Bhutan ready to resume talks with Nepal over refugees

August 6th, 2008 - 7:03 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, Aug 6 (IANS) Bhutan says it is ready to resume talks with Nepal over the repatriation of over 100,000 refugees who have been languishing in this Himalayan republic for nearly two decades, according to Bhutan’s official media. Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, who met his Nepali counterpart Girija Prasad Koirala on the sidelines of the recently concluded 15th SAARC summit in Colombo, told the Kuensel newspaper that the Bhutanese government was looking forward to resuming repatriation talks so that “the problem could be resolved as quickly as possible”.

The talks broke down in 2003 after Bhutanese officials visiting the camps in eastern Nepal, where the refugees have been living in pitiable conditions since the early 1990s, were heckled by a group, an incident that was used as an excuse by the Druk kingdom to shelve the talks.

Bhutan, however, blamed Nepal for the delay.

“I’ve reminded the (Nepali) prime minister that we have been frustrated by the lack of a stable government in Nepal to continue the talks,” Thinley told the daily.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the repatriation of the refugees, most of whom are of Nepali origin, Nepal’s powerful western donors led by the US stepped in with the offer of resettling the diaspora in their own cities and towns.

Facing an acute scarcity of funds in the camps due to ‘donor fatigue’ and with no sign of Bhutan relenting, Nepal’s government finally assented to the resettlement offer.

So far, nearly 40,000 of the over 100,000 refugees in Nepal have signed up to go abroad and the first resettlements have started.

However, Nepal’s Maoist party, who won the April election and could head the next government, favour opening talks with the Bhutan government so that the refugees can return to their own homeland.

While the hardliners in the party have been advocating stopping the resettlement, Prachanda included reopening repatriation talks in the common minimum programme his party has drawn up in the process of garnering support from the major parties.

It remains to be seen how sincere Bhutan is about the repatriation talks.

Even after more than a dozen rounds of negotiation, it refused to take a single refugee back and, instead, forced Nepal to a verification of the camp inmates that said most of the refugees were not bona fide Bhutanese citizens and ineligible to go back.

The verification was rejected by the refugees, leading to their anger towards the visiting Bhutanese officials in 2003.

The refugees say they were evicted because they continue to maintain the Hindu culture, language and other traditions of their ancestors from Nepal.

They also say Bhutan began the talks to hoodwink the donor community, who were pressuring the government for a humanitarian solution.

Their land and homes, the refugees say, have been distributed among others, a sure indication that Bhutan will never allow them to return.

A Bhutanese minister stoked the fears by saying that the Maoist insurgency in Nepal had spread in the refugee camps as well and allowing the refugees to return would be tantamount to importing terrorism.

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