Global Politics

Nepalese Immigrants Look for a Home

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The dusty, hot refugee camp- the Sanischare Camp, in eastern Nepal has been home to ethnic Nepalese refugees for 20 years. The people living there share a language and culture with the citizens of Nepal. But they say they're not Nepalese.

"I was a Bhutanese. And I'm still a Bhutanese," said Leela Kykel, 36. He said his father and his grandfather were born in Bhutan. "Still the (Bhutanese) government does not accept me as a Bhutanese. The government of Nepal doesn't take me as a Nepalese…so where do I stand, so far as nationality is concerned?"

So Kykel, who got a graduate school degree in economics and worked for a multinational company in India, has come back to Sanischare camp in the hope of getting a US passport, so he'll no longer be stateless. He is taking part in a UN-sponsored resettlement plan that has already moved almost half of the 107,000 refugees in seven UN-assisted camps to Western countries willing to take them. The United States has agreed to take 60,000.

Kykel was a teenager when ethnic Nepalese in southern Bhutan started to agitate for more political rights in 1990. Demonstrations got violent, and the Bhutanese government cracked down, searching house to house for those involved.

"They could go into your house at any time, day or night," Kykel said. "They came into my house, and took my brother to prison. He was there for nine months, and tortured."

Kykel sidesteps a question on whether his brother was an activist, or had committed any acts of violence himself. He did say that when his brother got out of prison, his family joined an exodus of ethnic Nepalese to Nepal.

Many of those in the camps said, like Kykel, that they're Bhutanese, unjustly kicked out of their home by a racially chauvinistic authoritarian state. Some said their citizenship papers were confiscated on the way out.

Bhutanese officials answer charges of ethnic cleansing with the observation that more than one-fifth of Bhutan's 700,000 citizens today are ethnic Nepalese, as are about one-fifth of its members of parliament, and four out of ten of its ministers. It says most of those who left in the early 1990s were illegal immigrants who had never obtained Bhutanese citizenship.

"They were economic destitute, people rendered refugees and driven to cross that boundary (from Nepal) in search of livelihood in Bhutan, because of economic disparities prevailing in their country, because of political instability and strife in their country," said Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. "Bhutan, being a country that is stable, that is undergoing development with opportunities, became a major destination."

Ethnic Nepalese began migrating into Bhutan about a century ago. In the 1930s, the British colonial powers in India estimated there to be 60,000 ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan, out of a total population of several hundred thousand. Most ethnic Nepalese farmed the fertile agricultural land in the south, speaking Nepalese and making little attempt to integrate with Bhutanese culture and customs. British colonial officers encouraged more to come, so they could collect taxes from them. In the 1960s and '70s, still more Nepalese migrants came, drawn by Bhutan's policies of free education and health care.

By the 1980s, officials carrying out Bhutan's first census discovered that almost half of Bhutan's population was ethnic Nepalese. The government saw it as a threat to Bhutan's identity, which until then had been made up for more than a thousand years of two ethnic groups — indigenous Bhutanese and ethnic Tibetans, both Buddhist.

"It is very important as a small country to keep our identity, in the sense of setting ourselves apart from other countries, so the world knows of Bhutan as a separate country," said Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan's opposition leader.

The sense of a cultural threat from Nepalese migrants was heightened for Bhutanese by what had happened to neighboring Sikkim just a few years earlier. It, too, had been a small, Buddhist Himalayan kingdom. It, too, had seen an influx of Nepalese migrants who, once they reached a near-majority, started agitating for a system of proportional democracy that could soon give them political control. Violence broke out and India stepped in, annexing Sikkim. Bhutan's king and officials vowed that wouldn't happen to Bhutan.

So they enacted new policies requiring ethnic Nepalese to speak Bhutanese, and wear traditional Bhutanese dress — for men, a striped tunic, for women, a long, narrow skirt. The government shut down Nepalese media. They introduced stricter criteria for ethnic Nepalese to qualify for citizenship, and began checking papers of those in Bhutan. Even Nepalese who had citizenship were warned that they could lose it if they spoke out against Bhutan's king, culture or people.

Ethnic Nepalese pushed back. They protested that this was ethnic discrimination, that many of them had been in Bhutan for generations even if they didn't have the papers to prove it, that it was insulting for the government to force them to speak a language and wear dress that wasn't culturally their own.

"A government official came to our village to discuss this new policy," recalled Balaram Poudyal, an ethnic Nepalese exile who was then a local government official in southern Bhutan. "They told us to wear our 'national' dress. So I wore my Nepalese dress. And that was one of my mistakes, as far as the government was concerned."

A bigger mistake, from the Bhutanese government's point of view, was that Poudyal was a founding member of the Bhutan People's Party. Poudyal calls it a peaceful movement to gain more rights for ethnic Nepalese. The government suspected what the party really wanted was an ethnic Nepalese takeover of Bhutan.

Protests organized by the Bhutan People's Party turned violent in September 1990. Protesters burned census data, attacked officials and damaged buildings. Bhutanese troops arrested hundreds, and the ensuing crackdown lasted years. An Amnesty International team later reported cases of torture of ethnic Nepalese activists and poor conditions in the prisons. But it also reported horrific acts by ethnic Nepalese activist groups, including beheadings of government officials, and threats and violence against ethnic Nepalese who tried to integrate.

It was in this environment that the ethnic Nepalese exodus began. Some left because Bhutan's government told them to go, some because activists pressured them to leave. Still others left because that was what everyone else was doing.

"My parents lived in a fairly remote village, and they didn't want to stay alone," said Maya Monger. She was four years old when her parents brought her out to Nepal. Now, at 24, she's a social worker in Sanischare camp with two kids of her own, and hopes that they'll have a better future. She'd like to join the current exodus of ethnic Nepalese, leaving the camps for Western countries. But she said her husband's parents are holding out.

"They want to go back to Bhutan," she said. "They were born there, and they want to die there."

Balaram Poudyal wants that too. He is now 58, with a salt-and-pepper beard, and a conviction that Bhutan is as he remembers it — a repressive police state.

"People cannot form parties. They cannot run an organization. They cannot write — there is no press freedom," he said. I told him that's not what I saw when I was there earlier this year — that I read newspapers that did criticize the government, and people who talked freely and expressed their own gripes about government policies.

"No, no, no, no," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "You must have been accompanied by the police. These must have been people who were arranged in advance for you to talk to." They weren't.

Poudyal, and a core of other ethnic Nepalese activists, haven't moved on, but in many ways, Bhutan has. It has been a democracy for three years, and independent media are increasingly robust. One Bhutanese journalist told me that the one issue he doesn't feel free to write about is on the ethnic Nepalese in camps in Nepal.

But those refugees are fast being resettled. Within four or five years, just a few thousand hold-outs will remain. For them, Bhutan is still home, and they want to go back.

Bhutan's leaders may yet open the door a crack for exiled citizens with no record of violence. But for all future arrivals, they've learned from this turbulent chapter to assert their right, as hosts, to set the rules from the start for guests who want to move in.

  • (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

  • Sanischare Camp, Nepal (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

  • Refugees at Sanischare Camp, Nepal (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

  • Balram Poudyal (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

  • Maya Monger (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

  • Sanischare Camp, Nepal (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

  • (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

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