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Filmmaker's view - Bhutan's forgotten people

Subina Shrestha remembers Bhutan not only as a Shangri-La but also a country expelling a sixth of its population.

Last updated: 22 May 2014 09:02
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By Subina Shrestha

 

My first memories of Bhutanese refugees are of them arriving in trucks to eastern Nepal. It was the year 1992, and refugee camps had just been set up to house more than 100,000 new arrivals. I have a faint memory of a dusty truck with tired looking people arriving out of a stunning sunset. At high school, I thought I could solve the problem. It was, in my naïve view, just a simple misunderstanding between two communities. That’s what I told my mother. Twenty-two years on, the problem is still intractable.

I believe that when people raise their voices, it is an opportunity for reform. It means people believe they have rights, and they want a better future. But this very call of reform often instills fear in privileged classes.

Subina Shrestha, filmmaker

The story of Bhutanese refugees never captured popular imagination. The expulsion of such a large population did not tarnish the image of Bhutan as Shangri-La, a beautiful Himalayan Kingdom with peaceful Buddhist citizens. While journalists were quick to pick up stories about Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness”, they let the story of the ill-fated Lhotsampas, or the Nepali-Bhutanese community, slide.

The Lhotsampas always had their own distinct culture and identity. And it is this difference that led to their segregation. The Nepalese-Bhutanese population has always extended beyond the current Nepalese borders. It is easy to forget that long before nations were created and formalized, there was a fluid movement of people.

Bhutan’s ruling Drukpas became concerned about the rebellious nature of the ethnic Nepalese from across its borders and the potential for trouble at home. It wasn’t a new concern. Back in 1954, the Maharaja of Bhutan - Jigme Dorje Wanchuk, had written to India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, appealing to him to stop the political activities of Nepalese against Bhutan.

Nehru’s reply was a warning:

“You are no doubt fully aware of the trend of world affairs and how major changes have taken place in various parts of the world as well as in Asia. No one can put a stop to these ideas and the desire of people everywhere to have a larger measure of freedom as well as advance on the path to democracy. These ideas will no doubt reach Bhutan and it is a wise policy not to wait for pressure from outside in order to remove any legitimate grievance.”

Instead, the government ultimately tried to remove the “root cause” of grievance – the people themselves.

Identity

The Bhutanese government’s fear was cemented by events in Sikkim and Darjeeling. In 1975, the Kingdom of Sikkim, which has a majority ethnic Nepalese population, was absorbed into India. In the 1980s, Darjeeling, a district in the Indian State of West Bengal, where many ethnic Nepalese live, became a hotbed of identity politics. For the ruling Drukpas of Bhutan, the fear of losing their grip over the country’s Nepalese population, and the threat of their own traditional identity being compromised as the defining identity of Bhutan, led them to introduce the policy of “One Nation, One People”.

Identity is a very personal thing. Along with genes, our ancestors pass down oral and written histories that can shape our sense of being. When Bhutan made it mandatory to follow Drukpa culture, the Lhotsampas revolted.

Having grown up in Nepal, where political movements and pressure on the government are the norm, I believe that when people raise their voices, it is an opportunity for reform. It means people believe they have rights, and they want a better future. But this very call of reform often instills fear in privileged classes.

It is this fear that led to the Lhotsampa’s heartbreak.

Heartbreak

“Bhutanese refugees are killing themselves at an astonishing rate”, was the headline of a story in the American magazine The Atlantic. According to a study done by the Center for Disease Control, the reasons are still unclear. Perhaps a part of the reason behind their suicide is heartbreak.

A man from the camps explained – “we have no roots or branches to hold on to”.

“The world does not understand,” Dr. Bhampa Rai, a refugee, told us. “Even the Nepalese [people in Nepal] have the impression that we actually immigrated to Bhutan illegally and very recently.”

Imagine having to explain your identity – and every time you do, people question you. The Bhutanese refugees don’t feel that they have many allies. When your roots are cut, you are forced to live in limbo for decades, and the country you love has rejected you, it’s not surprising that depression sets in.

Hope

That population is sure to keep vigil on how Bhutan treats the remaining ethnic Nepalese and other minorities within the country. The regions where many of these communities live are strictly closed to outsiders, but the stories that emerge tell of fear and discrimination.

Subina Shrestha, filmmaker

Last year, I was traveling on a bus full of Bhutanese refugees at Doha airport. After a plane ride from Kathmandu, they were suffering motion sickness. They clung on to their small plastic bags, issued by the International Organisation for Migration. They looked tired, and yet their journey had only just begun.

While there are some refugees who are suffering from depression among those who’ve moved to third countries such as the US, many have seized the chance to start a new life. Those who are resilient have built a new identity for themselves. And with this new identity, the story of Bhutanese refugees is changing in popular discourse.

Bhutan is now beginning to be known not only as a Shangri-La, but also a country that chased out a sixth of its own population.

That population is sure to keep vigil on how Bhutan treats the remaining ethnic Nepalese and other minorities within the country. The regions where many of these communities live are strictly closed to outsiders, but the stories that emerge tell of fear and discrimination.

The next generation of Bhutanese, resettled and living in countries across the world, will have more education, and a stronger voice.

Perhaps one day Bhutan will be forced to reconcile with the idea of being a diverse nation and protect all of their people within.

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Al Jazeera
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