November 30, 1999
EIGHTH BHUTAN-NEPAL BILATERAL TALKS
The Bhutan-Nepal Joint Ministerial Level Committee had held eight rounds of bilateral talks since October 1993 in pursuit of solution to the Bhutanese refugee problem. The first six rounds of talks were held at the level of the Home Ministers of the two countries while the last two rounds were led by the Foreign Ministers.
The eighth round of the bilateral meeting took place after a break of three and half years between September 13-16, 1999. The talks this time focussed on the fate of the refugees in category II – People who emigrated [sic] and the modality for verification of the Bhutanese refugees. Nepal insisted that people under category II had to leave Bhutan under compelling circumstances including psychological terror, pressure from local administration and intimidation and that they should be treated as those under category I. Bhutan conceded to treat the victimised refugees under category II as those under category I. However, in the absence of any agreement on the basis of which the refugees in category II will be treated as category I, this development cannot be taken without skepticism.
On the aspect of the basis for verification of the refugees, there was a difference of opinion between the two governments. The Nepalese side proposed that they begin field verification of refugees from one of the camps and move on to other camps. The Bhutanese team denied the proposal and insisted that the verification should begin on the basis of the list of 3000 people prepared by the UNHCR supposedly submitted to both the governments. Nepal expressed disagreement on the list and stated that the list was not authentic.
The JMLC also discussed on the possibility of third party intervention. According to the Nepalese Foreign Minister, the meeting discussed about a referral point and that the Bhutanese side has taken it positively.The Foreign Ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet in New York at the fringes of the UN Summit and in Thimpu in November 1999 before the SAARC Summit.
It is observed that the bilateral talks have only been ceremonious discussions which does not show any light at the end of the tunnel. The talks continue to be dominated by Bhutan’s obstinate position on the issue and its concession regarding category II is nothing but a diplomatic way of reiterating its old stance only. The bone of contention in the proceedings of the bilateral talks is the categorisation of the Bhutanese refugees into four categories, which the JMLC agreed upon during its first meet in October 1993. The categories include - Genuine Bhutanese who have been forcibly evicted; Bhutanese who have migrated; Non Bhutanese people; and Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. These categories, a maneuver of the Bhutanese government, have been condemned by the Bhutanese refugees who assert that there should be only two categories - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese if there is any. When the Bhutanese Foreign Minister, well after making its concession on category II refugees, places the so called list of 3000 people as a basis for verification and does not hesitate to term the Bhutanese citizens in camps in east Nepal as thieves, embezzlers, rapists and arsonists,[From the interview given to 'The Kathmandu Post' on September...1999 by the Bhutanese Foreign Minister] Bhutan's real motive behind is not hard to imagine. Hence, if the Bhutanese refugees are to get justice, it is extremely important that the international community intervened in the problem.
BHUTANESE GROUPS DEMAND INDEPENDENT VERIFICATION BODY
Concerned Bhutanese Groups on Bilateral Talks [CBGT] comprising AHURA Bhutan, CEMARD, PFHRD Bhutan, and SURE Bhutan held a press conference in Kathmandu on September 12, 1999 in a bid to call on the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to heed to the statement issued by the Chairman of the UN Human Rights Sub-Commission during its 51st session in Geneva in August 1999. They called on Bhutan and Nepal to establish an independent and impartial verification mechanism that will involve both the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, and also the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They also stressed that refugees' representatives must be included in any negotiation or decision that affects the fate of the refugees.
NEPAL RAISES BHUTANESE REFUGEE PROBLEM AT THE UN
The Nepalese Prime Minister H.E. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, addressing the 54th General Assembly of the United Nations on September 31, 1999 appealed to the international community for continued support and understanding in the creation of conducive environment for the resolution of the Bhutanese refugee problem. The Prime Minister also stressed that the international community provided support for the sustenance of the Bhutanese refugees until they are repatriated to Bhutan. This was the first time the Nepalese head of the government had made statements about the Bhutanese refugees at the international forum.
The Bhutanese refugees have commended the Prime Minister's initiative and have taken this move as very significant. It is hoped that the Nepalese government will continue to pursue resolution of their problem more strongly by involving the international community.
Meanwhile the Nepalese Foreign Minister Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat held talks with the Bhutanese Foreign Minister Mr. Jigme Y Thinley at the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York. Dr. Mahat also met Madam Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva on October 14, 1999. He apprised her of the situation of Bhutanese refugees and thanked the UNHCR for continued assistance to the Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal.
US DEPARTMENT OF STATE RELEASES REPORT ON BHUTAN
The US Department of State has published its country specific annual report on International Religious Freedom for 1999. The report released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 9, 1999 has unfolded Bhutanese government's policy of discrimination against the Nepali-speaking people of majority Hindu stock and forcibly expelling them on grounds of religion.
The report highlights on many of discriminatory practices adopted by the royal government including the 'One Nation One People Policy' which imposes the Drukpa etiquette and traditional values on all Bhutanese, thus depriving the other ethnic group particularly the southern Bhutanese or the Nepali-speaking people the right to enjoy their culture and the freedom to practice their religion.
The report states that 'the ethnic Nepalese were subject to discrimination by the authorities in the late 1980's and early 1990's when many were driven from their homes and forcibly expelled from the country. The root cause of this official discrimination and the expulsions were cultural, economic, and political; however, to the degree that their Hinduism identified them as members of the ethnic Nepalese minority, religion was also a factor'.
The report also throws light on the discriminatory National Assembly resolution of July 1997 compelling the involuntary retirement of civil servants who are family members of ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese refugees resident in the camps in east Nepal. The report on Religious Freedom also points out that the Bhutanese government have been resettling Buddhist citizens from other parts of the country on lands in the south vacated by the expelled ethnic Nepalese now living in refugee camps in east Nepal.
DIGITALISED DOCUMENTATION OF BHUTANESE REFUGEES
AHURA Bhutan had been undertaking the task of Digitalised Documentation of Bhutanese refugees since January 1999 with objectives to authenticate the refugees' Bhutanese nationality and to promote their right to return. As of October 1999, more than 50% of the refugees' information have been documented and it is envisaged that the report in digitalised form will be released for intensive international advocacy by March 2000.
Presently, besides the usual collection of information and documentation, the collected information are being verified by competent senior Bhutanese citizens resident in the camps in east Nepal.
US DELEGATE VISITS REFUGEE CAMP
The Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration of the United States, Ms. Julia Taft, visited the Bhutanese refugee camp at Goldhap in eastern Nepal on October 9, 1999. She made general observation of the camp and met with the UNHCR representatives in Nepal. Ms. Taft is US Special Envoy for Tibetan refugees.
She expressed her serious concern on the Bhutanese refugees during her address to the Council on Foreign Relation soon after her visit to the camps. The Bhutanese refugees view this visit as a positive indication of the US government on the problem of the Bhutanese refugees. It is anticipated that the US will take practical steps towards bringing an just resolution of this decade long problem.
BHUTANESE REFUGEE SUPPORT GROUPS MEET IN GENEVA
Representatives of Bhutanese Refugee Support Groups including BRSG Ireland, Lutheran World Federation, Jesuit Refugee Service, DanChurch Aid, SCF and OXFAM held their annual follow up meeting in Geneva on September 24, 1999. They reviewed on the situation and discussed ways and means to strengthen international advocacy on behalf of the Bhutanese refugees. The BRSG delegates visited the office of the UNCHR and the diplomatic missions based in Geneva. It is learnt that the UNHCR has expressed willingness to provide technical assistance in the resolution of the problem and that it will denounce any solution that does not incorporate international human rights norms and principles.
NEPAL'S FOREIGN MINISTER RETURNS FROM BHUTAN.
On his return from Bhutan after a brief visit to formally invite Bhutan to the stalled SAARC summit Forein Minister Mr. Ram Saran Mahat made a stop over in eastern Nepal early November to visit the Bhutanese refugee camps. In the refugee gathering he expressed his belief that the 9th round of Bilateral talk in Thimphu possibly in the next 2 months time (In September the 8th round talk took place after a break of almost 4 years). He also believed that the much talked about Verification exercise should begin Year 2000.
The refugee community would like to see these expressions transformed into exercises in the nearest future.