Bhutanese Refugees Carry Tales of Torture, Harassment

ON a hot, humid afternoon in a refugee camp in the Nepali town of Jhapa, Burkha Bahadur is busy building a shelter with mud, bamboo, and plastic sheets.

He is one of truckloads of men, women, and children who stream into the temporary shelters every week from neighboring Bhutan. The refugees carry tales of torture and harassment - of homes being plundered, women raped, and children being forced into labor.

Mr. Bahadur, a refugee in the Khudunawadi camp, supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks wistfully about the house, orange trees, maize fields, and cattle he left behind. "We would love to return," he says, but fear holds him back. "The village headman came to our house one day. `Unless you leave, your house will be burned,' he threatened. I was afraid. In a neighboring village, the Bhutanese security forces had raided several houses. `The same thing could happen to me,' I t hought."

More than 100,000 people have fled tiny Bhutan, the world's oldest Buddhist monarchy, and come to Nepal, a country with 60 percent of its people below the poverty line. The refugees make demands on Nepal's scarce land resources, and Nepal cannot bear them without seriously damaging its growth prospects, says Ram Sharan Mahat, vice-chairman of the Nepali National Planning Commission.

With "louder" refugee crises elsewhere in the world, the story of the 100,000 refugees from Bhutan receives scant attention.

Talks between Nepal and Bhutan, begun more than a year ago, deadlocked on whether the people qualify as refugees.

The origins of the exodus, which started in 1990, are murky. At the heart of the matter is the issue of nationality and Bhutanese concerns about being overwhelmed by the vastly more numerous ethnic groups from adjacent lands.

Nepalis have been migrating to Bhutan since the mid-19th-century. Most settled in the southern half of the country, which was heavily forested and largely uninhabited. In the 1950s, a second wave of Nepalis flooded Bhutan looking for work and were encouraged by the Bhutanese regime to contribute to an ambitious economic development plan. They were given the name "Lhotshampa" by the majority Drukpa ethnic group in Bhutan.

Tensions began when Bhutan held its first census and the Drukpas began feeling that they were in danger of being overshadowed by the immigrant Lhotshampas. In response, Bhutan made Bhutanese language and dress compulsory. Refugees say that things went steadily downhill, and a systematic campaign of repression was launched against Nepalis by Bhutanese security forces. In response, some of the immigrants turned to insurgency.

After 1990, Bhutan began to evict what it called "illegal settlers" or "political activists." By 1992, the exodus had become torrential. The pace of the outflow has since dropped, however, from last year's rate of almost 10,000 per month.

Bhutan does not accept that the majority of the people in the camps are "refugees," preferring to call them "illegal residents," "imported Nepali laborers claiming to be Bhutanese," or simply "dissidents" - terms which neither Nepal nor the refugees accept. India refuses to intervene, despite a 1949 friendship treaty with Bhutan in which the Bhutanese agreed to abide by India's advice on international relations.

Today, though many humanitarian aid organizations are helping the Bhutanese refugees with money and building supplies, the thorny issues emerging in Jhapa pose serious challenges to Nepal.

"Conflicts between the locals and the refugees will heighten. And in the long term, there could be serious social problems," warns Arno Coerver, coordinator of the Bhutanese refugee project run by the Lutheran World Service.

Miles away from the cluster of refugee camps, in the heart of Damak municipality in Nepal, Purna Chettri, formerly a district medical officer in Bhutan, writes out a prescription to one of his Nepali patients, in a small rented room he uses as a clinic.

Dr. Chettri is among the several Bhutanese doctors who fled their homeland fearing persecution. "I heard there was a plan to fabricate charges against me and get me arrested. I decided to leave. I did not want to go to jail," he says.

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