Nepal | Happy Trails

Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalese refugees settle on resettlement

Nandalal Dangal (second from left) and his family sit outside their home in a Nepalese refugee camp. BRENDAN BRADY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 February, 2011

WHILE CHANTING AN INCANTATION, a Hindu priest mixes a paste of rice and dye into the dirt in an attempt to summon luck and prosperity for this audience. Both have been in short supply for the Dangal family, the eager recipients of his well-wishes.

Nandalal Dangal, 43, is at first squatting in the narrow, muddy alley in front of the wooden hut he shares with his family but stands up from the ceremony to talk about his tormented past. He was a 25-year-old student, he says, when Bhutan’s state security forces pushed him, along with tens of thousands of other ethnic Nepalese, out of the Himalayan country.

“Soldiers would come to our house and tell us, ‘Leave Bhutan: this is the policy of the government,’” he says. Army and police personnel allegedly backed this message with threats—and acts—of violence against Nepalese communities in Bhutan’s south.

That was in 1991. Dangal and his relatives have spent the past two decades idling in a refugee camp called Timai in southeastern Nepal, where they landed after fleeing on foot across a thin strip of Indian territory. Years later, bitterness lingers, particularly because the government they hold responsible has not only escaped with only minimal international condemnation; in fact, it has been praised for its commitment to the well-being of its citizens.

The insulated Kingdom of Bhutan has long been driven to preserve its purity through strict measures: it was one of the last countries in the world to allow the introduction of television and the internet. Its governing philosophy emphasises “Gross National Happiness” above economic growth, predicated on the idea that preserving indigenous traditions are essential to the country’s well-being. In some circles, these methods are highly rated. Bhutan was deemed the happiest country in Asia by British researchers in 2006 and by its own government’s calculation, 97 percent of the population is happy.

However, the experiences of Dangal and others living in Nepal’s seven refugee camps suggest that ignorance—or selective amnesia—may be a crucial factor in formulating such positive assessments. The seed of the very unhappy exodus that Dangal describes was planted in 1989 when, in response to the country’s growing Nepalese minority, then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared his “One Bhutan, One People” policy, enforcing the indigenous Ngalong culture, language and religion. Bhutan’s Buddhist majority group derives from Tibet; the Lhotshampa minority, to which Dangal belongs, and who came to comprise between a third and a half of the country’s population, are of Nepali Hindu origin. Anecdotes from those in the camps suggest the south’s Nepalese had few ties to Bhutan’s indigenous society—such separation was likely viewed as problematic, and disrespectful, by administrators in Thimpu, the capital.

The controversial events that followed King Wangchuck’s “One Bhutan” decree have not been extensively documented by historians. Accounts by those who were swept away and ended up in the camps suggest that official attempts to strictly impose the majority culture ignited protests, some quite hostile, and that the police and army responded with a severe crackdown, employing intimidation, violence and even murder to expel the southern region’s Nepalese. (Whether these actions were undertaken at the behest of the King remains unclear.)

The Bhutanese government has dismissed allegations that any such campaign was implemented. It maintains, instead, that most of those who left were illegal immigrants, who had only recently arrived in the country. “That is the claim of the Bhutanese government but we have proof,” says Dangal, who, like most adults in the camps—90 percent, according to international agencies working there—can readily show a citizenship card. Furthermore, the exodus came in one, concentrated episode—and included the old and the infirm, who rarely retreat by foot across borders unless forced to—indicating the likelihood that a single series of traumatic events was the trigger.

This history remains painful for Dangal. But the monotony of his life in the camp may shortly be about to end. Last month, the 40,000th Bhutanese refugee departed for a new life abroad—in this case, to the US state of New Jersey—marking a milestone that underlines a self-fulfilling trend for this beleaguered group.

In 2007, the UN, with assistance from the US and other countries, set up a programme to allow refugees to resettle abroad. Eighty-five percent go to the United States; the rest to Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and the Netherlands. Desperate for a change, more than 60,000 refugees signed up, but significant numbers held back. Many were determined to wait for an agreement that might allow them to return to Bhutan and reclaim their property; others were deterred by anxiety about life in the West. And some were pressured to remain by certain vocal elements in the camps, who feared the resettlement programme would reduce pressure from the international community for further talks with Bhutan.

These hold-outs are rapidly capitulating, however. Of the 73,000 remaining in the camps, only 18,000 have yet to apply for resettlement, and even this number is falling by 1,000 per month, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which, along with the International Organization for Migration, is the main agency handling camp and resettlement operations. Family and friends have been the most influential advocates, says Michael Wells, who works for the UNHCR in Damak, a town in southeastern Nepal where camp operations are headquartered. “Resettlement refugees are sending back information, giving an even more positive and clear picture about what life is actually like in resettlement countries,” Wells says.

Ran Singh Magar says he can’t resettle soon enough. At first, he says, he was in no rush to leave. But corresponding with his girlfriend, now in the US, and his brother, now in Canada, has made him eager to take the leap. His brother in Montreal intermittently sends cash via Western Union, while his girlfriend urges him with text messages. “She’s waiting for me,” Magar says. “She’s messaging me, ‘Just come as soon as possible.’” For the handsome 28-year-old, who earned an MBA via correspondence from a university in India, the equation has become a simple tradeoff: “Here we don’t have jobs. So we’re just waiting for the date [to leave].”

As a resettlement consensus takes hold in the camps, families are turning their attention to the nuts and bolts of preparing for new lives abroad. For his part, Dangal faces a delicate dilemma: he has two wives and will have to officially divorce one before the US—his intended destination—will accept him. In fact, about a quarter of all men in the camps are confronted with this issue, as polygamy is common in Nepalese culture. “Maybe we can live in the same house with a different kitchen for each [wife],” Dangal says—he isn’t far enough in his resettlement application to have received much training about his host country’s cultural norms. But he seems likely to take things in stride. “Or maybe that won’t work,” he continues. “I will follow the new protocol...whatever it is.”