Bhutan hedges on refugee return, seeks fresh verification

April 16th, 2011 - 8:19 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, April 16 (IANS) Agreeing under Nepal’s pressure to resume talks for taking back nearly a fifth of its population living as refugees in Nepal since the 1990s, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley, however, Saturday indicated it would be no speedy or easy task. He insisted on a fresh verification of the diaspora.

Winding up his three-day state visit to Nepal Saturday, Thinley agreed that repatriation talks should be resumed. However, he put a fresh condition before Nepal. Thinley had met his Nepali counterpart Jhala Nath Khanal Friday.

He said the refugees would have to undergo a fresh scrutiny to verify whether they were genuine Bhutanese citizens and, therefore, entitled to return to their homeland.

Thinley said the re-verification formed the core of his repatriation talks with Khanal with the Druk government pressing for a new “study” or “investigation”.

If Nepal agrees, it will mean a return to the scenario in 2000 with the loss of more than a decade without result.

In 2000, during the 10th round of repatriation talks between Nepal and Bhutan, both sides had agreed on a joint verification exercise to determine how many of the then nearly 100,000 refugees living in seven camps in eastern Nepal were eligible to return.

The verification had categories: genuine Bhutanese citizens who would be allowed to return home, those who had surrendered their citizenship voluntarily and would have to re-apply for citizenship, aliens, and people wanted for crimes who would have to face trial upon returning to Bhutan.

The verification was regarded as a ploy by the Buddhist kingdom to deter most of the refugees from going back home and only a small percentage was admitted to be genuine Bhutanese citizens.

It created a storm of protests by international rights organisations, who said the exercise violated international laws.

The long delay and unfair verification angered the refugees, causing them to attack visiting Bhutanese officials in 2003.

It paved the way for Bhutan to halt talks after 15 rounds of fruitless negotiations.

Now, even if Thimphu agrees to a 16th round, the indications are not positive. The Bhutanese prime minister refused to acknowledge the refugees as Bhutanese, calling them “people in the refugee camps”.

He also rejected the call by exiled Bhutanese parties and the international community that the repatriation talks should be regional, instead of bilateral, and involve India.

India, Bhutan’s biggest trade partner and foreign affairs advisor, had allowed the refugees to flee to Nepal after crossing into India in the 1990s when Bhutan began an ethnic cleansing, driving out Lhotsmapas - people of Nepali origin who were also mostly Hindus.

However, when the refugees tried to return to Bhutan through the same way, the Indian security forces barred them, triggering skirmishes in which at least two refugees died.

It is felt that Bhutan’s resolve not to allow the refugees back has been fortified by tacit Indian support.

Thinley said though Bhutan was grateful to eight foreign countries for resettling the people in the camps on their soil, there was no need to involve India.

India, he argued, had a special arrangement with both Nepal and Bhutan and allowed the citizens of both countries to travel freely through India.

As a sugar-coating to sweeten the bitter pill, Thinley also said Bhutan would revise and renew its trade agreement as well as air service agreement with Nepal.

As part of that, Druk Air, Bhutan’s national carrier, will start direct flights between Bagdogra in eastern India and Kathmandu.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at

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