101 East

Bhutan’s forgotten people

A two-part series follows ethnic Nepalese after they were expelled by Bhutan and found themselves stateless.

Part one 

In the early 1990s, Bhutanese of Nepali origin suddenly found themselves stripped of their citizenship. Bhutan enacted a royal decree of single national identity, forcing more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese to leave. For the next two decades, they lived in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Almost two decades later, Bhutan remains silent on their repatriation.

Filmmaker Subina Shrestha gives her view

Now the refugee camps are emptying with the majority of people resettled in the west. But some want to stay — clinging on to the hope of returning home, despite reports that Bhutan’s discriminatory policies have left a percentage of its population grossly unhappy.

Bhutan is known to many as the Last Shangri-la; the country of “Gross National Happiness”. But behind the façade of a peaceful nation is a state that forcefully drove out a sixth of its population — an act which has been described as a systematic “ethnic cleansing”.

Sabitra Bishwa is one of more than 100,000 Lhotsampas or Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, who found themselves stateless. In the 1980s, Bhutan introduced the policy of “one nation, one people” and alienated the Lhotsampa culture. This was followed by a revision of citizenship laws. Many Lhotsampas found they did not qualify and in the early 1990s, many were forced to leave, reaching the border with India.

But India’s government also rejected them, taking them to the border with Nepal. In the 22 years since, the refugees have been unable to return to Bhutan. Without India’s support, the Nepalese government has been unable to influence Bhutan. 

In the first of two special programmes, “Bhutan’s forgotten people” follows Sabitra Bishwa and her family from a refugee camp in eastern Nepal to their departure for a new life in the US. Around them, the camp is emptying fast. Ninety thousand people have already left, leaving behind empty shacks and their abandoned dreams of returning home. It’s a difficult choice to make, and many are heartbroken.

In the camp is Sancho Hang Subba, who still dreams of returning to Bhutan. He is willing to wait in the hope that the country will open its doors for repatriation. Subba left when he was just a child and has no memory of Bhutan, but he is attached to his identity as a Bhutanese and does not want to exchange it for anything else.

Subba is supported by people like Dr. Bhampa Rai, another Bhutanese exile and a former royal surgeon. Dr. Rai says that Bhutan is a country of migrants and that the Lhotsampas or the Nepalese Bhutanese had started living in Bhutan long before the current royal dynasty started.

At the Bhutan-India border, a Lhotsampa still living in Bhutan is depressed about the state of the country and takes the risk to talk to us.

He says the country still discriminates against his community — far from the eyes of foreign observers. Large tracks of Southern Bhutan is off limits to foreigners. He says that land belonging to those who were chased away have been distributed to the majority Drukpas.

For refugees like Sabitra, relocating to the US is a relief. Her sister moved there one year ago and is keen to see her again and give a better future to her family.

From the camp, we follow Sabitra to Kathmandu where the refugees are given an orientation on air travel — from how to go through security to how to find your seat.

The films ends with Sabitra and her family boarding the plane, ready to start a new chapter in their lives in a new country, one that is completely foreign to them, and which we will explore in the show’s part two, beginning on May 29th, at 2230 GMT.

Is third country resettlement the best option for Bhutan’s refugees? Share your views @AJ101East #Bhutan’sRefugees

Part two


In the second of a two-part special on ‘Bhutan’s Forgotten People’, 101 East follows Sabitra Biswa as she leaves a refugee camp in Nepal for a new life in the United States.

Sabitra was one of 100,000 ethnic Nepalese forced out of Bhutan in the early 1990s in what many describe as systematic ethnic cleansing.

After 23 years as a refugee in Jhapa, Nepal, Sabitra and her family are being resettled in the city of Rochester, New York. There, they will reunite with Sabitra’s sister Pabitra.

For the family, the move brings dramatic lifestyle changes – from running water to kitchen stoves, shopping in US dollars and attending church gatherings.
But they are not alone. Some 75,000 Bhutanese refugees have already resettled in the US.

Chet Nath Timisina arrived in the US five years ago. After living in limbo for two decades in Nepal, Chet Nath now has a new house and a new identity. He is an American citizen. But he hasn’t forgotten his home country.

While no longer stateless, many Bhutanese are struggling to adjust to their new lives abroad. About 20 per cent of Bhutanese refugees in the US are battling depression, with some even taking their own lives. Madan Kadel was just 24 years old when he committed suicide, leaving his wife and young child with a raft of unanswered questions.

But reporter Subina Shrestha finds that despite the melancholy of the past and anxiety clouding the future, refugees like Sabitra remain hopeful about this new beginning.

What does the future hold for Bhutanese refugees? Share your thoughts @AJ101East #Bhutan’sRefugees

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.  

Click here  for more  101 East