Lhotshampas: A community that Bhutan abandoned (Comment)

There was a time when leaders of the Lhotshampa community were prominent figures in Bhutan, shaped its national policy and were key in the creation of its happiness index. A decade later, the Lhotshampas, originally people of Nepali origin, were blacklisted and forced out of the kingdom.

Today, the Lhotshampas are spread across the world in search of an identity, citizenship, security, an apology from the establishment and the opportunity to go home.

How did this happen? Bhutan’s monarchy, after decades of growth and development, recognized that Lhotshampas had become a formidable community capable of economic might and political strength.

Having come from eastern Nepal in the late 19th century and settled down as agriculturists and construction workers, Lhotshampas cleared forests and offered cheap labour to the region. Gradually, they came to occupy land and control the farms. They were largely isolated geographically and culturally from the rest of the Bhutanese population. However, many Nepali-speaking, educated southerners became high-ranking government officials.

The monarchy saw this as danger. In the name of democracy and development, the government launched steps to integrate the north and south, but the intention was to target the Lhotshampas and remove their powers.

Under the policy of ‘One Nation, One People’, the southerners were required to adopt Drukpa1 customs, dress in traditional clothes and speak Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. Those who objected were tortured and arrested. This was followed by repression, dismissal of Lhotshampas from government services and confiscation of citizenship. Fearing imprisonment and death, the Lhotshampas fled, seeking refuge.

Thus commenced the attempted ethnic cleansing of Bhutan – a deliberate policy to depopulate the country of immigrants who were classified as ‘non-citizens’ after the census of 1982. The imposition of rules to adopt Bhutanese traditions was nothing short of social and cultural alienation of the southerners who reacted violently.

Bhutan defended its policies by saying that the protesters and detainees were guilty of anti-national and terrorist acts.

The Lhotshampas were driven away from Bhutan and forced into refugee camps in Nepal. About 80,000 lived in makeshift tents. According to a 2010 US State Department report, 85,544 Lhotshampas are still living in seven refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that nearly 20,000 had resettled in the US, Canada, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand by 2009.

Bhutan claims that the vast majority of refugees in the camps are not Bhutanese citizens, but the UNHCR reports that almost all the refugees have documentary proof of Bhutanese nationality.

In 1993, Bhutan and Nepal jointly formed a committee to review and verify cases of the refugees in camps in Nepal and resolve the problem, but nothing has resulted so far. Offers of diplomatic assistance and mediation have come from European countries, but Bhutan is reluctant to take help.

There are reports of violence in the camps between those who insist on unconditional repatriation and those who want resettlement in other countries. A place to call their own, means of livelihood, realization of basic human rights and a secure and just future is all that Lhotshampas seek.

(27.03.2011 – Pujya Pascal is programme officer at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. She can be reached at [email protected])