The Lhotshampa community
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The exodus from Bhutan
Bhutan Is No Shangri-La
By Vidhyapati Mishra
Published: June 28, 2013
DAMAK, Nepal — BEFORE [some Nepalese-origin families were] expelled from Bhutan, in 1992, they lived in the south of the country. This region is the most fertile part of that kingdom perched between Tibet and India, a tapestry of mountains, plains and alpine meadows.
After tightening its citizenship laws in the mid-1980s, Bhutan conducted a special census in the south and then proceeded to cast out [an alleged] nearly 100,000 people — about one-sixth of its population, nearly all of them of Nepalese origin. It declared them illegal immigrants, even though many of them went back several generations in Bhutan. It hasn’t let any of them move back.
The enormity of this exodus, one of the world’s largest by proportion, given the country’s small population, has been overlooked by an international community that is either indifferent or beguiled by the government-sponsored images of Bhutan as a serene Buddhist Shangri-La, an image advanced by the policy of “gross national happiness,” coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s.
Many of their ancestors were recruited from Nepal in the mid-19th century to cultivate the arable land of southern Bhutan. They are known as Lhotshampa — literally, people of the south. The Drukpas, the Buddhist elite, and the Hindu Lhotshampa had coexisted, largely in peace, until 1989, when the king introduced a “One Nation, One People” policy imposing Drukpa social norms on everyone. The edict controlled the smallest details of their public lives: how they ate, dressed and talked. The Nepali language was banned in schools, and Hindu pathshalas, or seminaries, which teach the Sanskrit scriptures, were closed.
Protests demanding an end to the absolute monarchy and persecution of the Lhotshampa beginning in summer 1990 were quashed, and repression — including torture, sexual assault, evictions and discriminatory firing — intensified. As part of the government’s campaign of intimidation in the south, [some Lhotshampa] schools were suddenly closed. That day, the headmaster summoned students to an assembly, announced that they were to collect their belongings and told them to go home at once.
Not knowing when they’d be back, the Lhotshampa set their animals free and left open the doors and windows of the house. They walked in spring showers to the border with India, through forest and valleys. At the border, the Indians, who wanted nothing to do with them, piled them into trucks and dumped them at the doorstep of Nepal.
They were among the 90,000 Bhutanese refugees who flooded shelters in eastern Nepal at that time. The population grew to more than 115,000, as people kept trickling in and children were born.
The original seven refugee camps have shrunk to two, but almost 36,000 people continue to live in misery here. More than 80,000 have been resettled in other countries; 68,000 have moved to the United States.
Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, two years after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne to his eldest son.
Multiple rounds of talks between Bhutan and Nepal over the status of the Lhotshampa have yielded little progress.
Other countries bear responsibility, too. Nepal, impoverished and internally divided, is already home to large numbers of Tibetan refugees and other stateless peoples, and has not welcomed the Lhotshampa, even though they share an ancestry. Nor has it adequately sought help from other countries to manage its refugee problem.
(Vidhyapati Mishra is the managing editor of Bhutan News Service, a news service for Bhutanese refugees. He wrote this essay from the Beldangi II refugee camp.)