WordPress featured a blog posting on Bhutan today, and since the tiny Himalayan country was also a topic of conversation at dinner the other night, I figured it was time to bring it up as a post. I must admit, I am not an expert on this topic, but I’ll try my best to explain.
Before I moved to New England, I knew very little about the country of Bhutan, but I admit it intrigued me. I had it on my list of places to try and travel to some day. I knew it was a fairly isolated state (the government strictly regulates tourism and travel), that it had a monarchy, that Buddhism was the prevailing religion, that the citizens of the country were required to wear traditional Bhutanese clothing, and that rather than measuring the GDP the king measured the GNH– Gross National Happiness. Who wouldn’t want to live in (or visit) a country that measured national happiness? It must be a happy place, right?
Tell that to the 100,000+ ethnically Nepali Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Eastern Nepal!
Ethnic Nepali Bhutanese Refugees at the camps in Eastern Nepal
I started learning more about Bhutan when the city I currently live in became one of several resettlement centers in the United States. The US government has agreed to bring 60,000 (ethnic Nepali) Bhutanese refugees for resettlement. Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark have agreed to take most of the remaining population from the camps in Eastern Nepal (which have sparked its own issues, I’ll mention this later).
Due to the resettlement process, I occasionally see older people in Nepali dress walking down the road when I drive around town. Since many from the resettled population are older and have limited English language skills, the local Nepali student population has become active in helping the Bhutanese families transition to their new home. P and I have driven vans of refugees to a nearby temple for festivals, and some of our neighbors have been much more active—having dinners, organizing donations, acting as medical translators for health visits, and participating in outreach activities.
I found this nice synopsis of the cause of the refugee situation online (taken from “Cultural Orientation Resource Center Refugee Backgrounder booklet on Bhutanese refugees”):
The great majority of Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people [of Nepali origin] who in the late 1800s began immigrating to southern Bhutan—lowland, malarial-infested regions shunned by the Druk Buddhist majority—in search of farmland. There they became known as Lhotsampas (“People of the South”).
Contact between the Druk in the north and the Lhotsampas in the south was limited, and over the years, the Lhotsampas retained their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. Relations between the groups were for the most part conflict free. Under Bhutan’s Nationality Law of 1958, the Lhotsampas enjoyed Bhutanese citizenship and were allowed to hold government jobs.
In the 1980s, however, Bhutan’s king and the ruling Druk majority became increasingly worried about the rapidly growing Lhotsampa population. Concerned that the demographic shift could threaten the majority position and traditional Buddhist culture of the Druk, Bhutanese authorities adopted a series of policies known as Bhutanization, aimed at unifying the country under the Druk culture, religion, and language. The policies imposed the Druk dress code and customs on the Lhotsampas and prohibited the use of the Nepali language in schools. Nepali teachers were dismissed, and Nepali books were reportedly burned. The government also established new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship that disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis, depriving them of their citizenship and civil rights.
When the Lhotsampas began to organize politically to protest the policies, the authorities declared the activities subversive and unlawful. Some Lhotsampas became activists in the Bhutanese People’s Party, which called for Bhutan’s democratization. Smaller ethnic communities also began to advocate for a more democratic political system. In 1990, large-scale protests led to violent clashes with the police and army and to mass arrests. Ethnic Nepalis were targeted by the Bhutanese authorities, who destroyed the Nepalis’ property and arrested and tortured activists. Individuals were forced to sign so-called “voluntary migration certificates” before being expelled from the country. In December 1990, the authorities announced that Lhotsampas who could not prove they had been residents of Bhutan in 1958 had to leave. Tens of thousands fled to Nepal and the Indian state of West Bengal.
Many of the refugees that are now resettled in the US have been living in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal for 15+ years. The entire story can’t help but tarnish (for me) the quaint idyllic picture the Tourism Council of Bhutan likes to paint of the government and country, and the idea of “Gross National Happiness.”
In addition, since Nepal has its own civil conflicts, political instability, and infrastructure problems, many Nepali citizens are also looking for a way out of the region. Since six countries have promised to resettle the Bhutanese refugees, there have been instances of fraud where Nepalis have tried to take advantage of this benefit by disguising themselves as Bhutanese refugees and applying for resettlement. Needless to say the process can be messy.
Lastly, when the refugees finally make it out of the camp, life is still not easy. The economic hardships in the US have also hit the refugee population. NPR had an interesting profile on Bhutanese refugees who can no longer find work after their resettlement stipends conclude, even when they are willing to do the most menial of jobs.
So much for “National Happiness.”
For more information:
Cultural Orientation Resource Center: Refugee Backgrounder booklet on Bhutanese refugees
Wikipedia: Bhutanese refugees
Human Rights Watch: Nepal- US Offer to Resettle Bhutanese Refugees Sparks Tensions
NPR: Bhutan’s Reluctant Turn From Monarchy
NPR: Gross National Happiness Measures Quality of Life
BBC: In Pictures- Refugees use photos to tell their story
BBC: Bhutan celebrates its sense of nationhood
BBC: Bhutanese Refugees Start a New Life