In the shadow of its ‘happiest country’ label is the trauma of ethnic Nepalese refugees
Bhutan’s vaunted happiness rating rests on a bed of pain. The pain of Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin. I know it, because I am one of them.
I come from an average working class family that has lived in Bhutan for generations with no interest or involvement in politics. My community, known in Bhutan as Lhotshampa, traditionally lives in the south of the country.
In 1989, Bhutan conducted a nationwide census and revoked our citizenship after retroactively applying the 1985 Citizenship Act. scale of our community.
One night, the coal mine office on the Bhutan-India border where my father worked as a clerk was attacked and ransacked. The next day, security personnel took my father and assaulted him.
They questioned his patriotism and nationality and tried to force him to confess to the attack or name the culprit. My father, born into a family of simple farmers, had no idea. After this traumatic experience, he made the difficult decision to leave the country.
On March 3, 1990, we were among the Bhutanese who fled for our lives. I was nine years old. We moved to Timai, a Bhutanese refugee camp in eastern Nepal, where I grew up.
The United States Refugee Resettlement Program helped me move to America in 2009. Two years later, my family joined me. We are now well settled but I still want to heal the pain of dislocation. This is true not only for me but for all Bhutanese traumatized by what happened in the 1990s.
Those who left Bhutan were forced to do so because of the threat to their lives, identity, culture and language. In some cases, the state has expelled them through its crackdown on human rights and political activists, including exiled Bhutanese and members of political parties accused of engaging in violence. Many are still in prison in Bhutan. The violence has diminished over the years, but that does not mean the establishment of a positive peace.
Many citizens of Lhotshampa are still missing, countless people have been killed and nearly 50 political prisoners are serving life sentences in Bhutan’s prisons.
On the positive side, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck recently freed six political prisoners and commuted a life sentence.
As of 2021, around 6,300 Bhutanese refugees are still languishing in two refugee camps in Nepal. Many of the more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in eight Western countries, even though they have not been able to return “home”, feel an intense love for their country of birth.
Bhutan Peace Initiative
This sense of belonging is what catalyzed the Peace Initiative Bhutan movement, initiated in 2020 by the diaspora whose families are spread between Bhutan and the countries where they have settled.
The initiative was made public in April, with the aim of ending polarization and mistrust among many Bhutanese at home and abroad. Peace Initiative Bhutan currently operates under the auspices of the Global Citizens Circle, founded in 1974 in the United States, catalyzed by the Vietnam War, political assassinations and the civil rights movement.
The Circle has been involved in peace and reconciliation processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa and West Asia. It aims to foster lasting constructive change by bringing together cross-generational and diverse individuals, from global leaders to grassroots activists, for the courageous conversations needed to build trust.
Peace Initiative Bhutan is not interested in overthrowing the government in Thimphu. We want a win-win solution. It won’t be easy or quick. But this is possible through a sustainable and holistic process of peacebuilding and reconciliation, in which remorse, apology and forgiveness play an essential role.
The process, rooted in restorative rather than retributive justice, centers on fairness and justice, which are prerequisites for conflict resolution. This was central to the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa.
The past few years have seen a growing awareness among Bhutanese at home and abroad of the futility of the conflict. The suffering of divided families is underpinned by the desire to visit their native country and meet loved ones. Western education has also led to a visible change in the thinking of exiled Bhutanese, although new thinking is evident among Bhutanese politicians.
This shift in perception and attitude may help find a pragmatic and peaceful solution to this decades-old and seemingly intractable conflict. The parties to the conflict have a common goal of making Bhutan truly happy and prosperous.
Since the conflict, Bhutan has transitioned to a democracy with general elections every five years. It adopted its first Constitution in 2008 and established an independent judiciary. A bright side of the conflict has also been the formation of political parties that are now participating in the democratic process.
According to two United Nations triennial reviews, 2015 and 2018, Bhutan has met the criteria to graduate from the category of least developed countries in 2023 and exceed the poverty index.
The transition involves the loss of certain trade preferences and other international support measures. Overseas Bhutanese can help with this. Many are notable in the fields of academia, entrepreneurship and literature, but consider themselves Bhutanese first.
A peaceful future
This presents a great opportunity for Bhutan to have an international profile on a scale larger than its physical area and population size. The Bhutanese Diaspora can play a vital role in providing soft power to the home country to garner international support and solidarity for Bhutan.
I have spoken to many Bhutanese-American business owners who wish to contribute to the economic development of the country, its education sector and other areas, in addition to directly helping their family members in Bhutan . Many are eager for the opportunity to improve their relationship and reconcile differences with the country of birth.
Another plus point is that Bhutan is a carbon neutral country. Additionally, it has a maturing happiness policy dedicated to improving the happiness and progress of its people.
An openness to exiled Bhutanese will also boost the country’s ranking in the World Happiness Report – a ranking it played a pivotal role in establishing.
Last month, 17 Bhutanese American young professionals representing Peace Initiative Bhutan and other nonprofits traveled to Washington DC and called on Congress and the administration to help foster peace and reconciliation in Bhutan.
The delegates also promoted a message based on trust and mutual understanding, in the hope of achieving lasting peace by reconciling the existing differences between the government of Bhutan and the Bhutanese exiles. They met with the US State Department’s Deputy Director of South and Central Asian Affairs and National Security Director of South Asia Regional Affairs Brian Luti at the White House and sought support and commitment. continues with Bhutan.
Collaborative efforts, common ground
Finding common ground is essential for conflicting parties to achieve constructive dialogue. The common ground in this situation lies in the desire to realize the aspirations of genuine gross national happiness in Bhutan.
Coping with trauma means coping with the fact that we have been hurt in some way. When we separate the action from the person who hurt us, we can help rehabilitate them and create new connections. We must learn to hate the game, not the player. Or hate the sin, not the sinner. We are all against injustice, and there are many ways to seek justice. As MK Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.”
To reconcile the people of Bhutan and bring peace, we need collaborative efforts. Community agencies, local organizations, religious leaders, politicians, the King of Bhutan and businesses can all play a vital role in this process.
We can deal with these issues using strategies that have worked in peacebuilding elsewhere. One step in the right direction can make all the difference. Combining realism and hope can help us move towards a more peaceful future. We at the Initiative believe it is time for representatives of the Government of Bhutan and the Bhutanese Diaspora to sit down to discuss the future, focusing on agreement and accommodation.
Such a Bhutanese reconciliation would lead to a long-awaited joyful reunion. The past must not defile our present and our future. We can and must end the animosity. We need to embrace each other and work to heal the wounds rather than deepen them.
The writer is a founding member of Peace Initiative Bhutan and a PhD student in transformative social change at Saybrook University, California. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This is a syndicated feature of Sapan News @southasiapeace.