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BHUTAN: Forgotten People of Shangri-la

BHUTAN: Forgotten People of Shangri-la

[Ed. Note: In the last issue of Human Rights SOLIDARITY we published an article on Bhutanese refugee issue. In October 1999, Sanjeewa Liyanage from AHRC was able to visit a refugee camp in Jhapa district in Nepal. This article is an account of that visit illustrated by numerous pictures.]

It was a beautiful evening in the month of October this year in Katmandu valley in Nepal. The weather was pleasantly cool, sun shining and snow-covered Himalayas was picturesque scene.

That evening I boarded to a 50-minute domestic flight from Katmandu to Biratnagar. Biratnagar is one of the important cities of Nepal where a lot of industries are.

When I arrived in Biratnagar, the sun was setting painting the sky golden. Weather was warmer than Katmandu. Two NGO workers from People's Forum met me for Human Rights (PFHR) at the airport. It was dusk when we started our 60km-journey by land to the town named Damak in Jhapa district where most the Bhutanese refugees are camped. We passed so many bridges on the way to Damak, which indicated many streams and rivers. When we arrived in Damak it was about 8:00 p.m. Damak was a very rural town with very basic facilities. There I also met Ratan Gazmere of Association of Human Rights Activists (AHURA) Bhutan.

Background to Bhutanese Refugees

The story is of a tiny land-locked kingdom, Bhutan in the foothills of Himalayas. Nestling between Tibet and India, Bhutan is commonly portrayed as Shangri-la,but behind the enchanting image of a land lost in time, lurks a more disturbing reality of victimization, forced eviction, and depopulation.

Until 1985 there was no animosity recorded in Bhutan despite its ethnic diversity and Bhutan was indeed called the Land of Peaceful Dragon. Crisis began when the government passed a new Citizenship Act, which was discriminatory. The subsequent census exercise in the kingdom in 1988 which was carried out only in the Nepali speaking southern districts revoked their right to nationality in a large number who otherwise had lived in harmony as bona-fide Bhutanese citizens for generations. As a result thousands of southern Bhutanese people (Lhotshampas) lost home, land and livelihood within a short period of time.

Distress among Southern Bhutanese further grew in 1989 when they were forced to adopt culture and etiquette characteristic of Northern Bhutanese under threat of punishment. Nepali, the language of the Southern Bhutanese was dropped from the school curriculum.

The southern Bhutanese petitioned the king through their representative, T.N.Rizal to seek a review of the government policies and the manner in which the census was carried out, but all in vain. Following a series arrest and imprisonment of human rights activists including T.N.Rizal in September and October 1990, the southern Bhutanese organised peaceful public demonstrations in all the southern districts of the country demanding political reforms and respect for human rights. The result was awfully tragic. It ended in ruthless government atrocities and forced evictions of the southern Bhutanese.

Now there are well over 100,000 Bhutanese people who have been forced into exile as refugees in Nepal and India. This figure is equal to one-sixth of the total population of Bhutan. Over 90,000 of these refugees are living in UNHCR supervised camps in Jhapa and Morong districts of eastern Nepal since 1991. Approximately 30,000 others are living outside the camps in Nepal and India.

(Source: AHURA Bhutan)


Picture 1: Bhutanese refugees gathered at PFHR office in Damak

Next morning I visited PFHR office where there were refugees from all 7 camps in Damak area. There were people from all generations, children to great grand parents. They all had their stories to tell. They were waiting for someone to visit them. They were waiting to tell their stories. Their aim? To find some redress from anyone who visit them. The ultimate aim was to return to their own lands in Bhutan.

They were all holding their identity documents when I wanted to take a picture of them. This scene was very common whenever I wanted to take a picture. Most adults were holding their identity documents. These documents are important evidence to prove that they are citizens of Bhutan and have been living there for years.


Citizenship Act and How It All Happened

The citizenship issue is the key issue affecting their fate. Bhutanese government does not recognise them as Bhutanese citizens. Who are they? They are Lohtchampas or southern Bhutanese among them most are of Nepali origin. They are people without a state, mothers without a state, fathers without a state, grandfathers without a state, grandmothers without a state and children without a state. Terminology used to describe them is "stateless people." But actually, they are landless people who have lost their lands in Bhutan. Most of them are farmers. Their livelihood is very much attached to their land. In fact land is like their life. They lived in their lands, cultivated them for generations and made decent living out of it. But a piece of paper made them disown their lands. That was the Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1985. Also the same paper made Bhutan disown over 120,000 people.

Picture 2 and 3: Refugees holding his Bhutanese identity document

Bhutanese authorities just did not disown them, they subjected them to atrocious treatment. They were subjected to atrocious treatment such as arbitrary arrests, torture and detentions without trial, village raids and widespread inhuman and degrading treatment of the southern Bhutanese, including gang rape; the closure of almost all schools in southern Bhutan; the restriction of health services; a ban on the movement of essential commodities and people; confiscation of citizenship cards and termination of employment; burning and demolition of houses. Such treatment systematically made life for Lohtchampas unbearable and finally drove them out of their lands and their country - Bhutan.

Refugee Exodus and Setting up of Camps in Southern Nepal

Bhutanese fleeing Bhutan in early 1991 first arrived in Assam and West Bengal in India. They set up makeshift camps and hoped for the situation to normalize. Instead, as the situation in Bhutan worsened and the refugees were not permitted to set up permanent camps in India. From August 1991, the influx of refugees increased at the rate of 1,000 a month. The flow of refugees leaped in February 1992 to a massive 10,000 per month. The period from February to March 1992 saw the refugee population rise to 48,000.

Conditions at Maidhar in late 1991 were grim, but the refugee leaders quickly organised themselves and sought help from the local community. Local Nepalese responded with donations of rice, bamboo, money and wood. However, with thousands to feed and shelter it was becoming impossible to manage. Many died and hundreds suffered from malnutrition and diseases.

Urgent appeals for help resulted in assistance from Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and in adhoc humanitarian relief from UNHCR at the end of 1991. Following formal requests from the Nepalese government, UNHCR began regular assistance to the Bhutanese refugees at the beginning of 1992.UNHCR now channels its assistance through its implementing partners.

There are 7 refugee Bhutanese refugee camps located in Jhapa and Morang Distict of Eastern Nepal. Refugee camp population as of June 1999 as follows:

Picture 4: Administrative buildings of Bedangi II main camp


Bhutanese Refugee Camp Population - June 1999

Beldangi I


Beldangi II


Beldangi II Extension












Data Source: Refugee Coordination Unit, His Majesty's Government of Nepal and AHURA Bhutan


The camp I visited was the largest camp, which is Beldangi II which accommodate about 30,000 refugees. There were many people waiting at the camp supervisor's office to meet us. Among the first group I met was about 7 former members of the Bhutanese National Assembly. They discussed their concerned with me through an interpreter. They all have been expelled from the National Assembly following the events occurred after enacting of 1985 Citizenship Act. According to them, among all 7 camps there are about 18 former national assembly members.

Picture 5: Former Bhutanese National Assembly members (seated) at the Beldangi II Camp



The first impression of the camp was like a very rural village. People lived in mud huts the huts had straw roofs. There was not much space between houses. They were all next to each other. They looked identical. Each house had its section and house number.

Picture 6: Typical refugee house made of straw and mud


Picture 9: Water containers lined up near a tap by refugees have to receive allocated water rations

There was electricity to the area. The water was scarce and rationed. People had to line up to obtain water, which was dispensed at allocated times. There was not a single telephone among all 7 camps. Can you imagine that there is not a single telephone for about 100,000 refugees? The only emergency access to outside the camp was the Refugee Coordination Unit radio transmitter, which could only be accessed by the officials in the camps from Royal Nepal Government.

There was small clinic to cater for medical needs of the refugees. Just one clinic operated only for a few hours for about 20,00 refugees in the Beldangi II main camp. Food was rationed too. Once a week food was distributed among the refugees. They included some rice and "green vegetables." Green vegetables meant unripe bananas and potatoes. There was some minimum education facilities for children. However, they lacked many standard educational materials and books.

Pictures 7 & 8: Distribution of vegetables (unripe bananas and potatoes) to refugees


One thing struck me during my visit was that these people have been living there for about 10 years without doing nothing. They wake up in the morning and have to spend the day doing nothing. According to many refugees I spoke to this experience make them feel very frustrated. They all are people who used to work hard in their fields and make good living. They only could farm small plots in the refugee camp now. But of course that does not make them feel the way they used to feel: sense of self-reliance and satisfaction. According to many they feel loss of hope and uncertainty about their and their young generation's future.


Pictures 10 & 11: Chabilal Daurali who was brave to share his experience of torture under Bhutanese authorities and even displayed scars on his back

Among the refugees in the camp there are many who have been subjected to torture by the Bhutanese authorities. There were many women who have been raped by the Bhutanese authorities - military or police. They were all in the camps. One of the persons we managed to talk to was 38-year-old Chabilal Dhaurali. He was tortured when he was captured by the Bhutanese authorities. When he described his experience in the torture chamber his face was full of terror and his eyes were full of tears. He said that reliving his experience itself is a torture. But he wanted to describe his experience for the sake of fellow torture victims. He even removed his upper garments to show all horrible marks of torture.


More than 50% of the refugee population (about 50,000 persons) includes people of 3 generations. In some cases there were 4 generations of refugees living in the camps. The grand parents and great grand parents were a living testimony for their existence and life in Bhutan. Old folks spend their time reading or praying. The biggest frustration of the adults was their uncertain future. They were also very unhappy that they had nothing to do in the camps than just waiting. They have now waited for about 10 years. There were a lot of bilateral talks between Nepali and Bhutanese government (which is perceived the best way to find a solution by the Nepali authorities) within last 10 years. So far these talks have not brought any redress to refugees in terms of their future. When we ask these people what is their goal the answer is simple: "we want to return to our country -- Bhutan, we want to go back to our homes."

Picture 12: Rukmina Baral (57-year-old Mother), Damaru Baral (41-year-old son) and Monoj Baral (8-year-old grandson of Rukmina's) relating their story

The most disturbing scene was the young and beautiful children. You could see so many messages written in their faces. They were beautiful and innocent faces. There was anxiety, despair written on those faces. You could see sincerity at the same time you could see that they were not happy faces. They smiled at me out of courtesy and hospitality. The only thing they could give me was their beautiful smile. Most of these children were born in the camps. The whole world for them is the refugee camp they live. They know that their country is Bhutan. But they have never seen it or felt their feet on its ground. The big question is that when will these children see their homes again? Other questions were when will these children see a proper class room for their studies? What will they be when they grow up? Where will they belong to?

Pictures 13, 14 & 15: Children without clear future


What was the hope? There were many groups and individuals who have been working painstakingly for the cause of Bhutanese refugees. Some of the NGO groups are based in Damak itself. I was able to meet representative from People's Forum for Human Rights (PFHR) who generously sacrificed their time and effort to coordinate the whole visit to Jhapa and Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee (BRRRC) which focus on repatriation issue.

I also me AHURA and its coordinator Mr. Ratan Gazmere who is doing an impressive work for Bhutanese refugees. AHURA has also compiled documentation on Bhutanese refugees which is available at their web site at: http://members.tripod.com/ahurabht/ AHURA together with other concerned groups have tried to put the Bhutanese issue in the international scene and have made numerous representations at United Nations level. One of the main objectives of AHURA is to assist refugees to prove their citizenship issue. Ratan Gazmere believe that finding a solution to refugee crisis should be on top of all other Bhutanese issues.

There are humanitarian agencies assisting refugees in the camps among them were The Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) and World Food Programme (WFP) who distribute food and clothing, Lutheran World Service (LWS) who provide infra-structure, Caritas Nepal run educational facilities, Save the Children Fund (SCF) (UK) who assist in health care and health education and OXFAM-UK who provide community development activities. But more than material needs, these refugees also need support and solidarity. Their morale is very low. You could imagine waiting for 10 years without seeing any sign of hope. If more people from outside Nepal could just visit these people, talk to them, listen to them and be with them for a few days, that will be a great moral encouragement for them. Such experiences create hope for thousands of people. Moreover, if more individuals and organisations could help make awareness of the Bhutanese refugee issue, taking part in activities of groups campaigning for the cause of refugees like AHURA, such acts would help the expedite finding a solution to the Bhutanese refugee crisis.

(Note: Some factual information contained in this article is taken from materials published by AHURA Bhutan)

Posted on 2000-02-20


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