with the Burmese junta. Everyone knows it’s about gas.

But how does one explain India’s outright support for Bhutan’s eviction of 100,000 refugees, and its help in transporting them to Nepal. It can’t only be about hydropower.

Not just New Delhi, the ‘international community’ has been a mute by-stander to the world’s biggest refugee crisis in per-capita terms—Bhutan’s eviction of one-sixth of its population 17 years ago. There is more media coverage and outrage about 22,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal than five times as many Bhutanis. Could it be because most Bhutani refugees are not Buddhists?

Finally, some Europeans seem to have taken notice that something is rotten in the kingdom of Bhutan. The Norwegian Refugee Council has timed its newsletter covering the refugee crisis for Bhutan’s first election this week. And to set things right for past neglect, it is a sharp indictment of the gross violation of human rights of its citizens perpetrated by the Druk regime.

Background Info:

With one sixth of the population in exile, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan has the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s highest per capita generator of refugees. The roots of the problem lie in the government’s attempts to alter the kingdom’s demography in favour of the ruling ethnic group. Since 1990, over 100,000 thousand southern Bhutanese of Nepalese ethnicity have been made refugees after being forcibly evicted, forced to flee persecution and repression, or expelled after being coerced into signing “voluntary” emigration forms. (more here)

‘Despite the extensive abuse of its own population, the country has—to a large extent—managed to avoid criticism in the international media,’ writes NRC Reports editor, Richard Skretteberg. ‘On the contrary, the media has often helped perpetuate the myth of an exotic land of happiness. However, what we have before us is a silent tragedy occurring in a media-created Shangri-la.’

Better late than never to say this. Finally someone in Europe has picked up what the Nepali media has been banging its head on for nearly two decades to get the world to take notice.

NRC Reports goes on to highlight the threats, detentions, confiscation of property that led to the original ethnic cleansing in 1991, and the Bhutani regime’s delaying tactics on their return with the direct collusion of India.

‘India bears a significant responsibility for finding a solution for the Bhutanese refugees…but the greater responsibility lies with Bhutan itself,” adds Skretteberg.

The NRC Reports also pokes holes in Bhutan’s ‘democratic elections’ this week.

The 2005 census in Bhutan has defined 13 percent of the population, mostly Lhotsampas, as non-nationals which means 82,000 Bhutanis within Bhutan weren’t allowed to vote in this week’s elections.

‘Exclusion of an ethnic group before an elections cannot be considered real democratisation,’ says the Report.

The report says there can be only three durable solutions to the crisis: repatriation to Bhutan, local integration in Nepal or resettlement. On repatriation, it accuses the Bhutani regime of being intrasigent and not even allowing back those classified as genuine Bhutanis in 2003. Local integration would be Nepal’s responsibility and Kathmandu has also been dragging its feet on extending citizenship even to those born in the camps and Bhutanis married to Nepalis after coming here.

The resettlement option for 85,000 Bhutanis to settle in western countries has created tension within the camps and the report calls on the resettlement to be entirely voluntary and the refugees allowed to retain the right to return to Bhutan.

What the report does not shed light on is the biggest mystery of all: how a tiny country of 700,000 people can arm-twist a giant neighbour of one billion people and charm western politicians and foreign aid bureaucrats to get away with ethnic cleansing. Not only is Bhutan not punished, it is now being congratulated for having ‘democratic elections’.

[This article was received in email.]





11 responses to “Gross National Sadness: Bhutani Refugees”

  1. ripvanwinkle Avatar

    dear friend i completly agree with you,
    but looks like not all europe is still aware of the miseries in bhutan. just the other day in spain the most awarded news program claimed it to be the fifth happiest nation in the world. and was complimenting the nation on its first democratic elections. noone explained the 82,000 that did not vote, not a whisper about the refugee crisis and the underage wives of the drukpa. there is a wrong preception about butan being a shangri-la. and the truth needs to be told.

  2. akoo Avatar

    The truth is this so called Bhutanese refugees were never Bhutanese to begin with. Most of them were economic migrants from Nepal who illegally immigrated to Bhutan because of better economic prospect. Nepal as you know has done a horrible job of providing services to it’s people and managing it’s economy. The international committee and the Indians aware of this fact therefore they see no point asking Bhutanese to take in Nepalese migrants.
    The fear in the international community is that if there are to many Nepalese in Bhutan, Bhutan could become corrupt and a basket case like Nepal.

  3. Vashir Avatar

    Everyone’s entitled to his/her opinion but they must not be biased. Akoo is wrong to say the Bhutanese refugees are Nepali migrants because they had settled in Bhutan 200 years ago when Sikkim was still a part of Greater Nepal.

    And the other thing about Bhutan, it is already corrupt. Just look at the “elections” conducted by the royal regime in Bhutan. If things go this way, I am sure there will be an armed revolution in Bhutan, and they will topple your king with it- just like they did here in Nepal. Beware.

  4. Blow Avatar


    What is the foreign policy of Bhutan? If you don’t know, don’t ask Thimpu but New Delhi because Bhutan is not a sovereign country. They are the one tiny state of India. They have no self esteem as a country. They are the rubber stamp of India. What we want to see is a revolution in Bhutan that provides the country sovereignty in its true sense where people of Bhutan can decide on the issues that concern their nation. There will soon be a Maoist revolution in Bhutan that will wipe away the corrupt dictatorship of the Bhutani king who is so cunningly trying to cover up his atrocities in the name of mock democracy and fake elections.

  5. akoo Avatar

    You are absolutely right about the need to be careful of these Nepalese migrants trying to topple armed rebellion. I guess the Bhutanese government has been very smart. They’ve taken preemptive action and kicked out most of the migrants. I think since the Nepalese aren’t a majority in Bhutan, I think it should be very easy very easy to contain any threats from them.

  6. akoo Avatar


    hehe.. Bhutan kicked out a 100,000 of your people and you guys couldn’t do anything about? What makes your think that you can mount a maoist revolution in Bhutan? Besides, Nepalese people don’t look like like Bhutanese people so it shouldn’t be that hard for the Bhutanese to find their target if there is any attempts by the Maiists.

  7. to mr akoo Avatar
    to mr akoo

    So, sorry to hear about your thoughts, I am sure you will surely change them in the near future, when people will ask you about your identity and laugh at you being an Indian puppet. The same happening in Terai belts of Nepal might happen in Bhutan and how many people do u intent to finish off, Its not our fault, in fact its the bhutanese government who kept people like you away from literacy for so many years, thats why you sound so ignorant. Better luck for your Bhutan with ethnic cleansing similar to what hitler did and we all know the results.

  8. tshering dorji Avatar

    “how a tiny country of 700,000 people can arm-twist a giant neighbour of one billion people and charm western politicians and foreign aid bureaucrats to get away with ethnic cleansing. it is now being congratulated for having ‘democratic elections’.”
    the answer is very simple: it is the truth. It was NOT ethnic cleansing. not all the nepalese in bhutan were originally from bhutan. and yes, the elections were democratic and legitimate. open your eyes to the possibility that you may be wrong!

  9. Drukstylz Avatar

    Vashir they have not lived in Bhutan for 200 years. Probably they did not even know they were in Bhutan. They are just farmers who encroached land and squatted on Bhutan’s land.

    explain to me how someone living 200 years in Bhutan can still manage to only speak Nepali, dress Nepali, and after this supposed 200 years of living in what they claim to be their homeland start rioting and demand a democracy?

    You never even mention the fact that crimes are committed by you Nepalese on these refugees in the camps. They are not allowed work permits, they are raped, beaten killed and extorted by their own ethnic brothers and sisters.

    The truth is, you people have been slandering Bhutan all these years, and I’m amazed that no one has questioned the reason Nepal never took them back. Or the fact how the camps magically swelled up in numbers when initially the first 3 years from 1992 there were only 3,000 people in those camps.

    In fact, your leaders are acting like children, trying to stop the resettlement, going so far as to say “even if its for one day, the refugees should return to Bhutan”.

    The truth is 100,000 people never fled in terror to the camps. There were some, who fled because they were criminals, heard rumors, or wanted to regroup before staging more demonstrations.

    However, they soon realized they needed more people and even UNHCR informed them that they wouldn’t be recognized as a international issue until the magic number of 100,000 was reached.

    So you stuffed the camps with local Nepalis looking for a free hand out, and even now you use terror to force the camp dwellers to stay in that squalid condition because the ring leaders need the masses to stay to keep their political clout.

    Read something else than what you want to hear all the time. Also stop using this refugee issue as your trump card. Even now that the refugees are being resettled, you still dig this dead horse out of the grave, and beat it.

  10. Drukstylz Avatar

    There were Nepali migrants in bhutan 200 years ago? Bhutan did not even have a population census till the 1980’s.

    Nepal has trapped the refugees in the camps, and refuses to allow them to work or to leave the camps. They keep them in the camps, as a showcase. Nepal uses the refugees like a beggar who picks at a wound so that they can shove it in peoples faces to evoke pitty.

    Once you let them out of the camps, they will blend right into Nepal society and no one will be able to tell them apart. You people make me sick, take back your brothers and sisters, and stop torturing them Nepal.

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