|Sure, let's talk: Prime Ministers Thinley and Khanal during the former's recent visit to Kathmandu|
In an April meeting in Kathmandu, as innumerable times before, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley said to his Nepali counterpart, Jhala Nath Khanal, ‘The Nepal-Bhutan bilateral talks on the solution to refugee problem will resume soon. The date, however, will be set through a diplomatic process.’ Previously, Thinley (then foreign minister) had said nearly the exact same thing to multiple Nepali prime ministers – Madhav Kumar Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Girija Prasad Koirala, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Surya Bahadur Thapa – and even to then-King Gyanendra. All of this was, ostensibly, an attempt to come to a decision on what to do with the 100,000-plus Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa refugees kicked out of Bhutan during the late 1980s and early 1990s, who subsequently languished in UN-overseen camps in southeastern Nepal. That is to say that the years since December 2003, since the dissolution of the 15th round of Nepal-Bhutan talks, have been spent in nothing but reassurances of the same type recently mouthed by Prime Minister Thinley.
This time, Thinley returned to Thimphu with a final comment that left the national and international community thunderstruck. At a Saturday morning press conference before getting back on his airplane, he said, ‘Not everyone currently being verified by the United Nations are Bhutanese refugees. Whether a person is Bhutanese or not is still under investigation.’ Rather ominously, he added: ‘Even then, if there are still those who want to leave the country’ – meaning Bhutan – ‘we cannot do anything.’ This implied a continuing agenda of the Thimphu government to try and push the remaining Lhotshampa out of the country.
Of the three alternatives available as solutions to the refugee problem – voluntary return to Bhutan, local settlement in Nepal or resettlement in other countries – the third option has been the only one seen possible thus far. Since early 2008, almost 50,000 Lhotshampa have left Nepal for Western countries, particularly the United States. In such a context, Prime Minister Thinley’s words seemed like a slap in the face to the international community. Challenging the campaign of refugee selection, verification and resettlement by reputed international organisations, including the UN’s own refugee agency, UNHCR, Prime Minister Thinley said, ‘Right now, we cannot certify whether those [refugees] are Bhutanese or not.’ Against such rhetoric, the UN and other multilateral agencies look like ragdolls.
Particularly concerning in this situation is that, even after the UN has opened a high-level office to help Nepal with its refugee situations, there remains an inability on all sides to either press the issue or even to bring respective parties to the table for talks. Neither has the international community, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, been able to raise the question about India’s acquiescence to the original expulsion. Given that Indian territory lies between Nepal and Bhutan, and given that the tens of thousands of Bhutanese citizens did not simply fly to Nepal, and given New Delhi’s massive influence in Thimphu, how can Indian officials continue to be allowed to maintain that the Lhotshampa refugees constitute nothing more than a ‘bilateral issue’ between Nepal and India?
One way or another, continuously weak diplomacy on the part of Kathmandu amidst political chaos and regime change in Nepal and generally confusion has benefited Prime Minister Thinley and the Thimphu government in general. The former has regularly reiterated, ‘We don’t need a third party to settle this problem of refugees. The Nepal and Bhutan governments are the only ones responsible for this.’ As far as the evidence on the table, the international community seems to agree with this.
During his Kathmandu visit, officially for advising on SAARC matters, Prime Minister Thinley convened a press conference to discuss the issue of refugees and their potential return to Bhutan. Nepali Foreign Ministry officials keep telling those convened (including this writer) that the focus of the visit was SAARC, not the issue of refugees – that ‘formal’ issues were not to be raised in this setting. Yet they evidently failed to notice that Prime Minister Thinley uttered not a single word about SAARC issues, while holding forth extensively on the refugee issue. The Foreign Ministry has thus far refused to provide an official response to the Bhutanese Prime Minister’s views, which seemed to go against diplomatic protocol, besides being denigrating to the refugee population.
Apart from a strong sense of purpose on the part of the Nepal government, what is lacking is a uniform voice on the matter of the Lhotshampa within Nepal. As feeble as Nepal’s stance has been and remains on the issue, equally pathetic is the position of Bhutanese refugee leaders. On one hand, many of these have put up a vociferous protest at the prospect of third-country resettlement; on the other, they are the ones who, once resettlement began, have been the first to send their children abroad. These leaders have also released regular public statements – on International Refugee Day, for instance, or following the appointment of a new foreign minister in Thimphu, or on visits to Kathmandu by Thinley. In so doing, these self-appointed leaders have given strength to those who want to ‘play around’ with the Lhotshampa issue – such as local representatives of the foreign media – but little else. For example, a recent statement by the Bhutan People’s Party president, Balaram Paudyal, said, ‘Thinley’s verbal assurance to resolve the refugee issue will remain as it is. Refugees will see nothing in action. However, changes around the world indicate that Bhutan will not remain intact forever. Changes will definitely come to Bhutan one day.’
Internationally, one can catch a glance of high-level Bhutanese officials all the time. They are there at UN conferences in New York, at BIMSTEC meetings in various capitals, at ministerial-level SAARC meetings or at the odd ‘Save the Tiger’ conference. They are constantly lobbying in suave English, and inviting dignitaries and senior media persons to Bhutan for lavish holidays. In Nepal, they can be seen visiting the ancient Halesi Mahadev temple in the country’s east, or on tours to shrines and cultural destinations in the Kathmandu Valley. There is even a photograph of a Bhutanese queen eating a momo at a restaurant in Kathmandu. And during many of these travels we hear rumours and stories of conversations on the ‘sidelines’ of various events and gatherings – but almost never a report of a proper, official, ‘mainline’ bilateral talk. Prime Minister Thinley has already announced that the next round of talks would take place in October, at the UN General Assembly in New York. But once again, this too will only be a meeting on the side.
Today, are the results of the prolonged official process of verification and categorisation, the finding that 75 percent of those ‘verified’ have the right to return home to Bhutan, confined only to a piece of paper? Why do the refugee agencies, the governments of the US and the UK, seemingly refuse even to raise questions about that process, at least in public? If these questions are not legitimate, we should be able to say, ‘Let’s end this talk about the refugee issue right here. Yes, we have lost the diplomatic war.’ Why should Nepal’s cognoscenti console itself with the fact that, according to the International Office for Migration, 80,000 refugees will be resettled in a third country, with the rest, perhaps, being accommodated locally? Why keep picking at the wound of failure? Let’s resume talks? Really?
On the issue of Bhutanese refugees, Nepal and the international community today find themselves back at square one. Even after an alternate solution has been found to deal with the immediacy of the problem, Bhutanese leaders are able to continue saying, publicly, that they ‘can’t say whether those in the camps are Bhutanese refugees or not.’ Therefore, instead of being mortified all the time, speechless at every moment, and forever on the sidelines, the best solution for all involved – in Kathmandu and capitals around the world – would be simply to accept diplomatic defeat. Doing so would at least put a stop to that constant question from the camps, as voiced by singer Pratap Subba, doctor Bhampa Rai and rights leader Nandu Poudel: When will we return to our Bhutan?
The last laugh, however, might well come from the refugees themselves. Unable to bring their diplomatic will to bear on Bhutan, and with New Delhi looking studiously the other way, countries such as the US, UK, Denmark, Norway and Australia agreed to take in significant numbers for resettlement. Bhutan seems to have gotten temporary reprieve. But once they settle and consolidate, these third-country Lhotshampa are bound to wake up in their lobbying for the failures of Nepali diplomacy, the cruel neglect of India, and the soft-peddling of the Western powers.
~ Translated from the Nepali by Weena Pun.
~ Devendra Bhattarai is chief sub-editor for the Kantipur daily in Kathmandu.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)