Vicious cycle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 1995, 12:00am

BRIAN Shaw has long been well-known for his total endorsement of the Bhutanese Government's position on the exodus of ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, so it is not surprising that his letter in the Sunday Morning Post of June 11, was as partisan as the original article he was criticising.

I do not claim to be an expert on Bhutanese affairs, but feel I can still respond as a student of Nepalese history and politics for many years and as someone with friends who have been in Bhutan and talked with refugees in the camps in south-eastern Nepal.

Dr Shaw makes many categorical statements without warning readers that virtually every statistic and every claimed fact about the Bhutanese problem is unsubstantiated.

Conflicting figures have been suggested for the total population of Bhutan and its ethnic composition: estimates of the proportion of Nepali speakers before the exodus vary from below 30 per cent to just over 50 per cent, and the Government itself revised its estimate of the population down from 1.2 million to 600,000 after the 1988 census exercise which supposedly discovered 100,000 illegal Nepalese immigrants inside the country.

Pictures which the Government claim show captured guerrilla fighters and weapons are denounced by the other side as fakes and the Government in turn alleges that the documents many in the camps say prove their Bhutanese citizenship are forgeries.

The only hope of establishing the truth on the issue of who in the camps is or is not a Bhutanese citizen would be through an independent investigation and this the Bhutanese Government seems unwilling to accept: it is distrustful of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and has reportedly rejected a Nepal Government suggestion to establish a commission under Professor Leo Rose, an American specialist on Himalayan politics usually regarded as pro-Bhutanese.

Amidst this uncertainty, it can, however, be pointed out that the Nepali-speaking population in the south-east of Bhutan was put at around 60,000 by a British observer in 1932 and that, on the plausible assumption of between two per cent and three per cent per annum natural increase, this total could easily have grown to 200,000 (the Bhutanese Government's own estimate of the pre-exodus Nepali population) without assuming any further immigration either before or after the official closing of the borders to Nepalese settlers in 1958.

Many villagers who the Bhutanese Government did acknowledge as its citizens have left the country since 1980 and Dr Shaw suggests this is as the result of 'pressures from Nepalese acti-vists'. I am willing to accept that there could have been intimidation by extremists in some cases, but the weight of evidence from these villagers themselves is that they felt themselves threatened by the local representatives of the Bhutanese state despite public appeals from King Jigme for them to stay in the country.

Although some of the wilder reports of government atrocities (such as the rumoured 'shooting of 300' by the army) were untrue, there is little doubt that many people arrested for taking part in the demonstrations of 1990 and 1991 were physically tortured and that 'voluntary emigration' forms were often signed under duress. The resulting lack of trust means that, without the involvement of some outside guarantor, the Government's promise of redress 'if legitimate citizens prove they were forced to leave' is of little value.

The origin of this whole episode lies in the Bhutanese Government's change of stance towards its Nepalese minority in the mid-1980s. Before then, the Nepalese had full freedom to maintain their Nepalese cultural identity and felt secure in their status as citizens.

In 1985, however, a new, more restrictive citizenship law was brought in and applied retrospectively, and this was followed by the compulsory dress code and by the abolition of instruction in Nepali in schools.

It is possible to feel some sympathy for the northern Bhutanese, who have seen the results of ethnic Nepalese assertiveness in Sikkim and in the Darjeeling hills and felt threatened by the size of their own Nepalese community.

However, it is not surprising that their measures were widely resented, particularly because enforcement action by local authorities exceeded what was prescribed in paper: for some months in 1989, for example, anyone going outside their house without wearing Bhutanese national dress risked being fined, beaten up or imprisoned.

The protest campaign launched by the ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan may have owed something to the 'democracy wave' in Europe in 1989 and in Kathmandu in 1990, but it was largely a direct reaction to this kind of treatment.

The result was to deepen northern Bhutanese apprehension and lock both communities into the vicious cycle of resistance and repression which has produced the present crisis.

Resolving the problem in a way that is fair to all Bhutanese communities and to Nepal (a much more over-populated country than is Bhutan) will be difficult without greater involvement of the international community.