Maoist victory casts shadow over Bhutan refugee resettlement

April 27th, 2008 - 12:30 pm ICT by admin  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, April 27 (IANS) The historic victory of Nepal’s former Maoist guerrillas in this month’s crucial election and their bid to lead the new government has cast a dark shadow over the process started by the US and other western governments to offer Bhutanese refugees in Nepal new homes abroad. The Maoists, who fought a 10-year armed battle to overthrow Nepal’s Shah kings, are opposed to the US-led initiative by seven western governments to resettle over 105,000 Bhutanese, who have been languishing in refugee camps in Nepal for almost two decades after being evicted by the royalist government of Bhutan in the 1980s.

“We oppose the process started (under the Girija Prasad Koirala government of Nepal) to resettle the Bhutanese refugees in third countries,” said Maoist foreign affairs chief Chandra Prakash Gajurel, who was also one of the winners in the April 10 election.

“How can Nepal give documents to the Bhutanese to go abroad when they are not Nepali citizens?” Gajurel told private radio station Ujala FM. “Our party will try to ensure they go back to Bhutan.

“From there, they can go to foreign countries if they want to.”

The Maoist announcement comes even as the International Organisation for Migration and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Nepal (UNHCR) jointly started flying out Bhutanese refugees from closed camps in eastern Nepal to the US, Australia and New Zealand.

So far, about 150 refugees have left for fresh pastures abroad.

Last month, when the resettlement started, UNHCR chief Daisy Dell said seven western governments - the US, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Denmark - have offered to absorb as many refugees as are willing to go.

“By 2008, we estimate 10,000 refugees would have left the camps,” Dell had said.

The US, which considers the Maoists as a terrorist organisation though they signed a peace pact two years ago and could now head the new Nepal government, has offered to take the largest bloc of Bhutanese refugees - 60,000 initially, followed by as many more as are willing to relocate.

When the refugees were evicted from their homes in the 1980s because of their ethnic origin and arrived in Nepal, a succession of Nepal governments tried to persuade Bhutan to take its citizens back.

However, 15 rounds of negotiations failed to see any thaw in Bhutan’s attitude with the Druk government saying the refugee camps had been infiltrated by Maoists and to allow the refugees back home would be tantamount to “importing” terrorism.

As the donor governments, which helped to keep the camps in Nepal going, began to grow weary of the deadlock and started cutting aid, the US, also goaded by the fear of a militant movement brewing in the camps, played a major role in persuading the Koirala government last year to allow the refugees to go abroad.

The resettlement offer has polarised the refugees and sparked an international debate.

Camp inmates who want to be able to return home say the exodus will make Bhutan think it can get away with ethnic cleansing and will trigger further expulsions in future.

There were violent clashes in the camps between the pro- and anti-resettlement groups, causing the death of at least two.

The group that wants to return to Bhutan has been trying to march back home in the past but were forcibly stopped by Indian police at the India-Nepal border, resulting in further unrest and deaths.

Last month, when Bhutan held its first general election as a vaunted step towards democracy from an absolute monarchy, it was renounced as a sham by weeping refugees, who were being herded out abroad on the same day.

“How can it be a democratic election?” said 43-year-old Ghanshyam Timilsinha, who was evicted from Danabari in east Bhutan 18 years ago.

“As long as the refugees are not allowed to return home and take part in the election, it will have no meaning.”

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