Highly Regarded

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 1995, 12:00am

JOHN Whelpton (letters, Sunday Morning Post, July 16) shows some animus and poor judgment.

My reservations about aspects of past policy implementation in Bhutan are well-known, and rest on documented facts and personal experience since 1980.

I was also in southern Bhutan at the time of southern Nepalese (Lhotshampa) anti-government demonstrations (September, 1990).

Readers should know that Mr Whelpton, like some of his friends 'who have been in Bhutan', has a close emotional bond with contemporary Nepal, and this may cloud professional judgment. He seems unfamiliar with the facts and politics of population migration, or of 'refugee politics'. The main issues should not be smooth-talked away.

Bhutan, developing from isolation, has come in the space of only three decades to be highly regarded by both UN and private aid agencies as an exemplary and efficient utiliser of foreign development funds for all-round modernisation. This is on the record. In Nepal, the history of development aid is otherwise: there is envy of Bhutan in some quarters.

A major part of Bhutan's modernisation has been to update its legal code and procedures, and to clarify citizenship rights and duties - a process still being refined - in a principled way. Illegal Nepalese settlers were evicted from Bhutan from early 1988, and it has been entirely proper and necessary for Bhutan to clarify and implement its nationality law. To argue otherwise is to deny the entire basis of state sovereignty anywhere in the world.

Bhutan's 1985 citizenship law was not 'applied retrospectively'. It built upon and logically extended the first nationality law of 1958 (revised 1977) which granted citizenship to some existing Nepalese settlers. Indeed, the 1985 law was more generous in its statement of conditions for foreign Nepalese to receive the citizenship grant. By 1987, many migrant Nepalese in southern Bhutan who did not have citizenship, had 'acquired' land: these laxities had to be rectified, yet many cases received benefit of the doubt.

Local authority zealousness over citizenship laws, when it briefly erupted, was vigorously combated by higher authority. Bhutan's central administration is much less corrupt than other south Asian bureaucracies. If blame is apportioned, between 1988 and 1990, some Lhotshampa village-level officials were also over-zealous in applying regulations.

It is untrue to state that pre-mid-1980s the Nepalese in Bhutan 'felt secure in their status as citizens'. This 'golden age' theory implies willing acceptance of obligations. But many Lhotshampa whose 'citizenship' status had not been legally acquired resented political and civil obligation, while making extensive use of social welfare facilities and (successfully) requesting more.

Some Nepalese childishly seek only to impose their will on Bhutan, without regard to the political realities. The suggestion that an American academic chair a commission to adjudicate the status of Nepalese gathered into the Jhapa camps lacks seriousness. The only viable, lasting solution to the issues that have come between Bhutan and Nepal must be based on unemotive, unforced and principled mutual acceptance of sovereignty rights, and respect for civic obligations and civic rights - including those involving regulation of one-way population transfers.

Mr Whelpton reluctantly asserts there 'could have been' 'intimidation' of southern villagers in 'some' cases. But the victims themselves are proof of continuous armed terrorism launched from Jhapa. If villagers feel 'threatened' by local Bhutanese officials, why do the majority of Lhotshampa citizens stay put, organise village self-defence teams, and arrest terrorists from Jhapa? Does the Bhutan army dynamite or burn its own schools and clinics? Why are identity cards stolen from villagers? Finally, Mr Whelpton seems to imply that because Nepal is 'much more over-populated', Bhutan has some kind of moral obligation to accommodate many more Nepalese within the state.

From a humanist and legal view, the people of Nepal deserve better leadership than they have had; likewise, tiny Bhutan deserves to have its sovereignty - and the facts, not rumours, of its situation - respected.

BRIAN C. SHAW New Territories