Lhotsampa Refugees in Nepal

29 Sep, 1999    ·   266

Zarin Ahmad says bilateral relations between Nepal and Bhutan have been affected by the presence of the Lhotsampas refugees in Nepal

The presence of the Lhotsampa refugees in Nepal numbering more than 100000 has become a bone of contention in Bhutan- Nepal relations. Since 1991, these Nepali speaking refugees from Bhutan have been living in seven UNHCR managed camps in Eastern Nepal . The issue rests greatly on the question of nationality. While the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGB) considers them illegal immigrants, and debars them citizenship, the government of Nepal has to contend with this massive influx of refugees.



The Lhotsampa are original residents of Southern Bhutan , though they are Nepalese speaking and different from the majority drukpa community of Bhutan . There are also nepali speaking settlers who have infiltrated into Bhutan in the last few decades, to work in the fertile lands of Southern Bhutan



The Nationality Question 



The problem dates back to the Bhutan Citizenship Act of 1977, which laid down the conditions for citizenship under the following terms:



·                     15 years of service without any adverse record               

·                     should have resided in Bhutan   for at least 20 years                      


·                     should  have some knowledge of  Bhutanese language and the history of Bhutan  



The act was sharpened and made more stringent in 1985. According to the new provisions, citizenship could be acquired by birth, registration or naturalization. The first clause required both parents to be citizens of Bhutan . In case of registration, people were required to produce land tax receipts of 1958 or before in order to prove their citizenship.Ironically, when the system of cash payment was introduced only in 1964, and the written records adopted much later, it was impossible to produce 27-year-old certificates. This subsequently led to the disenfranchisement of the Lhotsampas of Southern Bhutan.



The third clause required either parent to be a citizen, 15-20 years of residence, solemn allegiance to the King and people of Bhutan , and written and spoken knowledge of Dzonkha language, history and culture to be ascertained by a test conducted by the Ministry of Home. This was particularly discriminatory against the non-Drukpa population of Southern Bhutan .



The Influx



The 1988 Census carried out exclusively in Southern Bhutan declared 100,000 Lhotsampas as illegal immigrants. In April 1988, two eminent members of the Royal Advisory Council belonging to the Lhotsampa community presented a petition to the King of Bhutan. When this was turned down as subversive by the RGB, the Lhotsampas started protesting. The demonstrators were declared anti-national and the protestors considered as terrorists. The Bhutanese government cracked down heavily on the pro-democracy protestors in 1990. This led to the actual influx of refugees to Nepal via India .



The Underlying Causes



Before 1977, the RGB followed a liberal policy towards the indigenous language and culture of the ethnic groups. However, later there was an imposition of the Drukpa language, dress code and cultural traditions. Nepali language was removed from the curriculum of all schools in Southern Bhutan . The reasons behind thus whole operation can be understood in terms of two underlying reasons – economic and ethnic.



Economically, Southern Bhutan is a fertile zone and the backbone of the agriculture based economy. The citizenship policy was an attempt to settle the Drukpas in this economically viable area by making the Lhotsampas sell their land at Government fixed rates.



The 1977 citizenship Act was Bhutan ’s reaction to the merger of Sikkim to India in 1975. Since, Bhutan is ethnically, quite similar to the Sikkimese Nepalese, the Act was Bhutan ’s way of asserting its distinct ethnic identity in the region.



Presence of Illegal Immigrants



The presence of illegal Nepalese immigrants in Bhutan cannot be ruled out completely. People from Nepal have found the fertile Southern Bhutan very attractive in terms of employment opportunities. Since they could not be racially distinguished, many of them chose to settle. Unlike the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950, There is no such treaty between Nepal and Bhutan . This makes their status more vulnerable and illegal. However, the Lhotsampas of Southern Bhutan who are original inhabitants of Bhutan had to bear the brunt. It has also been alleged that Bhutanese refugees in the camps of Nepal have links with The United Liberation front of Asom (ULFA). However, Tenzing Gawa Zangdo the spokesperson of the pro democracy, Druk National Congress denied any such links stating that it was a ploy of the Bhutanese government to portray them as an extremist group in front of the international community. 



Nepal-Bhutan Relations



Bilateral relations between the two kingdoms have been affected by the presence of the Lhotsampas refugees in Nepal . However, Nepal has not been consistent on the issue. Bhutan has for long been playing the policy of evasion. 



The King Jigme Singe Wangchuk practised diplomatic evasion by not attending the Non Aligned Summit in Jakarta in 1992. It was due to these reasons that bilateral talks started as late as October 1993 at the level of Home Ministers. Thimpu was apprehensive that Foreign Minister level talks would internationalise the issue. Since then seven rounds of talks have been held without any significant development towards solving the issue. The Eighth round of talks, which were supposed to be held in January this year, has still not happened. As the country of first asylum, as well as a regional power, Nepal has been urging India ’s, role in solving the crisis.