Reflections of a Bhutanese Refugee

By Ganesh Gurung

Art by Ganesh Gurung
Art by Ganesh Gurung

Bhutan is a small landlocked country located in southeast Asia of about 14,824 square miles. It is bordered by China in the north, India in the south, and Nepal to the west. The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, Dzongkha is the national language, and the Bhutanese people are predominantly Buddhist. The kingdom of Bhutan is governed by a monarchy. Not long ago, however, it adopted a constitutional democratic system with the king still the head of the country.

In 1624, the Bhutanese religious king, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, requested and formulated a treaty with Nepal requesting manpower for developmental work. The then King of Nepal, Ram Shah, signed the treaty and countless Nepalese people were supplied to provide this manpower. After having settled there for a number of years, many of them got married and established lives as bonafide citizens. The government of Bhutan even rewarded and recognized the marriages between Nepalese and Bhutanese people in order to maintain love and peace. For about four generations, those innocent Nepalese people lived happily with proper identification, enjoying equal rights. Recently, some of our scholars and intellectuals gave us the name “Nepali speaking Bhutanese people” to avoid confusion between Nepalese from Nepal and Nepalese from Bhutan.

Suddenly, in the year 1990, a breathtaking political suppression of all the innocent, Nepalese people in Bhutan in the name of the government’s “One Nation One People” campaign was implemented. It is not very difficult to understand the inner essence of this phrase, “One Nation One People.” The cannibalistic act of the Bhutanese government accelerated severely on those unimpeachable Nepali-speaking Bhutanese People. The happiness of all those guiltless Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people was confiscated.

Some of the reasons for this inhuman act were barbarism, selfishness, inferiority, and enviousness. The Bhutanese government was internally envious of the growth of the Nepalese people and their culture. The government of Bhutan left no stones unturned to prove its despotism. It operated its army and campaigned throughout the country. They betrayed and tortured Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people brutally. Thousands of adults and youth were taken to jail and tortured pitilessly. Many of them were tortured to death with no proper dismissal record of their deceased bodies. Women, teen girls, and female employees were raped brutally and repeatedly. In this manner, the Bhutanese government thanked those angelic Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people who paved the roads in the rocky mountains without a penny in payment, who built the irrigational canals on steep rock, who cleared the dense forest in the southern belt and turned it into cultivable land. Regardless of their honesty and strong physical manpower which they put in this developmental work for a number of years, those virtuous Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people were forced to leave their country by hook or by crook. Some are prisoners still in jail and some are still mentally disabled.

Simultaneously, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were deprived of freedom as their legal documents and property was confiscated. The cultural values, costumes, traditional beliefs, and festivals of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people were forcibly prohibited. It was considered the largest human massacre in Bhutanese history and a challenge to international organizations for human rights.

Without regard to any treaty, torture was inflicted on many Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people. My parents are some of them. They had to forcibly abandon the country to save their lives. The land they had owned, their property and domestic animals were left helplessly. Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people were left with no option at all. With bare feet, empty stomachs, and with little hope of saving their lives, they walked out for a number of days through the dense forest. On the way, we had to leave the beautiful body of my little sister who was only two years old, who died from hunger and chilly cold weather. The wet eyes and innocent hearts of my parents still did not give up. They kept themselves moving ahead through dense forest. After walking for about fifteen days, we reached Nepal.

The questions facing everyone who arrived in Nepal to seek refuge was, “Who am I?” “Am I Bhutanese or Nepalese?” Bhutanese who sought refuge in Nepal were not accepted as Nepalese citizens. It was one of the unfortunate situations of the Bhutanese people who were compelled to live without any identity for a number of years. We were neither Bhutanese nor Nepalese. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to survive by the shore of a long concrete bridge over the Maidhar river. The Bhutanese refugee families gradually grew in number.

We were able to gain the attention of international organizations like UNHCR, LWF, Red Cross Society, WFP, SCF, Caritas Nepal, and other refugee camp-based organizations. Without any delay these international organizations protected and saved us on the basis of humanitarianism. Hypothetically, one way or the other, we were alienated from government jobs and other opportunities connected to legal procedures in Nepal. Our certificates still consist of the word ‘Refugee,’ which I feel now to be spurious. The artistic talent of Bhutanese was sacked because the doors of opportunity were all closed.

Tireless peace rallies and mass movement for repatriation to Bhutan were brought on the roads but every single time they were forced back to Nepal by Indian government forces, as India was the only route to enter Bhutan. On multiple occasions, the delegation and mass movement were banned and protesters were arrested and put in jail.

In the refugee camps, thousands of Bhutanese people, including infants and old-aged people died due to lack of proper healthcare, food and shelter. UNHCR, (United Nations High Commissioners for Refugee), LWF (Lutheran World Federation), Red Cross Society, and a number of other INGOs acted as our savior. They protected us in time and provided us the designation of “Bhutanese Refugee.”

Finally, we had an opportunity to choose a country for permanent resettlement, which was implemented by IOM (International Organization for Migration). From the list of seven different countries — Norway, England, Australia, Canada, Netherland, New Zealand, and USA — I chose to come to the US, and we arrived here on August 30, 2012. Presently, I am pursuing higher degrees to help myself first and then to help the number of illiterate people in our community. Unlike many others, I don’t have any big dream in my life. I am just hoping to be a responsible citizen and to do good for all as I have experienced throughout my whole life.

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